Boxing: Lewis prays Holyfield triumphs over Moorer for sake of unity

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Lennox Lewis, Britain's world heavyweight title holder, entertains hopes of a unification bout in the fragmented division - but first Evander Holyfield must overcome the unpredictable southpaw threat of Michael Moorer tonight.

Ken Jones, in Las Vegas, finds that Lewis is not alone in his wish: the television mandarins who fund boxing's biggest circus are just as enthusiastic about pairing two outstanding fighters in a sport where the mediocre is commonplace.

When the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis arrived here a couple of days ago he brought with him the idea that tonight's contest between Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer is being held for his benefit.

It will be to Lewis's advantage if Holyfield (a 1-3 favourite in the betting emporiums) adds the International Boxing Federation title to the World Boxing Association version he is putting up against Moorer at the Thomas and Mack Center, because an attempt to unify the championship appears to be at an advanced stage of development.

This involves Don King, who if no longer master of all he surveys in the heavyweight division is still an important player through the option he holds in Holyfield.

Complication is a way of life in boxing so it comes as no surprise to discover that King, ever the pragmatist, is close to forming a temporary alliance with the American cable television network Home Box Office despite a connection with its great rival, Showtime. "We've got that far with him but no further," said Panos Eliades, the London liquidator who is Lewis's promoter. "Nobody has to be told that `Uncle Don' is a hard man to deal with, so I'm expecting plenty of hassle."

In accordance with boxing's promotional procedure, this is sure to include an attempt by King to gain options on Lewis should he emerge as the undisputed champion.

All this surmises a victory for Holyfield, because if Moorer comes out on top the grand idea of unification will not be going anywhere, thwarted by the IBF, a King-friendly organisation that has ordered Moorer to fulfil a mandatory defence of its title and would not permit the challenger to accept step-aside money.

There is nothing new in the notion that boxing's most bitter struggles are not confined to the ring, but increasingly today you wonder where it is heading and whether it has a long-term future.

Earlier this week Bob Arum, who promotes the welterweight champion Oscar de la Hoya, one of the sport's few genuine stars, could be heard complaining about the present lack of personalities. "It is a world-wide problem," he said. "We've got a heavyweight championship fight that's not generating much interest and will make a loss on pay-per-view television [advance bookings suggest that Showtime stand to drop $8m]."

It staggers Arum to think that HBO has signed Naseem Hamed to a multi-million dollar contract. "So the kid's got a lot of talent, but it tells you something when HBO have to go out of the United States for a fighter. And a featherweight!"

The problem is most acute in the heavyweight division. "Listen, they can't wait for Mike Tyson to complete his suspension," Arum added, "because apart from Holyfield and Lewis who is there? When you think of the terrific heavyweights who were around 15 or 20 years ago it makes you wonder what things are coming to."

Arum was referring to what people now think of as the golden era in heavyweight boxing, one dominated by Muhammad Ali's blazing personality. Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry.

"Any guy in the top 10 at that time would be a champion today," Arum added.

At a news conference this week Jay Larkin, of Showtime, put a case for tonight's contest. "The public are fed up with mismatches, with fighters who don't want to fight and in some cases can't. They want real contests, which is what they will get from these two guys."

To fulfil Larkin's projection both men will have to stage a better fight than the first between them. There are questions to be answered. Will Moorer's southpaw stance be less of a problem for Holyfield than it was when he lost to him three years ago? Can Holyfield, a man of deep religious beliefs, motivate himself for a contest that is low key by comparison with the intensity of his efforts against Tyson? Has the introduction of a new trainer, Freddie Roach, brought about a significant change in Moorer's attitude?

Teddy Atlas, who was the main man in Moorer's corner when he defeated Holyfield, said: "I don't want him to win but I think he will. It's all set up for him."

Moorer almost gave up boxing after a knock-out by George Foreman. "I flew down to Florida and told him to get off his butt and fight," he said. "Whatever he says now, Michael needed me for the first fight because he wasn't sure he belonged there. He was intimidated by fighting for the heavyweight championship. His biggest flaw is lack of confidence but I think things will work out for him.

"Holyfield has been in so many wars that you always expect to discover that he has suddenly become a shot fighter. It may not happen this week but he's now 35 and can't go on for ever. Let's wait and see how much the Tyson fights took out of him, because there were two guys punching in there."

On Thursday evening Holyfield was among 10,000 people who attended a prayer meeting at a baseball park in the Las Vegas area. Lost in his faith he looked a picture of serenity. "He's an amazing guy," somebody said. "All that money, probably the biggest earner sport has ever known, yet still eager to be in the ring. It's a mystery."

Lewis, of course, is hoping that Holyfield's zest for the experience lasts a bit longer. "I fancy him to win around about the seventh round," I said. "That's about it," Lewis replied.

He was thinking about the future.