Boxing: Questions for Lewis as Briggs fills gap

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THE QUESTION Lennox Lewis cannot answer concerns the intrigue that thwarts his ambition to be known as the undisputed heavyweight champion. How long is Lewis prepared to wait for a crack at fulfilment? "I'm a patient man," he said after weighing in for tonight's defence of the World Boxing Council title at the Convention Centre here.

The only contest that makes any heavyweight sense, a showdown between Lewis and Evander Holyfield, is on hold for familiar political and legal reasons. So Lewis, 32, marks time, proclaiming that he is prepared to fight anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Tonight it is Shannon Briggs, who stepped into Lewis's sights as an opponent to be going on with after gaining a close and controversial decision over George Foreman last November. "I'm not taking this guy lightly," Lewis said, "because anything can happen in heavyweight boxing."

Lewis said something similar last year before knocking out the supposedly dangerous Andrew Golota in one round, proving too big and powerful for the Polish contender.

"It's the same with everyone Lennox fights," Lewis's perky manager, Frank Maloney, goes around saying. "They start shaking as soon as they look at him."

At a press conference earlier this week Lewis stared hard at Briggs. Briggs turned away. "I knew he would," Lewis said. "I didn't have to say anything, just had to look at him."

Emanuel Steward, who trains Lewis now but was in the opposite corner the night Oliver McCall knocked Lewis out, believes he is working with potentially the best heavyweight in history. Potential at 32?

"You know what I mean," Steward said. "Lennox has got everything: size, power and boxing skills. If it wasn't for boxing politics he would already be known as the best ever."

A complaint about Lewis on this side of the Atlantic (and in his homeland) is lack of identity. "The public don't get to know him," someone said this week. "He's got no personality. Who does he represent? Great Britain, Canada where he grew up or the Caribbean where his roots are?"

Lewis's associates, especially Maloney, make a great deal of Lewis's heritage but his mid-Atlantic accent works against them. In any case nationalism does not figure much in the minds of American fight fans. They see two men in the ring, not one country against another. This irritates Maloney, who has a fondness for dressing up in union colours. "I don't get it," he says. "We're British and proud of it."

Steward's mind is on the possibility that Briggs could give Lewis more of a problem than people imagine. "I don't think Briggs did enough to beat Foreman, who should have got the decision," he said, "but he stood up well to some heavy punching. The idea that Briggs can't take a shot grew up when he was knocked out by Darroll Wilson. He wasn't right that night and looked different again in the Foreman fight. I make Briggs a good opponent for Lennox and it could be an interesting fight."

However, as this is a voluntary defence for Lewis, we can be sure that Briggs would not be coming out of the opposite corner if he had the potential to cause an upset.

Going along with the party line, Lewis refuses to suggest the time by which he expects Briggs to realise that the task is too much for him. "I'm not saying that I will knock this guy out because the important thing is simply to win the fight," he said.

The loss to McCall was a big disappointment for Lewis but there have been others. In 1992, boxing's biggest funder, the cable television network Home Box Office, offered Riddick Bowe $15m (pounds 10m) and Lewis $3m to stage a rematch of the 1988 Olympic final. It did not happen. Another opportunity of climbing back in with Bowe vanished when Lewis was knocked out by McCall, the only blemish on his record. A projected contest against Mike Tyson was fouled up by legal wrangling.

Lewis is again looking into the future, trying to keep the pressure on Holyfield, who has signed to fight Henry Akinwande on 6 June at Madison Square Garden. "I think Holyfield is feeling the pressure already," Lewis said. "That's why he is fighting Akinwande."

When Akinwande fought Lewis last year he was disqualified for persistent holding. "I intimidated him so much it was all he could do," Lewis said, "but I don't think he'll be intimidated by Holyfield. That bothers me, because Holyfield could lose and then where would I be?"

The general consensus is that Briggs will start fast against Lewis, who is least effective when forced to fight off the back foot. "It's no good backing off Lennox," the veteran trainer Lou Duva said. Duva was in Golota's corner the night Lewis overwhelmed him. "I don't know what got into my guy," he said. "We'd worked on a way to fight Lewis but Golota's mind was all over the place."

Lewis puts it all down to intimidation. "They just crumble when they see just how big and powerful I am. One look is enough."

For looking at Briggs tonight Lewis is being paid $4m, taking his ring earnings past $50m. Once he gets this job done, probably around the fifth round, he will go back to looking at Holyfield.

Tale of the tape

Lewis Briggs

London Born Brooklyn, NY

32 Age 26

6ft 5in Height 6ft 4in

17st 5lbs Weight 16st 4lbs

84in Reach 81in

17in Biceps 171/2in

15in Forearm 13in

8in Wrist 81/2in

12in Fist 13in

181/2in Neck 171/2in

44in Chest 44in

46in Expanded 461/2in

34in Waist 33in

31/2 Won/Lost 30/1

26 Stoppages 24