A change of heart for Lewis

Ken Jones in Sacramento meets a trainer confident about his boxer's return to the ring tomorrow
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The Independent Online
Oliver McCall's knock-out of Lennox Lewis for the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship at Wembley last year was a contradiction of the substantial theory that trainers are only as good as their fighters.

Having made no progress to speak of, McCall's career was transformed when he came under the direction of Emanuel Steward, who drew out the best from him while pointing out serious technical shortcomings in the defending champion.

"As long as Oliver had taken everything on board, I was confident that he would defeat Lennox," Steward said. This was in line with the scolding the recalcitrant former welterweight champion, Marlon Starling, received from the doyen of trainers, Eddie Futch. "Marlon, even the very best fighters listened," Futch said.

Finding Lewis amateurish in application, Steward concluded that either there were large gaps in his education, or he had been deaf to instruction. The purist in Steward saw wasted talent; superb physique, natural power, but essentially a novice.

This week, Steward spoke about Lewis from a different perspective. He spoke as his trainer. A shortish, dapper man who has trained 24 world champions, including Thomas Hearns, Evander Holyfield and Julio Cesar Chavez, he believes that Lewis will surpass them all in achievement.

"Lennox could be the masterpiece of my career," he said. "He has the talent to be the hero boxing is crying out for. As long as Lennox maintains the improvement I can see, in two years people may speak of him as one of the greats, the best heavyweight to come along since Muhammad Ali. Just thinking about going to work with him in the gym excites me. He does things in sparring that make me drool."

If the correct conclusion is that Steward is not slow in putting himself forward, Lewis appears to be exceedingly happy with the arrangement. "I'm learning new things like shortening my punches and how to put combinations together, and I'm better balanced. There are fewer headaches."

Of course, all this is locked in anticipation. The gym and the ring are different places. What a fighter shows in preparation can depart from him under pressure. Before Donovan "Razor" Ruddock fought Lewis in a title eliminator three years ago, his trainer, the former heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson, was convinced that he had effected considerable improvement. "You'll see a new Ruddock," he said. Instead, we saw the old Ruddock. In rehearsals he was great, but on the night he gave a very poor performance.

While Lewis, at 29, is not old by heavyweight standards, it seems rather late to have come under basic instruction, which is where Steward began with him. "At first, Lennox looked puzzled," he said, "because I took him through things he hadn't done since the amateurs. I wasn't starting from scratch because there are a lot of good things that come naturally to Lennox. But I had to be sure that we were working from a solid platform."

To hear Lewis speak of the moves he has developed under Steward and the faults that have been drawn out of him is slightly disturbing, because it raises the possibility that in attempting a policy of boxing by numbers, he too will revert to type under pressure.

Another thing is that there was some truth in the crude insults thrown at Lewis this week by his former trainer, Pepe Correa, who is advising tomorrow's opponent, Lionel Butler. Whatever Correa's limitations, because of a deficiency in attitude, Lewis could be held personally responsible for the loss to McCall.

When it was suggested to Lewis that there were occasions when he could have been more aggressive, he bridled immediately. "When?" he asked, insisting that the charge was set down clearly. The first six rounds against Frank Bruno in defence of the WBC title were offered as an example. "But then I knocked him out," Lewis complained.

For all Lewis' protests, aggression is one of the things Steward has been working on. "There is plenty of aggression there," he insisted, "but Lennox wasn't applying it properly. He's such a big guy with, to my mind, the ideal shape for a modern heavyweight - well muscled but not sculpted like Frank Bruno - that he should be able to keep the pressure on.

"Ask any of the people Lennox has been sparring with - good fighters, not just hired hands - about Lennox's aggression. He's aggressive all right, but it has to come out. Take control. It's a state of mind. Boxing is a hard business - you can't play around at it. The fact that Lennox likes to play chess tells you something about him. He's analytical. Likes to work things out."

Steward argues that his tuitive success has created a false impression. He expects fighters to concentrate fully in periods of exposition, but is not normally inclined to engage them in extra-curricular conversation. With Lewis it has been different. "We talk about the things I want to see from him," he said. "I've found him eager to learn and not the least bit difficult. He's in a great state of mind."

Dressed all in black, Lewis was positively beaming. He has come to regard the loss of his title to McCall as an aberration. "I made a big mistake," he said, "and it made me think a lot about where I was going."

So why the delay in replacing Correa with a more practiced tutor? "To have done that immediately would have caused too much hassle," he said. "You guys would have made a lot of it. It was better to wait and then find the right man. Emanuel has a tremendous record, and I liked what he said."

Sitting together, Lewis and Steward looked and sounded like the perfect team, but the proof is in the fighting.