Akinwande awakens interest in Lewis

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The Independent Online
Even before Mike Tyson's revolting actions two weeks ago, Lennox Lewis's World Boxing Council heavyweight title defence against Henry Akinwande, tonight in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, struggled to convince it was the equal of Tyson's World Boxing Association championship rematch against Evander Holyfield.

"It's as though the whole world thinks there's only two heavyweights, Tyson and Holyfield," Lewis complained. "Akinwande and myself will be a very, very fine boxing match."

The figures, however, illustrate the WBC fight's true status. Lewis and Akinwande's combined purse barely exceeds Tyson's $3m (pounds 1.7m and 10 per cent of his purse) fine for savaging Holyfield. The 16,000 seats for Holyfield- Tyson were snapped up within hours, raising record $14m gate receipts, but cat-swinging will be an available option in the 2,100-seat outdoor arena tonight.

"It just doesn't have strong enough appeal, it's as simple as that," said Sky Sports' executive Trevor East, explaining why only the second "all-British" world heavyweight title fight ever will not be the network's latest pay-per-view venture.

Yet as Lewis says, it is a top-quality fight. The champion is possibly the best active heavyweight in the world today, including Holyfield, who would struggle against the sheer size of the 6ft 5in 1988 Olympic super heavyweight champion (for Canada, where the London-born Lewis was raised).

Lewis's first tenure as WBC champion ended surprisingly when, in his fourth defence, he was stopped in two rounds by Oliver McCall in September 1994, his only loss in 31 fights. But he regained the vacant championship in March when McCall refused to defend himself after five rounds and now, aged 31, Lewis hopes, in the absence of Tyson, to strengthen his claims to be the world's best in the division.

That the hard-hitting champion is not already a star of the magnitude of Tyson and Holyfield is attributable to Lewis's conservative nature, in and out of the ring. The quality of his opposition, many of whom it has been too easy to find fault with, has hardly helped his cause.

Tonight's challenger has a safety-first style that will never win friends, but Akinwande, also 31 (born in Dulwich, raised in Nigeria, resident in Los Angeles for the past 18 months), has never looked close to losing in 33 professional outings (including one disputed draw, since avenged).

In Britain under Mickey Duff, Akinwande became Commonwealth and European champion. A switch to the States and the Don King organisation, however, brought Akinwande the World Boxing Organisation title that he defended twice before relinquishing in order to become mandatory challenger to Lewis.

Like the champion, Akinwande has suffered for his lack of passion, but Duff, for one, believes the challenger has the beating of Lewis. "I'm one of the few people who realise how good he really is and I've put a substantial bet on him to win," Duff said. "But I hate the guy for leaving me and, to be honest, I don't mind if I lose my money on this one."

Lewis is the favourite, but his trainer and co-manager, Emanuel Steward, has warned Lewis to expect the toughest fight of his career. "Akinwande is extremely agile for a man of 6ft 7in, he has great speed of hand and foot," Steward said.

Nevertheless, Lewis is in confident mood and, unusually, faces an opponent taller than himself, a considerable advantage as Lewis can struggle against shorter fighters. Akinwande's reach could make life difficult for a while, but the power and presence of the champion is likely to wear him down in around 10 rounds.