Boxing: A nerve-racking 1999 - the year the action went down to the wire: Lewis made to fight for his just desserts

World Heavyweight Championship, New York Lennox Lewis v Evander Holyfield

WHEN THE bell rang to sound the end of the 12th and final round at Madison Square Garden last 13 March, Lennox Lewis threw his arms into the air. Frank Maloney, his manager, wearing his Union Jack suit, leapt into the ring and skipped around with joy. Boxing would have its first British-born undisputed world heavyweight champion for the first time this century. But a couple of minutes later, as the referee read the scores from the three judges, faces began to fall in the Lewis camp.

As it became clear that one judge had given the fight to Lewis and another to his opponent, Evander Holyfield, while the third had scored it a draw, arguments broke out around the ringside. They raged on at the official press conference an hour later, and continued for a further eight months, until Lewis and Holyfield met again, in Las Vegas, and settled the argument in Lewis's favour.

Essentially, the dispute over the first verdict had been caused by differing views of the sport. For a heavyweight champion, supposedly the most fearsome man on earth, Lewis is a curiously unaggressive boxer. His love of chess can be seen in his desire to do only what is necessary to win a fight. This he defines as landing the greater number of blows within the target area. He does not believe that it is necessarily his job to hurt or humiliate or even knock down his opponent, as long as the basic criterion for victory has been met. To Holyfield, on the other hand, boxing is the hurting game, not a fistic version of chess, or target golf.

Some observers were therefore less impressed by the chief statistic produced to back up Lewis's protests - a total of 338 punches landed, to Holyfield's 130 - than with the basic desire to fight displayed by his American opponent, whose temperament seemed truer to the sport's essence. Those who shared that view accepted that some of the details of the judging were ridiculous, particularly the decisions of the International Boxing Federation judge, Eugenia Williams, of New Jersey, but tended to feel that justice had been provisionally served.

The fight's biggest punch, a short, straight right-hander which rocked Holyfield to his foundations with eight seconds of the final round remaining, seemed less of a testimony to Lewis's power than to his dangerous tendency to procrastinate. He was bigger, stronger and younger. Why on earth had he not ventured such a blow at some time during the preceding 35 minutes of boxing?

In November they met again, before a supposedly more expert Nevada judging panel, and the event turned out to be Holyfield-Lewis II in more than just its billing. In advance, Lewis had promised a more extravagant performance. In the event he stayed true to his cautious self and did just enough to warrant the verdict. They had made him box 24 rounds for the victory, he remarked when accepting the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award. But they had paid him for 24 rounds, too.

RICHARD WILLIAMS

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