Boxing: A night of shame for the crying game

Lennox Lewis regained his heavyweight world title in peculiar circumstances. Harry Mullan reports from Las Vegas
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This is an unforgiving sport, and history will be harsh on Oliver McCall for his role in Friday's extraordinary events in Las Vegas when he declined to compete against Britain's Lennox Lewis in their match for the vacant World Boxing Council heavyweight title.

McCall was stopped in the fifth round because, as the official verdict put it: "He refused to defend himself."

He was jeered as he fled from the ring in tears, but in reality this poor, demented fighter was more victim than villain in perhaps the strangest episode in a century of heavyweight championship boxing. We await medical reports on McCall's medical condition, but one did not have to be a psychiatrist to realise that the man was having a complete nervous breakdown in front of millions watching around the world.

The promoter Dino Duva said afterwards he had pleaded with the WBC and McCall's promoter, Don King, to pull him out of the fight because his much publicised battle with crack and cocaine addiction meant that he was "not emotionally or physically ready to fight". Duva guaranteed that should Lewis be matched with the next available contender for the title vacated by Mike Tyson, McCall could face the winner once his always fragile mental equilibrium has been restored. But political and financial considerations were allowed to outweigh compassion.

Lewis has always stubbornly resisted King's advances, so it was important he be eliminated as King struggled to regain his monopolistic control of the division. McCall had stopped Lewis in two rounds in 1994 and the camp gambled that he could do so again despite his crushing problems.

That cynical decision reflects no credit either on King or on WBC president Jose Sulaiman, whose cosy relationship with the ubiquitous promoter does nothing to enhance the integrity of his organisation. The unfortunate McCall was, as former British heavyweight champion Brian London once memorably said of himself, was "only a prawn in the game".

He announced on Thursday, win or lose, he would retire to enter the ministry after having found God. The Almighty would, he assured us, be in his corner for the Lewis fight, but at the risk of sounding blasphemous he might have been better off with Teddy Atlas, the fiery corner man whose hectoring of Michael Moorer inspired that reluctant warrior to a famous victory over Evander Holyfield.

For the first two rounds it was a reasonably competitive affair. Lewis dominated the opening round with a fine left jab, but McCall's bullying won him the second on the card of one of the three official judges, England's Larry O'Connell. There were moments in that round when Lewis looked anxious as he was pressured into corners by the kind of looping, overhand rights which had brought about his downfall last time.

But towards the end of the third, the American's nodding acquaintance with normality ended. He burst into tears, and his conduct became more astonishing by the minute as he allowed Lewis to hit him with full-blooded punches, and then turned his back and walked away. At the end of the round he refused to go to his corner, where his furious trainers, George Benton and Greg Page (the former World Boxing Association heavyweight champion), would have had plenty to say. Instead, he strolled around the ring perimeter, weeping and pulling faces at the crowd.

The fourth round was the strangest heavyweight three minutes since Cassius Clay (as he then was) fled from Sonny Liston for a complete round in 1964 after his vision had been impaired by ointment from Liston's gloves. Both Lewis and referee Mills Lane appeared perplexed by McCall's outlandish antics, and at one point Lane shouted at him, "Do you want to fight?"

Lewis claimed he stood off because he feared a trap, but he seemed to be reluctant to hit such an obviously deranged man. At the end of a round where McCall had not attempted a single punch, Lane led him to his corner where, according to Benton, McCall said: "I don't want to go out there again." Either he changed his mind or was persuaded to answer the bell for the fifth, but Lane signalled the finish after 55 seconds as Lewis landed more unanswered punches.

A little sympathy for the winner is in order, since he had been denied what should have been his most memorable moment in his 32-fight career. This will now be remembered as the championship McCall disgraced, rather than the one which Lewis won.

Perhaps in his confused mind McCall thought he was making some kind of statement about this too-often seedy business - giving a spectacular Harvey Smith salute to the game's exploiters and manipulators. If that was indeed his intention, he succeeded, but at a dreadful cost. He is unlikely to receive more than training expenses from his $3m (pounds 1.87m) purse, payment of which has been frozen by the Nevada Commission because, in their view, "he did not compete honestly".

He has forfeited his future, destroyed his career and maybe even lost his sanity, and that is too high a price to pay for a championship belt. Most of us who earn a living from professional boxing, in whatever capacity, have long since come to terms with the physical risks and damage it can inflict, but McCall's mental disintegration has opened up a whole new vista of horror.