Boxing : Heat rising for Lewis and McCall

Harry Mullan in Las Vegas on tomorrow night's heavyweight replay
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Lennox Lewis can be forgiven for not appearing particularly excited about tomorrow night's match with Oliver McCall here for the vacant World Boxing Council heavyweight title, even though McCall is the only man to have beaten him in 30 professional fights.

The local Review-Journal, demonstrating an admirable sense of proportion, devoted one line of Tuesday's edition to the fight and 15 column inches to a court action brought by a couple of Vegas entrepreneurs. They both run call-out agencies for "exotic dancers", whose speciality is the horizontal rumba, and they are campaigning to overturn a recent ruling banning them from distributing advertising leaflets outside the Strip hotels.

They have a case. They point out that over 72,000 customers used their company services last year, proving that determined sinners can still find solace if the need is sufficiently urgent and they have the requisite $200. But the pair deserve to lose, not for reasons of morality but because of the damage they are inflicting on the English language: their action is based on opposition to what they call the "Disneyization" of Las Vegas.

Such issues do not concern a dedicated athlete like Lewis, whose superb physical condition reflects the 20 weeks of preparation he has put into tomorrow's assignment, but the rest of us mourn the passing of the old, free-wheeling Vegas, which has changed beyond recognition since I first covered a fight here nearly 20 years ago. Even the Fremont Street Blues Bar down town, voted the best live music venue in the city for the last three years running, has uprooted and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, which must be a hotbed of vice and depravity compared with this sadly sanitised city.

McCall, a freer spirit than the straight-laced Lewis, would have been at home here in the old days. He spends at least as much time with his drugs counsellor as his corner team, and until he appeared in town on Tuesday there was speculation that he might not show at all. Frank Maloney, the amiable Millwall fanatic who has done such a good job of managing Lewis, claims he never believed the rumours. "If you were being paid $3m (pounds 1.8m) to fight a man you'd already knocked out, wouldn't you turn up?" he asks.

Maloney has for years been the target of a particularly virulent attack by McCall's promoter, Don King, so he took particular pleasure in pointing out that McCall's purse for tomorrow's fight at the Las Vegas Hilton had already been paid, by letter of credit, to the fighter himself. "Now Don will have to fight McCall for his share," he says with the mischievous schoolboy air which is his trademark.

Emanuel Steward, who trained McCall to beat Lewis and now works for the other side, views the troubled McCall with compassion. "He was a good, clean-living young guy when I had him," he says of the man who is currently in drugs rehabilitation and who had to undergo a Nevada State Athletic Commission drugs test on his arrival in the city. "He's so out of control now that of course I have to be worried about what he might do," Steward says.

"This fight will be very emotionally charged, because of what happened last time and what McCall has been through since, and because of the legal battles Lennox has had to get a title shot. There's a lot of frustration involved, and it's going to explode tomorrow.

"Obviously the first two rounds will be difficult. You can't ignore the fact that Lennox lost to the man before. There's going to be a mental factor to consider, but that can work to our advantage. Look back at the heavyweight champions who fought men who'd knocked them out before, like Floyd Patterson against Ingemar Johansson or Joe Louis against Max Schmeling, and you'll see they were so focused on the punches that beat them last time that they weren't caught by them again."

Steward's memory is selective: he could have mentioned Patterson's re- match with Sonny Liston, who knocked him out four seconds quicker in the first round of the re-match than he had in their original meeting.

But Steward, like the rest of the camp, draws encouragement from Lewis's brave performance in his last fight nine months ago, when he came through 10 tough rounds to beat Ray Mercer in New York. "He showed me then that he has the stuff champions are made of," Steward says. "He proved himself against a hostile crowd, in a fight in which he got busted up with both eyes swollen and his mouth cut. You're not going to win all your fights with talent alone - sometimes you need the kind of heart that Lennox showed that night. He did what Muhammad Ali had to do against Ken Norton and Joe Frazier: go toe-to-toe and fight them. He's passed the test of character and motivation, and he'll outclass McCall in every area."