Boxing: Holyfield and Lewis hold boxing's last hope of healing self-inflicted wounds

WORLD TITLE SHOWDOWN Much more than a unified crown is at stake tomorrow after several unsavoury incidents in the ring

"BOXING," Evander Holyfield mused this week, "is a replica of what life is - up and down. It's been going up and down since they invented it. It goes down, then something gives it a boost and it comes up. It's not going to fade away. But right now it definitely needs something."

He was in the final stages of preparation for his rematch with Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas tomorrow night, a contest intended to produce an undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. And the one thing that the two fighters agreed on during this week's pre-fight publicity blitz was that sport itself is in serious danger of ending the century on the canvas. As the hour draws near, Holyfield-Lewis II has come to seem less of a mere title decider than boxing's last best hope for redemption.

As Holyfield implied, prizefighting has never been without its shadows. But this year has been spent in a gathering gloom, starting with the attempt by Mike Tyson to break Axel Schulz's arm in a clinch last January and running all the way through to the ludicrous finish of Tyson's most recent encounter, when he was disqualified for hitting Orlin Norris after the bell ended the first round. In between came the fiasco of the first Holyfield- Lewis fight, in March, when a poor contest ended in a controversial draw. That was followed by the much anticipated but similarly disappointing world welterweight championship fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, when De La Hoya tried to win the fight in reverse gear. And then, last month, came Naseem Hamed's unseemly display of body-slamming against Cesar Soto in a fight more suited to a WWF bill.

When they pay their money, boxing fans know that they lay themselves open to the risk of sudden and sometimes mystifying disappointment. Such sensations go back to Sonny Liston quitting on his stool against Cassius Clay, and beyond. By the nature of the sport, nothing can be guaranteed. But this year's procession of embarrassments resembles a systematic cheating of the public, and the public has begun to show its resentment.

"This year's fights have left the fans in a very bad state of mind," Emanuel Steward, Lewis's highly respected trainer, said yesterday. "They have a lot of questions. Right now they're on the brink of deserting boxing, and I understand it."

The fans would not have been reassured by the last week's news of the criminal indictments naming the IBF president, Bob Lee, and three other officials, who are accused by the US Attorney and the FBI of taking bribes to rig the rankings in order to produce the match-ups desired by certain top promoters over a 13-year period. This week a New York State Senate committee recommended the creation of a national body to regulate the sport and prevent it, in the words of its chairman, Senator Roy Goodman, from "degenerating into a meaningless and violent show". Simultaneously the Attorney General of Nevada, Frankie Sue Del Papa, announced that her office will be working with the state's Athletic Commission, the sanctioning body for tomorrow's fight, on an investigation into the way the sport is organised.

"I can't say what it is that's wrong," Holyfield said in his last pre- fight interview, knowing that the Miami offices of his promoter, Don King, had been searched as part of the FBI investigation. "It involves a lot of different components. People should come together and decide what's best for the sport. The boxers, the TV people, the managers, the promoters, the writers. It needs a collective effort to make it a better sport for everybody, including the fans."

In Lennox Lewis's view, the unification of the three championships - Holyfield's World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation belts and his own World Boxing Council title - would be a first step, providing a single figurehead behind which the sport could regroup and reunite. "Each of the governing bodies has its own agenda," he said. "The sport needs to be cleaned up so that it's not as dodgy as it is now. My hope is to be a good ambassador for boxing." But a good ambassador would not produce, by himself, the sort of root-and-branch reform that boxing needs.

Nor will one great fight be enough to refurbish boxing's image. "But at least it would give a little hope," Manny Steward said. "Between the bad decision over the Lewis fight, and the De La Hoya-Trinidad fight not being a damn thing but a foot race, and then to come back with Tyson, people feel they've been wasting their money. So this fight really could help push them one way or another."

Steward has been involved in boxing since 1953, when he won his first fight as an eight-year-old schoolboy in West Virginia. Ten years later he was the Golden Gloves bantamweight champion of the United States, and his career as a trainer has included significant spells with Thomas Hearns and Evander Holyfield. I asked him to imagine that he had been made world boxing commissioner, with unlimited powers over the sport, and to list the first three steps he would take.

"First," he replied, without missing a beat, "I would inform the authorities when fighters don't fight to their best ability and give a full 12 rounds. They should be penalised and their purses should be held up, such as - I hate to say it - with the Tyson fight. And also De La Hoya and Trinidad. When De La Hoya elects to run for three rounds, that is committing fraud. You're supposed to be prepared to go the entire 12 rounds for the public."

Second, he said, he would improve the method of selecting judges. "At the moment they're chosen by the promoter, almost. So when the promoter is in effect the employer of the judges, normally they try to be favourable to any fighters he's involved with. It's an unspoken word that they get more assignments. It's like a soccer game in England. If you're playing against Ireland, you don't say well, since the promoter's the owner of Wembley Stadium, he's going to pick the officials. They should be selected by a random system where maybe you notify 12 to be on standby and then pick three of them, but you will not know which until within the last three days. And after each fight where you have a result that is vastly out of proportion, they should be critiqued and go before a panel of judges and they should be suspended, possibly. At the moment it's just put down as, `Oh well, that was a bad decision, let's forget it' - and the next week they get rewarded because a lot of times that particular promoter, whom they favoured, is going to be hiring them back again."

Steward's third step would be to improve the standard of fights by ensuring that boxers are trained more effectively. "A lot of them are not prepared properly. I would have a system where you ran a periodic check to see what condition they were in and how they're training. The rest of it - the promoters and the managers - is going to take care of itself, but there are very few of what I would call teachers."

All Steward's recommendations are to do with what happens inside the ring. But most outsiders would share the New York State Senate investigating committee's view that the priority is to eliminate the notorious "alphabet soup" created by the existence of the WBA, the WBC, the IBF and the various lesser international bodies, whose main interest is in a money-making proliferation of largely spurious titles.

"It's not going to happen," Steward said, with a rueful shake of the head. "That's only being realistic. I think the best you can do is try to regulate it and keep it to maybe no more than three organisations. And there should be a certain period of time after which champions are forced to fight against each other, so that you automatically get some kind of unification. It shouldn't be a situation where the top guys just don't fight each other if they don't want to."

Meanwhile, the sport's image needs Holyfield and Lewis to produce a contest worthy of inclusion in the all-time highlights reel. When Marc Ratner, the serious-minded head of the Nevada Athletic Commission, called it "a pivotal fight for boxing as we head into the new millennium" at Wednesday's press conference, he was not merely indulging in the usual hyperbole.

Both fighters are clearly aware of their wider responsibility, and have the capacity to produce the goods. But if they find, when they are alone together in the ring, that self-interest once more overcomes the urge to create a spectacle, then the arena's cleaning staff can sweep up what remains of the sport's integrity and throw it out along with the rest of the trash.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz