Boxing: Holyfield driven by desire

Boxing: Americans question commitment of Briton's challenge for undisputed world heavyweight title
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The Independent Online
IT IS, Frank Maloney says, the biggest day for British sport since the 1966 World Cup final. In the sense that British boxers have spent the whole of the century failing to capture the undisputed world heavyweight championship, his claim should not be disdained. A victory for Lennox Lewis over Evander Holyfield in New York tonight would quieten the ghosts of the 11 men from Gunner Moir to Frank Bruno who tried without success to match the unique exploit of Bob Fitzsimmons, the Cornish-born fighter who held the title from 1897 to 1899.

Like Fitzsimmons, whose parents took him to New Zealand at an early age, Lewis grew up outside Britain. Like Fitzsimmons, who took the title from James J Corbett after five years of being denied his chance, Lewis has been made to wait. Unlike Fitzsimmons, who weighed barely 12st and had spindly legs and a receding hairline, Lewis will enter the ring at Madison Square Garden, in front of a sell-out crowd of 19,000, looking every inch a heavyweight champion.

At Thursday's weigh-in he tipped the scales at 246lb, or 17st 8lb, giving him a 2st 3lb advantage over Holyfield, as well as three inches in height and three years in age. Around the Garden's precincts, however, not many observers are giving him a chance of adding Holyfield's World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation titles to his own World Boxing Council belt. Holyfield, who has boldly predicted that he will knock Lewis out in the third round, is being heavily backed to recapture a title he lost, along with the other two, to Riddick Bowe in 1992.

Sceptics have been swift to point out that a massive weight advantage can be a competitive liability. In 1919, Jack Dempsey gave 57lb and a beating to Jess Willard. Later Max Baer gave 54lb to Primo Carnera, with a similar outcome. And Holyfield, who conceded 38lb when winning the undisputed title with a third-round knock-out of James "Buster" Douglas in 1990 and 49lb to George Foreman when winning on points the following year, certainly knows what it takes.

Angelo Dundee, the former trainer of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, typifies the harsh bite of local opinion. "I just think Holyfield wants it more than the other guy," he said at Thursday's weigh-in. "There's a reluctance about Lewis. If I had a guy with his proportions, I'd just say `Get him!' and turn him on the guy. But he don't give you that. He waits and he looks. But if he waits and looks, he's gonna get the hell kicked out of him. Bell rings, you should jump.

"Fighters mature at different stages, but Lennox has never seemed to me to mature to the point where he wants it. I think if he wanted it he'd be an awesome son of a bitch. I don't know why he doesn't want it. He could be king of the world. But he doesn't give me that impression. I think Holyfield wants it more. He's a hell of a man."

Those looking for signs of Lewis's alleged reluctance found them this week in the fighter's own words when asked if he had a game plan for tonight's 12-rounder. "No," he said. "I'm just going to let the fight unfold. I'm flexible in that. This is the first time I'm fighting Evander and the first time he's fighting me, and we've both got different styles, so we're going to have to see how they adapt to each other, how they complement each other in the ring."

Words like "flexible", "complement" and "adapt" do not impress old-timers who see a softness, both physical and mental, about Lewis. He speaks quietly, is ill at ease with the hucksterish rhetoric of a heavyweight promotion, and sometimes fails to impose himself on the sort of contest he should dominate. But, at 33, he has been there or thereabouts for a long while, and only Oliver McCall has got the better of him, in a defeat avenged three years later.

Drawing a line through the two men's form is a brief and unenlightening task. Lewis beat Bowe for the super-heavyweight gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, whereas Holyfield lost a best-of-three series to a Bowe whose true quality was soon to be questioned. Both Lewis and Holyfield took points decisions over Ray Mercer. Holyfield's credibility rests on his two defeats of Mike Tyson, an achievement Lewis can match only by winning tonight.

Can he do it, where Jem Roche, Don Cockell, Brian London, Henry Cooper, Joe Bugner, Richard Dunn and the rest failed? "This fight is a mystery to everyone, including me," his trainer, Emanuel Steward, said this week. But whatever dreams the heart may hold, the head says it is Holyfield, by decision.