Boxing: Holyfield's balancing act aided by Weldon

Trainer strives to iron out flaws in American's technique exposed by previous world heavyweight title bout with Lewis
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The Independent Online
IT WOULD, Evander Holyfield observed, take all night to explain all the many things he didn't do to Lennox Lewis the first time they met, so it would probably take all night to describe what he was going to do to him this coming Saturday night. He would simply settle for telling us that he was a soldier in God's army, and was looking forward to another chance to display his talent. "I will go in there and win the fight very handy," he said.

He did have a reply, however, to Lewis's claim that he would give a more aggressive performance this time round. "You are who you are," Holyfield said, in his southern drawl. "Past experience tells me that. What makes him think that this day he'll be something different from what he's been his whole life? Anybody can say anything. The fight is the time to show it."

The 37-year-old Holyfield had just finished the first of the week's workouts at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, a mile or so from the arena in which he and Lewis will resume the quarrel that was left undecided when they fought a contentious draw in Madison Square Garden, New York, last March. That time around accusations of improper judging brought an embattled sport into even further disrepute. Now Holyfield, the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation champion, and Lewis, who holds the World Boxing Council belt, meet again on Saturday to determine which of them will emerge as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

This time, Holyfield is firmly resisting the temptation to make predictions. Recently he revealed how he had almost walked out of the ring and abandoned the fight when he realised he had failed to back up repeated assertions that he would knock Lewis out in the third round. Now he is understandably more circumspect as he views the prospects for a rematch in which his share of a pounds 20m purse will probably represent his retirement fund, win or lose. "That's only speculation," he replied when asked if he would knock Lewis out this time. "But I will be at my best. I'm coming in with everything I know."

That remark may just have been the standard rhetoric of a fighter, or it may have concealed a significant truth. As Holyfield went through his shadow-boxing routines, there were two figures in his corner. The taller of the pair was Don Turner, his long-time trainer. The second was a small man with silver hair and a squashed nose who turned out to be Kenny Weldon, a trainer added to the staff only a month ago. And it was Weldon who had most to say about exactly how Holyfield intends to suppress the renewed challenge of a man to whom he is giving three years in age, 30lb in weight, three inches in height and six inches in reach.

Weldon is a former pro with a 57-fight record that kept him among the world's top 10 featherweights for six years until he retired in 1978. Now 54, and based in Houston, Texas, his business is balance and technique, and it was for this specialist expertise that he was brought into the camp. In fact he was renewing an association that began in 1983, during Holyfield's amateur days, and continued until the day in 1989 when a third- round knockout of James "Buster" Douglas in Las Vegas gave Holyfield the undisputed title.

According to Weldon, Holyfield's age and his appetite for battle are not an issue. In his view, his man's poor showing in the first fight against Lewis eight months ago was created by habits picked up during the two meetings with Mike Tyson in 1996 and 1997, when Holyfield was necessarily focusing on the strategies needed to counter a smaller man who fought on the front foot. "Evander was getting flat-footed and bending over and fighting real low," Weldon told me. "That took him away from what he does well. Normally he has good foot movement, good balance, good range. He could make adjustments. But when you're flat-footed and bent over, you're not going to make many adjustments. When he called me back in, he asked me if I could get him balanced out."

The concentration on the specific task of beating Tyson had also led to a unconscious restriction of Holyfield's normal range of weaponry. "He had an arsenal of five punches that he could throw when he fought Lewis last time," Weldon continued. "He's throwing nine now. Nine different punches that he's throwing effectively. He's in great shape, and he's getting into position to punch."

As much as anything, it was the statistical evidence indicating Lewis's high punch-count in the first encounter that persuaded many observers to pronounce him the rightful winner. Eugenia Williams, the IBF judge, widely vilified after giving her verdict to Holyfield, pointed out that she had scored on the basis of meaningful punches landed within the officially designated target area. Nevertheless Weldon has been trying to increase Holyfield's ratio. "He's averaging over a hundred punches a round," he said, "whereas he averaged less than 40 a round against Lennox Lewis last time. If his average drops below 75 punches a round, he's going to be in trouble."

Holyfield had also seemed unprepared to find a way inside Lewis's long left jab, although this week he dismissed the idea. "Lennox is not the only guy I've ever fought with a good jab," he said. "I've been doing that all my life. That wouldn't be nothing new. That night he was very effective with it. But it's a whole 'nother day. You're talking about a new Evander adding a little bit more to what he didn't do that time."

To Weldon, the success of Lewis's long-range tactics was a tribute to the work done by Emanuel Steward, once Holyfield's trainer. "Emanuel worked with Evander long enough to know that he had gone flat-footed," he said, "and as long as you didn't fight him, he was going to have a hard time. Emanuel is a smart, smart guy, a great trainer and a great teacher, and what he did was hold Lennox back and make Evander commit, just by keeping that left hand in his face. So Evander was trying to commit himself flat- footed, which you can't do with a guy that strong and that big. Emmanuel kept Lennox listening to him and didn't let him lose control. I would say that Emanuel Steward a lot more than Lennox Lewis caused that kind of embarrassment for Evander. He's a good friend and I respect him, but he had an easy job last time. And Evander took Lennox lightly. He don't take him lightly no more. It'll be a whole lot different this time."