Boxing: I done bloody well, old chap': Richard Williams encounters bravado, baloney and uncertainty in both camps

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'HE fought,' said Frank Maloney, happily handing out free-drinks tickets at the post- fight party, 'like a man having his last attempt. Which he was. If I was looking after Frank Bruno, I'd tell him to retire. Today.'

What Lennox Lewis's manager would not admit, even when the euphoria of his man's successful championship defence had faded in the light of a Cardiff Bay dawn, was that for too long in the early hours of Saturday morning it had looked as though the drinks would be on Frank Bruno.

Rightly, the Lewis camp was united in its praise of Bruno as a brave and worthy opponent who had given full value to those who had paid for their seats in the half-full National Stadium, and who had been saved from complete anti-climax by an unexpected clearing of the skies at midnight. But manager and trainers were not singing in unison when it came to a view of how Lewis had or had not coped with the threat.

'It wasn't one of Lennox's better fights,' Maloney admitted. 'He came out cold and started slow. Bruno always starts fast. And he weighed in at 17 stone, which meant that he'd come to knock Lennox around. He may have upset our game plan for a round or two.'

In the view of most ringsiders, Bruno had won four of the first six rounds, and had made Lewis look like a man without a plan. Bruno acted - driving steadily forward behind solid jabs thrown from a high stance - and Lewis reacted. Not once in those six rounds did the WBC world champion give a hint of taking the initiative, of trying to control the pace or style of the fight. He was slow, clumsy, indecisive. Had Bruno found the wherewithal to unleash a full- frontal assault, he might not now be at home in Essex talking to his wife and his manager about calling it a day.

That's not the way Lewis's trainer saw it, though. 'Only people who know nothing about boxing would say that Lewis fought without a plan,' Pepe Correa said yesterday. 'When you get a guy like Bruno, who's very aggressive, you have to slide away and wait. Lewis is a counter-puncher, and that's what he was doing. Sliding away. Then I was able to spot an opening and tell him about it. We lured Bruno into a position where he thought he had the upper hand, and then we set him up for the left hook.'

What was the weakness that Correa had identified? 'I ain't sayin'. I might need it again one day.'

Harold 'The Shadow' Knight, Lewis's assistant trainer, was more forthcoming. 'Once Lennox started getting warm and putting the shots together,' he said, 'we told him to step to Bruno's left instead of his right. As he did so, the right-hand shot became open.'

It was a left hook that opened Bruno up in the seventh round, but it was the right uppercut immediately afterwards that detonated on his jaw, practically sending his head into orbit and removing all vestiges of defensive capability. Thereafter the right did most of the work as, interrupted by a brief inspection from referee Mickey Vann, Bruno suffered a sustained assault of maximum ferocity without making any meaningful attempt to remove himself from the line of fire. By the time Vann called a halt, one eye was closed and the other was blazing with a kind of mad terror.

If this was our last glimpse of big Frank in the ring, it was a courageous and troubling one. Some people thought Vann should have stopped it the first time he went to have a look, saving Bruno from punishment superfluous to the outcome. 'Well, it was the championship of the world,' the referee said later. 'I had to give him every chance. I believe I stopped it at the right time. He'd had his chance. He'd put on a brave show.'

Bruno thought so, too. 'I done bloody well, old chap,' he said. 'I proved I'm a better fighter than they gave me credit for. He won fair and square, though I never did catch him properly.'

He seemed still genuinely upset by Lewis's taunts during the pre- fight hype. 'I'm a proud man,' he said, 'and I don't like to be called an Uncle Tom.' He may have found some consolation in the welcome of the crowd in the National Stadium, which favoured him over Lewis by a factor of perhaps a thousand to one. The challenger's entry, to the strains of 'Land of Hope and Glory', drowned that of the champion, who came in looking tense to the piledriving rhythm of Bob Marley's 'Chase Dem Crazy Baldheads Out of Town', the waving of union flags and red dragons summing up the whole tawdry charade of an attempt to whip up nationalistic fervour in a sport where men fight for themselves and their business associates, and no one else.

Lewis's entry, according to Maloney, had been a rushed affair that partly explained the champion's poor early showing. 'We were called 20 minutes before we expected,' Maloney claimed, although the fight started at the scheduled hour of 1am. 'Lennox was asleep, as usual. He's like Rip Van Winkle. We had to wake him up.'

If he was indeed cold and unprepared, Lewis's team should take a hard look at themselves. Not all challengers for the WBC title will oblige them by failing to find a big punch and then running out of puff at half-distance.

'I thought my performance was pretty average,' Lewis admitted. 'As the rounds went by I started to get warmed up and Bruno started to slow down. He was winding up power shots, and in the end it sapped his strength. He never really hurt me, but he caught me with a shot in the third and I tripped over my own feet.' 'Shadow' Knight refused to confirm the reports of ringsiders who claimed to have heard Lewis shouting anxiously to his cornermen at that point, asking if he had been cut.

Lewis's next fight, on 5 March 1994 at the new MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, will be against the WBO world champion, Tommy Morrison, as long as Morrison gets past the Dulwich- born, Brooklyn-raised Michael Bent in Tulsa at the end of this month. The Lewis-Morrison bout is seen by Seth Abraham of Time- Warner Sports - owners of the Home Box Office, which broadcast yesterday morning's event live to the US - as the first step towards a reunification of all four titles. 'When there's a single dominant heavyweight champion,' Abraham said, 'the sport prospers. When there isn't, the sport suffers.'

The comparative insignificance of Lewis in America may be measured by the emphasis his connections are placing on building his following in Britain. Morrison, for instance, will spend a month training in various British cities before Christmas, a purely promotional exercise that would hardly be contemplated if Lewis v Morrison had anything like the same appeal to American viewers as Bowe v Holyfield.

And what would a fit and angry Riddick Bowe do to the Lennox Lewis of rounds one through six yesterday morning? Frank Maloney may now be in a little less of a hurry to find out.