Boxing: Lewis bestrides the mountain

Chief sports writer Andrew Longmore visits Camp Lennox on Mount Pocono as the British heavyweight hope prepares for the most important prime-time of his life
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The message at the entrance to Lennox Lewis's training camp at Mount Pocono reads simply: You are entering the Land of Love. Lewis and his entourage, a small and select bunch of companions, run past the sign each morning long before the other residents have surfaced to tackle another day of relentless jollity in one of the more popular resorts of the Blue Mountains. Imagine a cross between Butlin's and Center Parcs, stuck halfway up Snowdon, and you have Caesar's in Pocono. But for a solitary man like Lewis the snow-covered mountains, the woods and the streams make the perfect backdrop for the most important month of his life.

Lewis's temporary home, in one of the chalets which line the slopes around the main hotel, is neither flashy nor spartan, reflecting the man himself. His mother Violet lives next door. Pat, Scott, Harold Knight, camp commandant, otherwise known as The Shadow, Courtney Shand, press attache, conditioning coach and one of Lewis's oldest friends, Marcus Egerton - universally known as Egg - a member of the same Canadian Olympic team as Lewis and now a sparring partner, Manny Steward, his trainer, complete the tight little community which insulates Lewis from the colder blasts of pre-fight hype.

Only in the week before his meeting with Evander Holyfield on 13 March will Lewis journey from his mountain top down Highway 80 to the heart of New York City. The clash between the Englishman and the Texan for three world titles is a fin de siecle classic which in anticipation is quite worthy of its place beneath the great chandelier of Madison Square Garden. To the winner, a chance to bestride the century; to the loser a subway ticket to oblivion. It is the fight boxing needs.

At four o'clock most afternoons, just as the light is starting to fade, Lewis and his band drive down to a low wooden building on the shores of the lake. A heavy dark blue curtain separates the crazy golf from the more serious business of the ring where the ritual of preparation continues in a timeless and perfectly rehearsed choreography. Lewis is not a man who likes surprises; his lack of spontaneity has sometimes been his undoing in the ring. But in training routine is the key. So two towels hang over plastic chairs, set out one behind the other like seats in a bus; one towel is taped down.

Lewis sits back to front astride the chair while Courtney - and he alone, the lines of demarcation being fierce - laces up the all-white boots. When he is ready, Lewis ambles over to the mat where two dark red punch bags hang from the low ceiling. The logo on his woollen hat says, "fcuk fear". With barely a nod, the training exercises begin, an elaborate circular dance round the area defined by the two punch bags. Steady at the start, then quicker, the exercises more complex. Lewis leading, the rest following at a dutiful distance.

One circuit involves skipping down one side of the bag and running backwards down the other. Lewis is so agile he quickly hounds his sparring partner who has to cheat to keep the distance. Laughter and a few swear words infiltrate the reggae accompaniment from the speakers. Adrian Teodorescu, Lewis's old Romanian- born coach on the Canadian Olympic team, recently brought back into the camp, looks on. Lennox needs him here, but he is an outsider and a little uncomfortable.

Manny Steward, entering his fifth year as Lewis's trainer, busies himself with preparations for sparring. The reggae turns to an aggressive rap, but Manny doesn't like it. "Hell, I know how to cuss. Turn it off." The reggae returns; the younger generation smirk. Manny is 54 now, loves dancing and pretty women, but admits he cannot fathom the modern fighter. Too much ungratefulness, he says.

Lennox is different, a gentleman, someone who knows how to behave, like Tommy Hearns, his all-time favourite. He and Adrian represent the amateur and professional halves of Lewis. Adrian thinks Lewis should work harder, Steward says he mustn't leave his fight in the gym, but the rivalry is philosophical, a product of background as much as character, and healthy not destructive. Manny has a business card. On one side is a photo of Manny in Detroit looking like a Motown soulman; on the other the names of his 25 world champions. The name of Lewis figures one line above that of Holyfield.

As Lewis begins his sparring, Steward stands alongside, legs apart, body bent forward, like a tennis player waiting to receive serve. Courtney stands on a table holding the video camera. Lewis spars three rounds with Egerton, a blown-up middleweight who has Olympic silver and a decent left hook. He is supposed to imitate Holyfield's all-action style, to keep pressurising Lewis, make him work hard, but Lewis is simply eyeing up the distances, practising a few blocks and parries, testing reflexes.

This phase of training is designed to get Lewis what Steward calls "boxing body fit", not lean and hungry, but ready to absorb the central physicality of a fight, the bangs, the pushes, the wrestling. The intensity of the sparring will be increased next week. Occasionally, Lewis, the bigger man by six inches, launches a few tentative combinations, none with any sting. Manny instructs, holding his hands up and jerking back his head to illustrate the point. He wants Lewis to tuck his head in behind the jab. Lewis looks as though he's not listening, but does and when he rolls away from a left hook which smacks against his massive biceps, Steward barks his praise. Three rounds on the heavy bag follow before Courtney conducts the final stretching routine on a mat in the centre of the ring. No one other than Manny and the fighters stray into the sacred area. A quick trip to the weighing-machine and Lewis is gone. The whole session has lasted two hours and has all the menace of a Sunday afternoon Baptist meeting.

Lewis has never been a hell-raiser in or out of the ring. A few practical jokes which got out of hand might have landed him in trouble with his headmaster, but he was a gentle giant of a boy who was teased for his English accent. His principal in Kitchenor, near Toronto, introduced him to the boxing gym but it was Adrian who first saw the potential. "He has a natural intelligence and he was always very powerful. Sometimes you had to slow him down a bit, sometimes I had to scream and shout to wake him up. That was always Lennox. Still is."

An impressive amateur career culminated in Olympic gold in Seoul but no one in Canada was prepared for Lennox's decision to revert to the land of his birth as a professional. Teodorescu felt betrayed, but admits now that Frank Maloney, an unlikely choice as manager, has done a good job in guiding him steadily through the minefield of American boxing politics. While Tyson hogged all the attention, Lewis was largely ignored. On the wall of the restaurant in Pocono, there is a poster of his fight against Tommy Morrison. "Two of the most powerful punchers in boxing..." In the sport of epithet, it was hardly catchy. But Lewis has never felt the need to have a shadow title: the Dark Destroyer, Iron Mike, the Hitman. A matter of style. Lewis always thought the world would come to him in the end. And, occasionally, there were glimpses of his awesome power; Razor Ruddock felt it and Golota the Pole. Often, though, critics felt that Lewis treated boxing too much like his beloved chess and not enough like the noble art.

It is Steward's main concern about the Holyfield fight. Steward wants Lewis to dominate, be instinctive and use his vastly superior boxing skills to overpower the lighter man. If Holyfield can shift the battleground to the mind, the odds shift. "Lennox is by so far the better boxer it's not worth arguing about," he says. "If he comes to the ring aggressive, determined and alert - and I use that last word advisedly - they can forget it. It will be a total mismatch. But if he goes defensive, adopts his chess-like strategy..."

In his apartment, Lewis is playing chess. He likes the game because every piece has its power and its place. He would not, he says, pick one favourite piece. "They all work in combination for the final goal," he says. "You can't put your queen out the front if she's not covered, the bishop has to back her up or you can attack with the bishop, I like that. Even the pawns, used in the right way, have their power." He likens boxing to chess. "There is great strategy involved. A different strategy is needed to beat each opponent, whether it's Frank Bruno or Ray Mercer or Evander Holyfield." Ah, Holyfield.

The amateur's eye view of the fight pits Lewis's boxing ability against Holyfield's warrior nature. Both, says Steward, are born and bred professional fighters and he has trained both, but Lewis has not tackled anyone in Holyfield's class before, nor has he endured the particular pressures of a Superfight, as Steward calls this. Lewis has rationalised that aspect of the fight too. "I break it down. Who is this man, Evander Holyfield? He shows great grit, great warrior instincts, but he's a man like me. I've got a big heart too, I don't like to lose, I'm a natural heavyweight, I've got a lot of positive things going for me. He has a lot of positive things, but he also has a lot of negative things."

Like age, ring weariness and a light-heavyweight's physique. And he will not be able to outpsych the reverentially calm Lewis in the way he did so devastatingly with Tyson. "I don't look at him like no superman," Lewis says. He understands the enormity of what is at stake, knows that a whole life's work, pain and frustration is being channelled irresistibly into one night of his life, but says he is able to subvert those huge forces. He is very believable. "This fight is greater than the others, it is the biggest fight of my life, but to me it is just another fight. Each one of my fights up to this point has been a Superfight, each one was a preparation for this moment. There is nothing I've not gone through, nothing I'll have to go through that I haven't been prepared for.

"It's been difficult to keep up pride in my own performance. I've got a lot of critics, I've had my character assassinated. A lot of US media have constantly put me down, they're always hyping guys like Shannon Briggs who shouldn't be hyped, so this is a fight when I need to go out there and gain respect. There's no doubt about that. And even when I go out there and get it, I still won't have it from everyone, which is good, because otherwise I'd have nothing left to fight for."

The familiar feeling of being messed around, demeaned, underestimated has not eased now that Lewis has moved into the big box office. A recent order by Don King to fly to England and Germany to boost pay-per-view figures in Europe was rapidly rejected by the Lewis camp, who sensed another attempt at sabotage. King is trying to use him as a pawn, Lewis says. "I'm trying to be a bishop, one of the powerful figures on the board." Steward believes that his man will get no favours from the judges anyway. Until a court in Maryland intervened, Tyson v Holyfield III was the natural bonanza sequel to a Holyfield victory over Lewis. Lewis now believes Tyson is out of the equation.

"I feel even the US media are fed up with him," he says. "You would figure a guy like that would learn, going into prison, coming out again, getting married, having a family, getting a second chance with the boxing. I don't know. There seems to be something in his mind that says he has to live that thug life and he doesn't need to. There has to be growth in people and he hasn't shown that growth."

Lewis has. Looking down from his mountain, he can survey whole plains of experience, a labyrinth of twisting roads leading towards his destiny. As it nears, thoughts of the fight merge with his dreams. In his dreams, he always wins. "Evander always comes to you, he'll be there for me."

So will 7,000 British fans. Courtney will be the last one with Lennox in the ring on 13 March, massaging the back of his neck, slowly, silently. "This is our time, champ," he will whisper. "This is our time."