Boxing: Lewis faces a split decision: Beaten champion must choose between comfort zone and reviving a career undermined by McCall's might - Harry Mullan says Britain's latest failure must knuckle under to stay at the top

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The Independent Online
IT WAS just like old times last week, picking over the debris of yet another British heavyweight boxing calamity. Those few years of unaccustomed success which Lennox Lewis gave us did nothing to diminish the national relish for a post-mortem, and ever since Oliver McCall's right hand separated Lewis from the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship at Wembley in the early hours of last Sunday the saloon-bar strategists have been explaining what went wrong and why.

The debate has gone on in rather more elevated circles too, not least within the Lewis camp itself where the first casualty, inevitably, was the controversial and idiosyncratic trainer Pepe Correa. He had secured the job on the basis of a fairly tenuous connection with Ray Leonard during the great boxer's declining years in the ring, and retained it despite accumulating evidence that the fighter was being allowed to grow lazy, sloppy and over-confident.

There were warning signs in the wins over Tony Tucker and Frank Bruno, which a few punters - notably Don King and his British associate Frank Warren - heeded to spectacular effect, taking the Las Vegas odds of 11-2 against a McCall knockout. Pressure had been mounting on Lewis's backer, Panos Eliades, to dump Correa, whose utterances frequently embarrassed his employer, and after the Wembley debacle his position was untenable.

At least Correa exited with a flourish, sending Lewis out for the second round with the instruction: 'Now go and knock the bum out.' What happened 30 seconds later ensures that his exhortation will pass into boxing legend as one of the most tactically inept miscalculations since Billy Conn, a street ahead on points against Joe Louis

after 12 rounds, decided a knockout would look better on his record. After 2min 58sec of the 13th, he was left with a lifetime to regret his cockiness.

There was nothing clever or classy about McCall's victory: Lewis left his chin in the air, and McCall cheerfully whacked him on it. He had done the same in the first, when he landed a right so hard that Lewis had to fall into a clinch and hang on for 10 seconds while his head cleared. But there was no way back from that second- round catastrophe, and the protests from Lewis and Frank Maloney about a fast count and premature stoppage do not bear scrutiny.

Lewis was still so dazed when he rose that he lurched forwards into referee Luis Garcia, and may well have crashed face-first had Garcia not steadied him. A man in that condition should never be allowed to take a full-blooded head punch from a heavyweight as hard, fit and motivated as McCall: that is a short-cut to the intensive care unit, and Lewis is big enough to say as much when tempers have cooled and he has had time to reflect on the night when, after 29 straight victories, it all went wrong.

The Lewis team's close links with the New Jersey-based Main Events company (who are, effectively, the father and son Lou and Dan Duva) make it likely that Correa's replacement will be George Benton, the 1960s middleweight contender who, working with the Duvas, has matured into one of the most respected trainers in the business. Benton has fine- tuned a host of champions and taken nonsense from none of them. He is such a hard task- master that he once gleefully said the night before the mild- mannered Evander Holyfield challenged Buster Douglas for the world heavyweight title, that he'd got his man 'meaner than a Mississippi sheriff'.

That is the kind of disciplinarian Lewis needs, after too long as master of his own destiny. However distasteful they may find the notion, fighters need managers and trainers to shift and share the responsibility and leave them free to concentrate on boxing. Those who choose to do otherwise tend to find themselves, like the accused who opts to defend himself, with a fool for a client.

The Duvas' promotional share in Lewis means that Benton would be able to take the job on a long-term basis, unlike the other front-runner Emanuel Steward of Detroit who, working with McCall for the first time, masterminded Lewis's downfall. Steward's credentials are impeccable: he has trained 19 world champions and worked 94 world title fights. But since the break-up of his famous Kronk team he has operated as a high-powered, highly paid freelance consultant, flitting from client to client like some pugilisitic George Carman. Consequently there have been times, as when Michael Moorer took the title from Holyfield in April, that Steward finds himself across the ring from his previous employer.

Lewis needs stability as he starts the long rebuilding process, and in any case Steward may well prefer to stay with McCall since his wages for preparing the new champion to face Mike Tyson would be vastly more than he could expect from guiding Lewis back up the ratings. That will be a difficult and complex process, given the poisonous relations which exist between the Lewis camp and Don King, who controls McCall and most of his contenders. King will not be inclined to do Lewis any favours, and since he also controls Tony Tucker, the International Boxing Federation's No 1 contender, that avenue may also soon be closed off.

Moorer, the World Boxing Association and IBF champion, faces the ancient George Foreman in Las Vegas on 5 November. He must then defend against Tucker or relinquish the IBF portion of his championship, whereupon Tucker would no doubt be paired with another King fighter to decide the new champion. The chances of Lewis being given a crack at Moorer's WBA title are slim, since his American credibility has been shattered by the McCall result. However unfairly, he is seen over there as just another British horizontal heavyweight, and it will take a couple of spectacular results to make up the lost ground. But given that King controls so many top heavyweights, who is available for him to beat?

In the months ahead Lewis's loyalty to Eliades and Maloney will be tested severely as he faces the choice between the short-cut back to the top which King can offer and the hard but independent road he will have to walk with his present team. At 29, time is against him, given that it could be a year before he can challenge for any of the three major versions of the title. The fourth, run by the World Boxing Organisation, is held by Britain's Herbie Hide. That would be an attractive domestic match, but of minimal transatlantic interest. Anyway, Hide must face a monstrously difficult challenge from his No 1 contender, Riddick Bowe, before he would be free to meet Lewis.

Lewis's always shaky grip on the affections of the British sporting public will also be tested by last week's result. As the beaten champion was leaving, my ringside neighbour turned to the row of American writers behind us and cracked: 'The Canadian never could fight anyway.' It was a throwaway line, but one which probably echoed the reaction of many of his tabloid readers. Remember how Barry McGuigan became 'British' as he headed for the world featherweight title a decade ago, and how quickly he became 'Irish' after he lost the championship in Las Vegas?

(Photograph omitted)

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