Boxing: Lewis faces defining moment

Boxing: The champion with a love for chess expects to go from pawn to king of the heavyweight division tonight
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The Independent Online
THE TROUBLE with Lennox Lewis, according to Emanuel Steward, his trainer, is that he plays too much chess. "Chess ties up too much time," Steward said this week as he prepared Lewis to confront Evander Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world in New York tonight. "You have to think too much. Lennox is gonna have missiles firing at him, specially in this fight. There's gonna be bombs flying all over the place. You can't sit down and say, `Let me pull out my chess board and figure this out.' No, he really has got to be instinctive."

And there the problem appears to begin and end for a fighter, born in West Ham of Jamaican parents, and raised in Canada, who hopes to wake up tomorrow morning as the first bearer of a British passport to hold the undisputed title. Lewis is a physical giant, his record shows only one defeat in 34 fights as a pro, and almost three months of training and eating his beloved mother's fish, rice, dumplings and beans must surely have brought him to peak condition for the biggest night of his life - the fight that, he says, will "define" him. But it is his capacity for the instinctive response, the spontaneous initiative, that harms his chances in the eyes of experts. Including, evidently, those of his own trainer.

Steward is a highly experienced and respected figure who would probably still be in Holyfield's corner had they not fallen out over the question of remuneration several years ago. He has plenty of praise for his current charge, but also plenty of warnings. When he talked about how he planned to persuade Lewis to make more use of his excellent left jab at Madison Square Garden tonight, for instance, he became almost fatalistic. "We've talked about it, we've worked on it, now he's gotta do it," he said. "I'm finished."

The problem is simply to get a good-natured man to come out fighting. "Lennox Lewis has to come out and establish his strength, physical and mental, in the fight," Steward said. "This is a weird fight to figure out. You can't say who's going to assume what role. It's not like Ali and Frazier, where you know who's going to do what. So he's got to come out and be prepared to stand up, and the first opportunity he gets he's got to let his missiles fly. He's a big man. He can't hesitate."

Hesitation - call it circumspection, if you want to be kind - is widely seen as Lewis's weakness. Anyone who watched him get pushed around by Frank Bruno for five rounds at Cardiff Arms Park one chilly autumn night back in 1993 could be forgiven for continuing to harbour suspicions about his ability to take matters into his own hands, and the possibility that he will greet the bell for the start of a world title fight by waiting for the other man to make the first move is even supported by his own words. "This fight could take different avenues," he said this week. "One can never really tell what's going to happen until we get in there." And it is clearly a source of exasperation to his trainer, although the criticisms come wrapped in careful expressions of optimism.

"I'm very satisfied with the improvement in Lennox generally," Steward said. "If he comes out and fights to his potential, he is physically too powerful for Holyfield. But the improvement has not shown in the fights consistently. He and Evander both have been inconsistent heavyweight champions. There's never been that solid domination like there was with Ali or Frazier. Lennox can have a great fight against Tommy Morrison, and then come back and have a real life- and-death against Ray Mercer. Even in the second fight with Oliver McCall he was still reluctant. The guy was crying, but Lennox still wouldn't step it up."

Lewis, of course, denies the charge. "I'm going to beat Evander in every possible way," he said. "I'm going to out-think him, out-box him, and out-punch him." But within moments of that assertion the sceptics were groaning at his response to a question about whether or not he had a game plan. "No," he said. "I'm just going to let the fight unfold. We're both professionals and the fight could take different avenues. I'm very flexible in that, so I'll have to see what happens. 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."

Delivered in Lewis's calm, almost other-worldly tones, these are exactly the kind of sentiments that lead some to conclude that he lacks the kind of warrior's heart that his opponent tonight so clearly possesses. "Evander has a great heart," he agreed. "But I don't think my heart should be questioned."

Frank Maloney, Lewis's chirpy little manager, backs his fighter's claim. An early assault from Holyfield, he believes, could play into Lewis's hands. "It may liven Lennox up. But I don't think there's a problem. People say he's a slow starter, because he got caught by Shannon Briggs in the first round, and by Oliver McCall, but he knocked Andrew Golota out in 93 seconds, and he's knocked a few other guys out in the first couple of rounds."

What about the pasting he took at the hands of Bruno, before finally waking up? "I think Lennox felt he just had to walk in there and and hit Bruno and it would be all over. You've got to remember that when Frank Bruno fought Lennox Lewis he raised his game by at least 100 per cent. If he'd boxed like that when he fought Mike Tyson the second time, he'd still be world heavyweight champion."

To some extent, Lewis is an enigma. His past record looks like a history of contradictions. He beat Riddick Bowe for the Olympic super-heavyweight gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and knocked out Razor Ruddock in the second round four years later, but struggled against lesser fighters.

"Lennox is a strange guy," Steward confirmed. "But I will say this for him. When it comes down to the few situations where he has been involved in big fights, he's gone to another level. I will give him credit for that. Regardless of how he looks in training, if there's a big fight he's very aggressive."

Stories emanating from inside the training camp have been notably conflicting. One tale this week had Lewis being severely embarrassed by a sparring partner. But Steward switched into cheerleading mode when he described the fighter's mood. "He's been extremely happy and confident. He's just like a little kid. From the day that the fight was signed he's been bubbling over with excitement. I just cannot see all of that energy and enthusiasm just disappearing."

Every fighter, Steward continued, had one fight that he wanted above all others. "Evander always wanted Mike Tyson. He has a thing about bullies, especially short ones. Even when I was training him for his second fight against Riddick Bowe, all he could talk about was Tyson. That was the fight he always wanted. And Lennox has always wanted to fight Evander Holyfield. He's been totally obsessed with it. This is his opportunity, and I think he's going to shine. It's going to be a great fight, win or lose. I feel he should win it, but even if he loses it I can assure you it's going to be a war. There's no way I'm going to be working with anyone who's going to lose a fight as a coward."

For a trainer to use a phrase such as "win or lose" on the eve of a fight is remarkable in itself, but Steward quickly covered his words with more hopeful effusions. "I do feel that if Lennox comes out and fights to his potential, he's physically too powerful for Evander Holyfield," he said. "And he's a natural athlete, which you guys [the media] keep overlooking. He's not a Riddick Bowe. He was too strong for Riddick Bowe. That brute strength and the burning desire he has to gain respect, and the knowledge that this is the first and only chance, that this is it, will carry him to victory. It's all gotta happen in this fight, or he can forget it. There's no other fights, no other second chances. It's like the end of the world for him."

And that, at last, was more like the Lewis camp's line. "He's in great shape, both mentally and physically," Maloney said. "He looks sharp, he's so focused for this fight. I think he's a danger to the whole human race at the moment. He could walk through walls, the condition he's in. I've said that I think Lennox is going to win in seven rounds. Inside me, I think it could even be over shorter."

For Lewis, who missed out on his first shot at the undisputed title in 1992, when Riddick Bowe tossed the WBC belt into the nearest rubbish bin, a seven-year itch is almost over. "It's been out of my reach for a while," he said. "Now it's finally here, and I can prove that all those fighters who've been ducking me all these years were ducking me for a reason. I'm very confident in my own ability. I love being the underdog. And this is my time." And what about Manny Steward? "I'm going to teach him the game of chess."