Boxing: Lewis fails to impress the critics: British heavyweight beset by doubts among influential observers about his technique and appeal to the masses

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The Independent Online
THE contest was no sooner over than Lennox Lewis's most persistent American critics were in full cry, pointing up technical shortcomings, deriding the notion that he may be the most effective heavyweight out there.

Trouble for them is that Lewis keeps finding a way as he did when stopping Phil Jackson after 1min 35sec of the eighth round at the Convention Center here late on Friday to retain the World Boxing Council championship.

If in extending his record to 25 straight victories, Lewis gave credence to the claim that he has not progressed much beyond the novice stage in some departments, unquestionably he is capable of intense, violent action.

Jackson confirmed it precisely. 'We'd looked at a couple of Lennox's fights on tape and thought we saw ways of winning, but he's a giant and when you're up there with him things get complicated,' he said, dolefully.

Complications of a different kind remain central to Lewis's career beyond a mandatory defence he is required to make against Oliver McCall some time this summer, the date dependent on purse bids from his American promoters, Main Events and its principle rival, Don King, who has the WBC's leading challenger under contract.

Giving scant credit, King predictably forecast that his man will be the one going forward to a unifying bout with Michael Moorer whose defeat of an ailing Evander Holyfield for the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation titles in Las Vegas two weeks ago further frustrated Lewis's ambitions. 'I think Lewis has regressed not progressed,' King said. 'The fight shouldn't have been allowed. It was a mismatch. Don't get me wrong. I think Lewis is a useful heavyweight but he doesn't jab properly and didn't throw any combinations until Jackson was helpless.'

If those utterances were bound to irritate further Dan Duva of Main Events, who is entitled to the view that King is frequently out of order, they were echoed at ringside by two former heavyweight champions, George Foreman and Larry Holmes.

However, Teddy Atlas, the young trainer whose astute urgings provided Moorer with the motivation to defeat Holyfield, was less sceptical. 'Lewis looked a lot better than he did against Frank Bruno,' Atlas said. 'For such a big man he gets around the ring well, and obviously has a lot of confidence, because he conveys an air of invincibility. But I can't really say. Lewis has natural power, but it might have been interesting if Jackson had got his jab going earlier.'

In his 29th year, Lewis is probably beyond dramatic improvement and in truth may not be the most willing of pupils. But to concentrate on the negative is to ignore the physical scope that Jackson eventually found so intimidating. 'I caught him with a couple of good shots but wasn't able to follow up,' the disappointed challenger said, his badly swollen face concealed behind dark glasses.

In all, Lewis put Jackson down four times, once so deliberately after the fifth round ended that the referee, Arthur Mercante, a remarkably fit septuagenerian in his 113th world title bout, instructed the three official judges to deduct a point from the champion's score.

Not even that blatant infringement of the rules could persuade a general pronouncement on Lewis contrary to historically based assumptions about British representatives in the heavyweight division. 'All it proves is that he's deaf as well as dumb,' sneered one cynical critic at ringside.

Because Lewis fought clumsily for four rounds after scoring a flash knockdown just 24 seconds into the bout, pawing with his long jab and wildly off-target when punching down at the head of a much shorter opponent, some of the criticism was understandable.

There was never a competitive phase to the contest, the judges unanimously awarding Lewis all six completed rounds, but the fact of occasionally being backed up by Jackson was held against him. 'It left a small doubt in your mind,' said Seth Abraham, who as president of Time Warner Sport controls crucial funding of the heavyweight championship through cable and pay-per-view television.

Lewis, who has the irritating habit of referring to himself in the third person, insisted that the best of him has yet to be seen. 'There is a lot more to come from Lennox Lewis,' he said. 'You'll see it when I get the opportunity that I'm the best heavyweight in the world.'

No fault could be found with Lewis when he saw that Jackson's resistance was ebbing away. The fifth round had seen the man from Miami rise valiantly and just beat the count after going down from a heavy right, and take the fight back to Lewis, even sending him off balance with a long left.

Jackson had erased the shame of choosing to be counted out on one knee against Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock, but he had very little left when Lewis brought proceedings to a violent conclusion with a perfect three-punch combination, right upper-cut, left and right hooks. Instantly, Mercante decided that there was no point in taking up the count.

The outcome is limbo, a state which for Lewis means conflicts centring on material interests. If Main Events succeed in promoting the contest against McCall he may have to settle for parity in the purse money. As for a unifying contest with Moorer, nobody can be sure. 'In our terms it wouldn't be a big money fight,' Abraham said. 'For that you need more than the interest of just boxing fans. We'll have to wait and see. There is nothing to choose between the best three heavyweights, Moorer, Lewis and Riddick Bowe.'

Understand, though, that there is a section of American society that seems determined to deny Lewis even that distinction. It is called the popular New York press.

(Photograph omitted)