Boxing: Lewis fighting America's prejudice

Boxing: Generations of horizontal British heavyweights can be avenged at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night
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The Independent Online
THE BIG MEN came back to the Big Apple yesterday, only to find that America's mind was on another time and another place. For a while, at least, the winter of '99 took a back seat to the summer of '41. Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis could only sit quietly and wait their turn while baseball fans mourned Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, remembering the year of his great batting streak and acclaiming an American hero.

The notion of losing another American property, the heavyweight championship of the world, is not on their minds. You would have to look hard to find any local expert, other than those connected with Lewis's camp, who do not feel that Holyfield will emerge from Madison Square Garden on Saturday night as the first undisputed champion since Riddick Bowe took all three titles from him in Las Vegas in November 1992.

According to Lewis, the reason is nothing to do with his prowess as a boxer and everything to do with his decision to fight under the British flag. Responding to the words of Wallace Matthews of the New York Post, who dismissed him this week as a man with "three passports but no credentials", Lewis said: "I've been reading that kind of thing ever since I've been in the United States. I've got used to it. If I'd come here straight after the Olympics, they'd have adopted me and everything would have been fine. As it is, I'm classed as a British fighter, with everything that involves."

If the Americans feel that Lewis has generations of horizontal heavyweights to live down to, they may be deluding themselves. He will bring not only the World Boxing Council title into the ring on Saturday but also the stature of a genuine heavyweight champion, albeit one whose career has been often diverted and occasionally thwarted by the sort of commercial considerations that have little to do with the science of pugilism, but have nevertheless weighed heavy on the sport throughout its history. Evading an opponent outside the ring is sometimes as important as dodging his punches inside it, and Lewis, at 33, has been a frequent victim of elusive opponents - beginning with Bowe, who jettisoned the WBC title rather than put all three belts at risk in a confrontation with the man who had stopped him inside two rounds in the super-heavyweight final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

"The important thing is to know who you are and what you've done," Lewis said this week. But even his boosters are sometimes less than sure about that. The most enigmatic of fighters, Lewis has several fine performances to his credit, notably his second-round dismissal of Donovan Ruddock in 1991 and his 95-second demolition of the unpredictable Andrew Golota 18 months ago, but his escutcheon remains tarnished by the memory of his slow start against Frank Bruno at Cardiff Arms Park in 1993 and victories against several men who belonged either in the psychiatric ward (Oliver McCall, on their second meeting) or the knacker's yard (Tommy Morrison, Henry Akinwande). As he faces the biggest fight of his career, maybe even Lewis does not know which version of himself will answer the first bell at the Garden.

At least this fight will not be subjected to unfavourable comparisons with DiMaggio's deeds. Had Mike Tyson been fighting this week, his life and works would no doubt have been held up for instructive comparison with the flawless dignity and grace of the Yankee Clipper. Instead we are presented with a boxing match between two men of good public behaviour and reasonably unblemished reputation - although Lewis tried to ruffle Holyfield's feathers last week by describing him as a "hypocrite" for presenting himself as a Christian while fathering children by numerous women. But that, like the sudden surge of rumours concerning Lewis's sexuality, which obliged the fighter to out himself as a heterosexual, is likely to be forgotten as the fight nears.

For this is, in boxing terms, a genuinely historic event, as close as one can come in today's climate to a straightforward contest between the two best available contenders. Admittedly, the competition below them is hardly impressive, but that only makes this more like most other eras, rather than less.

All 19,000 seats at the Garden were sold out within a fortnight of the announcement of the fight, which suggests that American boxing fans are taking the event seriously - although there is a nice but unverifiable story that, after the $1,500 (pounds 930) ringside seats had gone in a rush, a slower response to the next tier of $1,000 (pounds 620) tickets was solved by putting them, too, up to the top price. New Yorkers are pleased to see a big fight back in their town, where so much of the sport's history was written.

The current Garden is the fourth to bear that name. The first of them really was built in Madison Square, near the Flatiron building on 23rd Street at Fifth Avenue. The third, on Eighth Avenue at 50th Street, was the one in which boxing legends were created, and was surrounded by gyms and fight taverns - Lou Stillman's Gym, the Times Square Gym, the Neutral Corner and Jack Dempsey's Bar. This was where Rocky Marciano knocked out Joe Louis, and where the young Cassius Marcellus Clay came on 13 March 1963, 36 years to the day before Saturday's fight, to withstand a hail of boos from a sold-out house of sceptical New Yorkers while seeing off Doug Jones over a hard-fought 10 rounds.

Erected in the late 60s, 15 blocks to the south, where it backs on to the majestic Post Office headquarters, the new Garden will always be thought of, whatever happens on Saturday or any other night, as the place where Ali and Joe Frazier fought out their no-quarter battle of 8 March 1971, when Smokin' Joe retained his title by holding out for victory over a man in his third fight after an enforced three-year lay-off. But little within the precincts, or in the streets surrounding it, breathes the essence of boxing.

When Holyfield emerged for a public workout yesterday morning, it was neither at the Garden nor at some atmospheric old premises inhabited by the Runyonesque spirit of New York boxing. It was, instead, at the Church Street Boxing Gym, a new establishment located in a basement on the downtown frontier between fashionable, arty Tribeca - a place of lofts and restaurants owned by the more bohemian kind of movie star - and Wall Street, home of the true masters of the universe.

The whitewashed walls were clean, the floor was unscuffed parquet, there were carefully painted murals of Louis and Dempsey, the bare-alloy heating ducts looked as if they'd just been polished, the fight posters were new, and the equipment was box-fresh (if you tapped one of the heavy bags, it gave off an aroma not of sweat or embrocation but of top-quality leather). The house rules were neatly printed on a plastic sign. "Disreputable behaviour of any kind will not be tolerated," one of them read, but you could not imagine the possibility arising.

Holyfield, clearly in a genial mood, worked out to the strains of Christian rap music. He hardly looked like a man living in fear of losing his World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation titles. But Lewis has a faith of his own. "I can live with all this put- down stuff," he said on Monday, "because I know that it's within me to become the undisputed champion of the world." This fight may lack the dimension of hate-hype that surrounds any event in which Mike Tyson is involved, but the business at hand could hardly be more serious.