Boxing: Lewis in a web of vested interests: Ken Jones reports on the convoluted business of promoting Britain's Canadian-raised contender for the world heavyweight boxing championship

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The Independent Online
FIRST they wanted you to ignore the accent. Then they played up the plausible notion that Lennox Lewis, born at Forest Gate in the East End of London but raised in Canada from the age of 12, would become the first British heavyweight this century to hold the world championship.

The morning after Lewis stopped Gary Mason in seven rounds in June last year, adding the British title to the championship of Europe, hype was swirling around him, the market-speak of sponsorship, endorsement and gilt- edged opportunity. 'It will happen,' said Frank Maloney enthusiastically when doubts were raised about the public's readiness to accept Lewis as a British sporting hero.

Next Saturday Lewis meets Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock, a Jamaican-born Canadian at Earls Court in a final eliminator for the world championship and the doubts are still there. So is Maloney, who stubbornly survived as Lewis's manager two years ago when the sports management group headed by Roger Levitt, who had appointed him to supervise a considerable investment and ominous American infiltrations, collapsed.

In a sport where betrayal and success often go hand in hand this is probably to Lewis's credit, but as Maloney is not considered to be a master puppeteer there is the question of who now pulls the strings. Did Maloney, against his better judgement, come under pressure to put Lewis into what is unquestionably a hard and risky contest against Ruddock?

By the time Lewis attended the Evander Holyfield-Larry Holmes championship fight in Las Vegas last June, a growing entourage included Pepe Correa, who had replaced John Davenport as chief trainer, and Ollie Dunlap, former close associates of Sugar Ray Leonard. Apparently in the role of camp manager, Dunlap is a large presence at press conferences and workouts.

Lewis and John Hornewer, the young Chicago attorney he trusted as a friend and confidant, could not have imagined any of this when they were approached by the Levitt Group whose object was to develop and promote a stable of high- profile international sports figures.

According to one of the group's former employees it was Jonathan Barnett, another senior member of the staff, who first alerted Levitt to the fact that Lewis, a gold medallist at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, was qualified to challenge for the British championship. 'Apart from Frank Maloney I don't think any of us had heard of Lennox, but Barnett had read somewhere that he was born in London,' he said.

Lewis, eager to capitalise on his success in Seoul, was by then in danger of pricing himself out of the market. Levitt's offer, coupled with the prospect of advancing more rapidly in the ratings than could be expected in the United States, proved to be the most attractive. The contract included a down payment of more than pounds 250,000, a house, training expenses and a Mercedes.

Not that Levitt's major investors were entirely sold on the proposition. 'It was the image thing,' said another former member of their staff. 'They were very sensitive about being associated with professional boxing. In fact the boxing side of the business was literally kept apart from the rest. . . in another building. Of course, a lot of our people showed up for Lennox's fights, but when it appeared that he wasn't doing all that well, and difficulties arose over obtaining a television contract, there was talk of pulling the plug.'

Never, it seems, entirely safe, Maloney battled on, gaining some respite when ITV agreed a package that was actually in breach of a British Boxing Board regulation restricting such deals to three contests. Lewis improved enough to be considered a coming force in the division, but a great adventure seemed to have run aground when investigations into Roger Levitt's activities led to a major financial scandal. He was bailed to face 24 criminal charges and faces personal claims of around pounds 50m.

However, if doubts persisted about Lewis they were not shared by the liquidators. Realising the immense earning power of a world heavyweight champion, they permitted the relationship with Levitt to continue. A short while ago, unwillingly it is said, he stepped out of the picture, confining his presence to the offices of Championship Enterprises, the banner under which Maloney promotes Lewis.

So who pulls the strings? Mysteriously another name comes up in connection with Lewis. Panos Eliades. Mention of it draws a blank from even prominent boxing insiders. If there is any substance to the suggestion that Eliades has taken an interest in Lewis, he keeps such a low profile that it proved difficult this week to even check the correct spelling. Those who hint that they have heard of Eliades show no inclination to speak about him.

To say the least, Saturday's promotion is a mouthful. Championship Enterprises and Main Events in association with Murad Muhammad/3M Promotions Inc. Main Events is the Duva organisation which has Evander Holyfield, the champion, and holds options on Lewis and Ruddock.

The Murad Muhammad group, advised by Bill Cayton, one of Mike Tyson's former managers, has a controlling interest in Ruddock. The purses, said to be dollars 2m ( pounds 1.25m) for Ruddock and dollars 500,000 for Lewis, are guaranteed by Home Box Office, the American cable television network. All the participants in this convoluted enterprise assembled at a hotel in London yesterday, including Jose Sulaiman, the ubiquitous president of the World Boxing Council, who sanctioned the contest as an official eliminator for the championship.

A letter signed by Riddick Bowe, who challenges Holyfield for the title in Las Vegas on 13 November, and his manager Rock Newman, emphasised the importance of Saturday's contest. As reported here last week, if Holyfield or Bowe renege on a written agreement to fight the winner they will be stripped by the WBC which would then award its title to either Lewis or Ruddock.

Listening to all this yesterday, Maloney had a rare smile on his normally morose face. 'I'm here to support Frank,' said Lou Duva, 'because maybe we can do business in the future.' You could only guess at what was going on in Maloney's mind. Perhaps it was that when the contestants go to their corners somebody will realise that he had something to do with it.

(Photograph omitted)