Boxing: Lewis less than a knockout in US

Boxing: Briton misses golden opportunity to 'sell' unification fight with Holyfield after uninspired world title defence

THE BEST-LAID plans of mice and men have come to nothing once again for Lennox Lewis. The World Boxing Council heavyweight champion's never-ending battle for recognition and respect in the United States, the spiritual home of heavyweight championship boxing, continues with little or no headway having been made by Lewis's unanimous decision victory - 119-109, 117-112, 117-111 - over Zeljko Mavrovic in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Saturday night. Once again, a Lewis performance has raised more questions than answers.

Lewis had hoped for an emphatic victory over his mandatory challenger from Zagreb, Croatia; with his fight being televised live on "free" TV in the States, Lewis believed that an impressive performance would compare favourably with that of his World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation counterpart, Evander Holyfield, who the previous weekend had looked rather ordinary in beating his IBF No 1 contender, Vaughn Bean, in another fight that was shown on mainstream TV.

But rather than enabling Lewis to steal a march on Holyfield, the win - Lewis's 34th in 35 fights - over Mavrovic has served only to confirm what the American public already suspected; that the heavyweight champions are much of a muchness. Neither had fought well enough in their latest outings for one of them to emerge as a clear leader of the pack.

"Someone's got to make this fight happen before one of them gets beat," said Lou DiBella, head of boxing at the premier subscription TV channel in the United States, Home Box Office.

One major difference between the respective fights of the rival champions was that Holyfield-Bean, in Atlanta, was watched by a crowd of over 40,000 people, while Lewis drew less than 10 per cent of that number to the Mohegan Sun casino on Native American land in the Connecticut woods. Clearly, Holyfield is viewed as the senior champion. "I don't think there's any doubt about that," admitted Lewis's trainer, Emanuel Steward. And by going the distance against Mavrovic, despite the German-based Croat's unbeaten record, Lewis has maintained what for him is a frustrating status quo.

As a European heavyweight, and a white one at that, Mavrovic was expected to be blown away with ease by the WBC champion. And when the relative weights of the fighters became known on Friday, those expectations became heightened: at 15st 4 1/4lb, Mavrovic was his lightest in three-and-a- half years; Lewis, meanwhile, weighed exactly the same as he did for his last defence, in March against Shannon Briggs - 17st 5lb.

The two-stone weight advantage was expected to prove decisive for Lewis. Not so. The challenger used his supposed handicap to his advantage, making the 6ft 5in Lewis look slow and lumbering at times. And Mavrovic made a nonsense of the widely held opinion that white heavyweights cannot take a punch; Lewis, without doubt the heaviest hitter of the current crop of big men, connected cleanly with big shots throughout the bout, but he could not budge the Croat with the Mohawk hairstyle.

"Mavrovic must have 240lb of steel in his chin," commented Frank Maloney, Lewis's London-based promoter and manager.

Afterwards, Lewis tried to excuse a performance that, in reality, had very little wrong with it - quite clearly, many people had underestimated Mavrovic, who had won 27 in succession (22 KOs) entering this fight.

"Look, some fighters give you hard times," said Lewis. "He is ranked No 1. I thought I would knock him out, but give him respect, he has a great chin."

If one were to find fault with Lewis, it would be regarding what appeared to be his suspect stamina. Lewis had not gone the distance since May 1996, against Ray Mercer, and at times he appeared desperately tired against Mavrovic. At the post-fight press conference, the champion was supported by two camp aides when he rose from his seat.

"Lennox was definitely huffing and puffing by the third round," said Steward. "I can't explain why - Lennox definitely trained hard for this fight. Motivation? You can never tell with these guys - they say they are ready to go, but sometimes it must be difficult for them to get up."

Indirectly, Lewis blamed Steward's tactics for his problems, strengthening belief in the widespread rumours that this may be the last time they work together.

"I thought I'd have it easy, but I prepared wrong for this fight," said Lewis. "I thought he was going to try and run. I expected him to go into survival mode, try and box me, counter-punch. But he didn't do any of that."

So, for Lewis, the struggle continues. In his 10 years as a professional following gold medal success at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and despite his always having shown willing to fight the best opposition available, Lewis is still regarded as the other heavyweight champion. And unless he can somehow persuade Holyfield to meet him - a fight that many believe Holyfield simply does not want, despite his statements to the contrary - that situation will remain unaltered.

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