Boxing: Lewis lets the prize escape

IT WAS, in most eyes, an old-fashioned mugging on Seventh Avenue. After 12 rounds of boxing, Lennox Lewis believed he had Evander Holyfield's titles in his pocket. But then came the judges' verdict, depriving him of the right to call himself the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Later, when the waves of noise had died away in the giant arena, when the fighters and their retinues had left the building and the maintenance crews had moved in, one sound echoed around the corridors of Madison Square Garden - the deafening cackle of Don King. A night that will go down in boxing history for its failure to produce a winner in the ring had delivered to King a double victory. Holyfield and Lewis will almost certainly fight again, generating another fortune in pay-per-view receipts. And, thanks to the judges whose consensus was unable to split the fighters, King retains a grip on the heavyweight division which a Lewis victory would very likely have destroyed.

Not since Sonny Liston quit on his stool in his first fight against the- then Cassius Clay 35 years ago has there been such a contentious ending to the biggest of all prize fights. Lewis's connections were aghast and angry. Even Holyfield's handlers seemed abashed. And the accusations concerning King's baleful influence began.

"I knew they wouldn't let me leave here with three belts without trying to do some funny business," Lewis said, amid a notable display of even temper. Others were less moderate. "This is the sport I earn my living from," Emanuel Steward, his trainer, said, "and I'm ashamed of it. This was was supposed to give boxing a resurgence of interest and it turns out to be an embarrassment."

The CompuBox statistics told one story. They said that Lewis had landed a total of 338 punches to Holyfield's 130, that he had connected with 187 jabs to Holyfield's 52, and that he had made 161 power punches count, against Holyfield's 78. Supporting evidence came in the physical and mental condition of both men at their post-fight press conference, during which Holyfield appeared bruised and winded while Lewis looked fresh enough to fight a few more rounds.

Some of the judges saw other evidence, and the difference of viewpoint was exaggerated by their scorecards. Scoring is assessed on punches landed in the target area, and is compiled round by round on the basis of marks out of 10. So a split round is scored 10-10, a narrowly decided round will be 10-9, and a clear-cut round (of which there were none on the scorecards on Saturday night) will be 10- 8. A high concentration of punches in a single round has little influence on the overall outcome - unless it produces a knock-out.

There were no knockdowns on Saturday. One judge, Stanley Christodoulou of South Africa, appointed by the World Boxing Association, went along with the computer, giving the fight to Lewis, by 116-113. "Lewis's blows were more damaging, and he landed more of them," he said. The International Boxing Federation judge, Jean Williams of New Jersey, gave it to Holyfield, by 115-113. "I scored by the blows that connected in the target area," she said. "I had a job to do, and I did it." And the British judge, Larry O'Connell, representing the World Boxing Council and paid by the British Boxing Board of Control, had it all square at 115-115. "I know I'll get some stick," he said, "but it's my decision to call the fight as I see it. When I score each round I never know what the overall score is going to be." Since the result is not determined by points but by majority, the result was a draw, outraging the vast majority of observers, whose opinion was based on the punch count.

Anyone choosing to argue the case for the outcome of the judges' decisions is likely to end up looking as conspicuous as a old-time hooker on the newly cleaned-up 42nd Street. But at this level a title is not easily given up. It has to be taken away from its holder. Even though his performance exceeded most people's expectations, Lewis did not make the most of his opportunities to finish Holyfield off, and towards the end of the fight he eased back in order to preserve himself from danger. For this reason, and because boxing is not about the sheer volume of blows but about the right blows at the right time, my scorecard read 115-115, like that of the much-abused Larry O'Connell, with five rounds to each man and two even.

The night had begun with a powerful sense of occasion. The sold-out house included Michael Douglas, Spike Lee, Bo Derek, Liam Neeson, John F Kennedy Jr, Paul Simon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Keith Richards, Magic Johnson, John McEnroe, Jerry Seinfeld and the Rev Jesse Jackson, plus 7,000 British fans who joined in a pub-style rendering of the national anthem led by an actual East End publican, Harry Brown, and then spent the next hour out-cheering and out-chanting the bemused locals. Fears of more direct confrontation went happily unfulfilled.

Lewis confounded his detractors by beginning the evening like an runaway express, taking the fight to Holyfield and winning the first two rounds with a convincing demonstration of his jab, although Holyfield came on stronger as each round progressed. For the American, the third round was always going to be the crux of the fight, since this was when he had promised to knock Lewis out. He certainly did his darndest, moving up through the gears as he crowded Lewis into a corner, trying to catch him with left hooks. By surviving that tumultuous onslaught, Lewis had dismantled Holyfield's only strategy. "There is no Plan B," the American had said before the fight, and from then on he was making it up as he went along.

Both men rested in round four before Lewis took up the initiative in the fifth. Backing Holyfield on to the ropes, he unleashed a sequence of long right hands to the head, trying to measure Holyfield for the big one. This was Lewis's best chance, but he failed to capitalise on it. Jean Williams's decision to score this round, Lewis's best, 10-9 to Holyfield represented the night's biggest absurdity. The fighters resumed a mutual caginess in the sixth, with Lewis well ahead as the fight reached its half-way mark, having succeeded in preventing Holyfield from getting inside and engaging him at close quarters. But there was a sign of the continuing threat from Holyfield when the American, having pressed Lewis, suddenly withdrew, sucking his opponent towards him before striking with great suddenness. But Lewis was alert enough to evade the danger, and made further gains in the seventh, landing several good long rights and a succession of jabs which left reddened abrasions on the skin on Holyfield's cheeks and brow.

In the eighth and ninth Lewis seemed to be over- conscious of the threat posed by the wounded animal in front of him. Now his right hand had lost its sting, and was merely being poked and prodded at Holyfield. Before the 10th, he needed attention to a small cut near his right eye. Holyfield saw it and came charging in, flailing away, and there was some ungainly stuff on view as he fought to regain lost ground in the 10th and 11th.

A huge chant from the British fans carried their man into the final round, but Lewis seemed to feel that he had already done enough, and the pro-active fighter of the early rounds had all but disappeared. Only in response to Holyfield's closing assault did he shake off his circumspection and, with eight seconds left on the clock, throw a short, straight, ferociously hard right hand which travelled no more than 18 inches, landing between Holyfield's eyes and buckling the American's knees.

This was the blow which, had it been ventured earlier in the fight, could have brought a very different outcome. Lewis's failure to do so is a tribute to the resolve of Holyfield - older, shorter, lighter, less motivated by hunger for the big prize, but a fighter from head to toe. Lennox Lewis made a lot of converts on Saturday night. He did enough to deserve victory. But when all is said and done he could not make Evander Holyfield deserve to lose.

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