IN THE early hours of tomorrow morning an extremely powerful man will emerge from a collision at Earls Court to be announced as the official leading contender for the world heavyweight championship.
As it is difficult to come across anybody in and around boxing who does not harbour reservations when called upon to choose between Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock and Lennox Lewis, prolonged and inconclusive debate remains a welcome feature of the proceedings.
Uncertainty is the life-blood of a sport that all too often these days is a parody of traditional virtues, particularly in the behemoth division, and enough of it surrounds this contest to justify prudence at the betting shop window.
This week, the big question was put to Lou Duva, who will be in Evander Holyfield's corner when the heavyweight champion defends against Riddick Bowe in Las Vegas on 13 November. He said: 'I'm going with the black guy.'
Duva's facetiousness masked the doubts he will be sharing with plenty of people in boxing when the contestants arrive in their corners for what is unquestionably one of the most intriguing bouts staged in this country for many years.
Whatever punishment is inflicted, the stakes are far too high for either man to think about reaching for the rip-cord or leaving too small a margin for error on the scorecards. So what we are promised is a violent confrontation to suggest that the two best heavyweights in the world are not those who will shortly do battle in the Nevada desert.
Leaving aside Lewis's eagerness to reclaim his birthright and become established as a British sporting hero, the real issue is whether he has advanced sufficiently as a professional since winning a gold medal for Canada at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
An unblemished record, 21 straight victories, 18 by knockout, is the stuff of confidence, but George Francis, who trains Frank Bruno and helped to bring John Conteh and Cornelius Boza-Edwards forward as world champions, is not alone in thinking that Lewis, at this stage of his career, is running an unnecessary risk.
Applying the sort of pragmatic sense that does not always justify charges of protective match-making, Francis would not have entertained such a dangerous opponent unless the title itself was at stake. 'In my mind there was no need for Lewis to take this fight,' Francis said, clearly impressed by the power, hand speed and mobility Ruddock displayed when sparring in north London. 'Lewis is nicely placed in the ratings and could have bided his time.'
If this conflicts with a more romantic view of boxing, it begs the question of Lewis's relative inexperience when set against the fact that although Ruddock lost twice to Mike Tyson last year (the first on a controversial stoppage), he gave the former champion a hard time and hurt him. Of course, there is the possibility that those contests took more out of Ruddock than he is prepared to admit, although Floyd Patterson, the former world heavyweight champion who trains him, has not detected any deterioration of will. More critically, Patterson can only wait and see whether the improvements he has brought about in Ruddock, especially his footwork, will hold up under fire in the ring.
In the gymnasium Ruddock has looked a more rounded fighter, making better use of his jab, and prefacing a fearsomely natural left hook with a right uppercut, the ideal combination against Lewis's stand-up style. If Patterson has persuaded Ruddock there is no future in having his feet too close together, there is a substantial case for making him favourite. But if the changes have not been taken on as habits - difficult for a boxer in his 30th year - Ruddock, under pressure, may not be able to resist the temptation to rely almost exclusively on a long left hook-cum-uppercut that can be wild enough to raise anxiety in the ringside seats.
Because Lewis has an edge in boxing skills, and has been concentrating on his jab and foot speed, he is more likely to be geared for a long contest, rather than an attempt to quickly break through the Canadian's defences. Under Pepe Correa, whose credentials embrace the last three contests of Sugar Ray Leonard's career, Lewis has been endeavouring to ensure that his right glove will be in position whenever Ruddock triggers off the left hook.
Worryingly for Lewis, the lesson does not appear to have been absorbed well enough for Mike Weaver, the former World Boxing Association champion, who has been sparring with him. 'Lennox still lets the right hand drop when it should be alongside his chin,' Weaver said.
Weaver believes Lewis will win if he fights up to potential. 'Lennox is good enough if he can
put it all together,' he said. If.
Lewis, at 6ft 5in, two inches taller but lighter by four pounds when he weighed in at 16st 6lb yesterday, is most effective when employing a stinging left jab and right crosses. 'Patience is the key,' Correa said this week. Patience will be difficult to maintain, which is why, on the basis of superior firepower, I take Ruddock to win inside the distance.
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