Boxing: Lewis ready to get down to business: Britain's unsung WBC heavyweight champion determined to retain his title tonight against an opponent touted as the real McCoy

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The Independent Online
IN Don King's imagination tonight's contest between Lennox Lewis and Oliver McCall for the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship at Wembley Arena is not a stepping stone for the title-holder but an opportunity to profit from further disarray in the division.

In Lewis's mind, the route to retirement in two years' time as one of the biggest earners in boxing history, takes him past McCall to a successful defence against Riddick Bowe, then a unification bout before colliding with Mike Tyson.

Unsurprisingly, King's perception of the future is somewhat different. It is that McCall defeats Lewis and defends against Tyson who immediately will be ranked No 1 by the King-friendly WBC when he is released from prison early next year. In order to be sure of Tyson's compliance, King needs something to put before the former undisputed champion. A title would do nicely.

Bearing in mind that McCall has thus been persuaded to set aside all pleasures and get into the best possible shape, Lewis wisely disregards all thoughts of a spectacular performance. 'The priority is winning, not looking good,' he could be heard saying this week.

Being a 4-1 on favourite has not altered Lewis's thought pattern. He has conformed to the standard procedure of simulating battle conditions to sharpen reflexes and timing, but is reluctant to suggest specific examples of technical improvement. At 29, the flaws that sometimes cause him to look amateurish are unlikely to be eradicated, but few recent heavyweights have possessed as much natural power. He took out Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock with one punch, something Tyson failed to achieve in two bouts. Lewis has come in for criticism, especially in our former transatlantic colonies, but so far he has managed to get the job done.

In common with all methodical punchers, Lewis is always likely to be thrown off track by an opponent who responds more to instinct than the game plan. By fighting at a pace that upsets the thinker's rhythm, a man with a stout chin and good conditioning, like McCall, can be a real problem. 'I think it is Lewis's biggest weakness,' McCall's trainer, Emanuel Steward, said.

Can McCall handle the moment? This is by far the most important contest of a career that has mostly seen him helping other fighters get in shape. However scathingly put by Lewis's manager, Frank Maloney, there may be substance in the notion that McCall has spent too much time as a sparring partner for him to be considered a serious threat. The former heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, who gained employment with a number of notable figures, including Muhammad Ali before breaking through as a man of distinction, agrees.

'Like most guys who work as sparring partners, McCall was just there to get paid. I wanted to learn. If you compare the early part of his career with mine you'll see that while I won and won, he lost and lost. McCall took a sparring partner's mentality into the ring with him. I don't think that Lewis is that good a fighter, but he's got the confidence of having held the title for a while. It will be a good fight for around seven or eight rounds.'

This is a popular view based on the assumption that Lewis will eventually take decisive advantage of an opening as he did after struggling for six rounds against Frank Bruno in Cardiff last year. The effect of boxing outdoors on a cold night was held up as an explanation for the time it took Lewis to fathom out Bruno. Neverthless, the performance raised serious concern.

Lewis showed better form when stopping Phil Jackson in Atlantic City in May, but again it was not an entirely convincing performance. 'Frankly, he disappoints me,' Steward said. 'Lennox showed tremendous promise as an amateur, and I was really keen to work with him. He's a good heavyweight, but he could have been exceptional. For whatever reason, he doesn't seem to have made a great deal of progress.'

When Maloney declares that this is the most important night of Lewis's career he isn't simply attempting to quicken interest in a contest that has put no strain on the box office. The stakes are high with a defence against Bowe scheduled for next March or April.

Certainly, McCall has more to offer than Jackson, who in spite of physical disadvantages and technical shortcomings still managed to back up Lewis in a couple of exchanges. This might persuade an adventurous policy in some fighters, but McCall's best chance seems to lay with attempting to make it a long contest. He does not hurt easily and has enough power to ask a question of Lewis's hitherto untested chin. 'It will be interesting to see how Lewis reacts if Oliver gets to him with a clean shot,' Steward added.

The man from Chicago will not find this easy. At 6ft 5in, Lewis is three inches taller and stands up straight behind a long left jab. But the champion has a dangerous tendency to hold his left low and that may encourage McCall to try his luck.

In sparring, it was noticeable that Lewis worked at bearing down with his arms on opponents, a method that is advised as a means of negating the rushes of shorter opponents. Ali, for example, did this consistently.

As McCall has never been off his feet it will not come as any great surprise if Lewis is taken the full 12 rounds before retaining his title.

Britain's world title history, page 20

(Photograph omitted)