Boxing: Lewis still searching for a Stateside hit: American viewing figures suggest the world heavyweight champion has an image problem. Jonathan Rendall reports

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THOUGH pugnacious, and in his own way physically radiant, even the boxing correspondent of the Sunday Sport was surprised to be mistaken for the heavyweight champion of the world by a woman from Delta Airlines dispensing boarding cards. A jocular exchange only served to confuse matters. 'Sir, are you, or are you not, Mr Lewis?' she persisted. 'No,' he admitted. Clearly Lennox Lewis has not yet completely cracked the American market.

Lewis's victory over Tony Tucker last weekend boosted his claim to being the world's best heavyweight and made him dollars 9m, but it was not a big hit as far as American television was concerned. Although Don King, the promoter, was talking about a 10 per cent 'buy-rate' on the Showtime pay-per-view channel, informed sources put the likely figure nearer to, at best, 4 per cent, and perhaps as low as 2 per cent. That would make Lewis- Tucker one of the poorest-selling heavyweight title fights in the pay- per-view age.

At a 4 per cent buy-rate (at dollars 35 a time), the fight would gross around dollars 16m. That, according to Lewis's manager, Frank Maloney, would just about enable King - who successfully offered dollars 12m in a purse bid - to salvage something from his financial investment.

But, if Lewis's American promoter, Dan Duva, is to be believed, King will be staring at a loss. Duva estimates that fewer than 300,000 American households subscribed to the fight. 'My information is that the buy-rate was around 2.5 per cent and that the fight won't gross more than dollars 10m. It's low, but then again you couldn't have expected a whole lot more. You had an English guy fighting in America against an American who was almost totally unknown,' he said.

Although Lewis floored Tucker twice, his failure to put him away made the fight appear tame in comparison with the bouts involving Julio Cesar Chavez and Julian Jackson, who lost his world middleweight title to Gerald McLellan, that preceded it on the undercard. In fact, Lewis and Tucker, who both prefer counter- punching, were never likely to go to war.

Having legitimised his title inside the ring, Lewis's earning potential remains huge. But his failure to shock and amaze either Tucker or the pay-per-view punters means that in order to exploit it in the short-term he may have to take a different route, particularly as regards Frank Bruno. Behind Lewis's confusing, if gilt-guaranteed, plans lies a small army of powerful interests that perhaps even Mickey Duff cannot match.

Last year Home Box Office, the Time Warner-owned pay-per- view company that once gave Mike Tyson a dollars 26m contract and with whom Lewis has been associated, decided that it was over-paying promoters to secure the rights to their heavyweight fights. Fees for routine title defences were rationalised, with a floor of dollars 5m, considerably less than before. However, it is believed that even before Lewis-Tucker, it was decided that the proposed Lewis- Bruno bout did not come into this category and only dollars 2.5m was offered. With King tying up Showtime - the only other serious pay-per-view outlet - Maloney and Duva were pursuing the idea of forming, with others, their own pay-per-view company in a round of meetings in the United States before the Tucker fight, without publicising the fact.

It is a safe bet, however, that the architects of such an ambitious project are looking to financial horizons far beyond the suburban vista of a Lewis-Bruno fight. The greatest clout among this new group of pay-per-view adventurers would appear to be wielded by Duva's company, Main Events, which numbers among its clients the former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield and other leading American boxers.

Within hours of Lewis's triumph the apparently firm Bruno- Lewis date of 18 September had drifted, and a new idea emerged: Lewis-Holyfield, a dollars 20m Christmas present to be unwrapped at the opening of the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas.

According to Duva, Holyfield- Lewis is 'very, very likely to happen', especially now that Rock Newman, the manager of Riddick Bowe - Lewis's rival claimant to the heavyweight throne - appears to be cooling on a proposed re-match between Bowe and Holyfield, the man from whom Bowe took the title. Duva says of Holyfield, with the air of someone sure of his challenger's value in the equation: 'Holyfield's first choice was Bowe, but now that Newman is backing out, Evander would seriously consider fighting Lewis.'

Meanwhile, any hopes that Duff and Maloney might have come to a quick agreement in London this past week appear to have been dashed. According to Maloney, Duff is asking for 30 per cent of the purse for Bruno while Maloney is prepared to concede only 25.

'Tell me what Bruno is bringing to the table except a load of housewives' sympathy? It's not support, it's sympathy. And anyway, meaning no disrespect to Frank, housewives don't buy tickets,' Maloney said.