Boxing: Lewis victory revives old doubts

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The excitement that peaked with Lennox Lewis's fifth-round stoppage of Shannon Briggs to retain his World Boxing Council heavyweight championship at the Convention Center in Atlantic City on Saturday night was a triumph for low expectations.

The script had Lewis retaining the title comfortably but he was in a thriller when caught by a left hook towards the end of the first round that sent him into a neutral under heavy bombardment.

Needing a further round to regain some semblance of composure, Lewis went on to soften up Briggs with a powerful jab before finishing him off with a 13-punch combination after 1min 45sec of the fifth session.

Lewis's associates made much of his resilience and power but the champion was so open to head punches, especially Briggs's fast left hook, that doubts were cast on his ability to handle Evander Holyfield in a unifying contest.

As in some previous bouts the technical advancement achieved in Lewis's preparation were less evident in competition. One thing to remember about Lewis is that he was late in turning professional. The clumsiness and dishevelment caused in Lewis by Briggs's blows indicated again that even a trainer of Emanuel Steward's skill and experience finds it impossible to remove all the amateur from him.

A clue to how Steward probably feels came in his agreement that Saturday's contest was exciting - "but a bit too exciting for me," he said. Steward expressed satisfaction with the speed of Lewis's recovery but he would have preferred a more clinical victory.

In the corner at the end of the first round Steward cautioned Lewis against taking unnecessary chances. The problem was that Lewis could not yet think clearly.

When Lewis came out for the second round he had a dazed look and his mouth was open. It was all the encouragement Briggs needed. Another left hook clattered into Lewis's head and again he was driven back onto the ropes, still not in control of his senses.

His head at last clearing, Lewis just about took that round and the next saw a big improvement in the champion. Briggs could not prevent the jab jumping repeatedly into his face, marking up his features. "I gave it all I had," he said afterwards but I knew my chance had gone when Lennox began to box more methodically."

The method Lewis employed had Steward's advice written all over it, left after left followed by short chopping rights that finally sent the challenger over. Then just when it seemed Lewis would finish Briggs off right there he stopped punching, standing motionless as though the energy had drained suddenly from him.

Lewis may simply have been taking a breather, sizing Briggs up for another assault but it raised fresh suspicions about his stamina.

In any case, Lewis was soon piling back into Briggs with such force that the battered challengers knotted ginger dreadlocks spun around his head.

After coming under close scrutiny in his corner at the end of the fourth round Briggs returned bravely to the lace of his pending execution. There was no stopping Lewis now and when attempted retaliation caused the challenger to fall off balance the referee, Frank Cappuchino, sensibly ended the violent proceedings.

The main debate afterwards was whether Lewis's assets, particularly his strength and natural power, outweigh the technical shortcomings that had put him at risk against a moderate opponent.

It was recalled that Holyfield, as the undisputed champion, was almost knocked out when the unranked Bert Cooper came in as a substitute or Mike Tyson and that a young George Foreman had to fight out of his boots to defeat the unfancied Ron Lyle after being caught off guard.

In recovering from the knockout by Oliver McCall at Wembley in September 1994 that cost him the title (regained from McCall last year) Lewis deserved plenty of credit, but he still cannot win the approval of some American critics.

A veteran observer Larry Merchant, a former newspaper columnist who has served for many years as a boxing analyst for the cable network Home Box Office, thinks this is unfair. "Lewis has flaws," Merchant said, "but you could say that about most heavyweights including Muhammad Ali whose unorthodoxy made him the ultimate amateur in the professional ring. Joe Louis is considered to be one of the greatest heavyweights in history but he was vulnerable to right hands. If Lewis is so suspect why was Bowe reluctant to fight him? Why did Tyson pay him $4m to step aside? Why isn't Holyfield prepared to fight Lewis. When you think that American heavyweights once considered it a paid holiday to go up against a European opponent this is the most shameful period in American heavyweight boxing."

The irony in Lewis's performance is that it may have brought him closer to meeting Holyfield. "He won't need much persuading now," somebody said.

First, Lewis must take a mandatory defence against the Germany-based Bosnian heavyweight Zelko Mavrovich, who watched Saturday's contest. A tall man of more than 16st with a Mohican haircut, Mavrovich claimed to have Lewis's measure. "I am quick and he is slow," he said. "Lewis is easy to hit. In lots of ways he looks a novice."

By then Lewis was back in confident mode. "I was a bit slack early in the fight," he said, "but once I relaxed and got my jab going there wasn't a problem."

It was not how the fight looked from a position at ringside. In rehearsals Lewis looked great but on the night he gave a poor performance.

The 11th-round stoppage Herol Graham suffered when challenging Charles Brewer for the International super-middleweight championship should finally bring down the curtain on his career.

There was anxiety in the hope that Graham would at last win a title. Giving everything he had left against a mediocre champion, Graham was eventually trapped on the ropes to take more punches than is advisable or a 38-year-old who was out of the ring for four years. As a defending champion his life might have been in peril.

Duke McKenzie took the ring microphone and announced his retirement after suffering a sensational first-round knockout at the hands of little- known Santiago Rojas, from the Dominican Republic, at Crystal Palace on Saturday.

McKenzie, 34, a former world champion at three weights, was beaten in just 64 seconds by a substitute with only three wins in seven recorded fights - and beaten in front of his local fans on a show promoted by his two brothers, Clinton and Winston.