Boxing: Low-key Lewis heads along the high road: World heavyweight champion seeks acclaim from his adopted country in Saturday's title defence. Ken Jones reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN Lennox Lewis was asked if attempts at technical improvement have figured in preparation for Saturday's defence of the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship against Oliver McCall at Wembley Arena, he responded vaguely. 'Some secret things,' he said.

The phrase does not serve Lewis well. He has soared to the heights of boxing, the only British-born heavyweight this century to possess at least a share of the title, but significantly the spotlight has done little beside capture his shadow.

On the basis of his achievements and the fact that, most of the time, he handles himself with consummate grace and intelligence, Lewis should be the centre of sporting attention this week, yet sluggish ticket sales reflect indifference to his efforts.

Despite such demonstrations of doubt over Lewis's allegiance (Frank Bruno undeniably was the main attraction when they met for the title in Cardiff last year), the champion's well-trained subordinates continue at every opportunity to promote their employer as a national treasure.

This is an enterprise that Lewis's manager, Frank Maloney, may come to remember with a great deal of satisfaction, especially if the champion continues to provide him with opportunities for tempered amusement at the expense of boxing's most notable predator, Don King.

What we are looking at here is a boxing career that took off when Lewis, in alliance with a young Chicago lawyer, John Hornewer, hooked up with Maloney after defeating Riddick Bowe to gain a gold medal for Canada in the 1988 Olympic finals.

Television was central to Lewis's progress, exposure on the ITV network providing him with the legitimacy that can only be undone by a knock-out punch. It is in that context that subsequent moves to Sky and the cable company, Wire, however sound financially, may have been counter-productive, taking Lewis out of the public eye.

Interestingly, Lewis appears to interpret the absence of public acclaim as no more than a minor irritation. If content with prosperity and the potential to become undisputed champion, he may also recognise the futility of attempting to match the popularity Bruno and Henry Cooper gained as gallant losers.

Nothing Lewis has experienced in boxing compels him to indulge in wishful thinking. Speaking about McCall, he said: 'I know what he's got and it isn't enough. He's a stepping stone to bigger things, but it would be dangerous to take him lightly.'

It was about two o'clock in the afternoon and Lewis was sitting on the apron of a ring set up at the back of a health club in the East End of London. Perspiration worked up by vigorous sparring and punch bag routines beaded down his face, and every now and again he wiped it away with a towel. Bystanders stared at him intently.

When at work with Garing Lang, a squat American heavyweight who was hired to impersonate McCall's belligerent rushes, Lewis seemed intent on confirming that recently he has been educated beyond conventional methods of attack, using his jab merely to announce the arrival of vicious combinations. Physically, it was an impressive work- out, and he was not breathing hard at the end of it.

Lewis said that he reckons to weigh in at around 16st 8lb, and there did not appear to be an ounce of surplus on him.

Continuing his description of the challenger, Lewis indicated that he expects McCall to rely mostly on desperation, the prospect apparently suitable to him. 'Every opponent brings a different problem,' he said. 'I respect them all, including McCall, whose behaviour has been preposterous. All that stuff he's been coming out with makes him sound like an imbecile.'

To his personal annoyance and that of his associates, Lewis was much disparaged by New York boxing writers after stopping Phil Jackson in Atlantic City last May. British representatives of the breed are inclined to dwell on this imposition gleefully. How long will it take you to prove them wrong, is approximately what they asked. 'Maybe one more fight, maybe two. Could be more,' replied Lewis, opening a window on the future.

It cannot be said that Lewis has improved enormously since gaining the title by decree, but his assets are worthy of greater attention.

There are ways of going about this but Lewis finds them demeaning. 'Hard to sell,' somebody said of him this week.

But to my mind the smile that frequently crosses Lewis's face is very important. It tells you that he has no doubts about where he is headed and what he is going to do when he gets there. It is a long time since a British heavyweight could say that honestly.

(Photograph omitted)