Boxing: Mandela throws his hat in the ring

A fortune and 22-carat gold belt are on offer if Lewis-Holyfield II goes to South Africa. By Richard Williams
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The Independent Online
AS IF the politics surrounding the Holyfield-Lewis re-match were not already complicated enough, the world's most famous politician yesterday stepped into the ring. Nelson Mandela, a former boxer himself, offered to stage the fight to decide the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world in Johannesburg, possibly in front of a crowd of more than 100,000 people.

Representatives of the South African president have met Panos Eliades, Lennox Lewis's backer, in London to offer an alternative to the existing scenarios for the re-run of last Saturday's controversial draw at Madison Square Garden. According to Eliades, they offered "twice what anyone else would bid".

Possible venues for the fight in South Africa are the FNB Stadium in Soweto and Ellis Park, the venue of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. The winner would receive the Mandela Belt, made out of 22-carat gold and allegedly worth pounds 3m.

The organisation set up to bid for the event is called The 80th Punch, in recognition of Mandela's age at his retirement in June. Moto Mabanga, the body's principal organiser, pointed out that Mandela had boxed in his youth, and remained a fan of the sport.

"He has repeated several times that the only thing he'll regret when he retires is that he never had a chance to become a champion, thanks to the apartheid laws," Mabanga said yesterday at a press conference given by Lewis at a hotel near Heathrow Airport. "So we've decided as a nation to create a belt, the Mandela Belt, to honour him. We hope to have the fight in August or September."

The question of money was brushed gently aside. "We are doing all we can as a nation to make sure that our president does not retire with any regrets," Mabanga said. "There is a lot of money flying about, and to get the fight to South Africa we really need to get the bid in as soon as possible."

According to Eliades, other bids can be expected from the United States, where the Madison Square Garden organisation would like to promote the fight at Yankee Stadium; from the new Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, after its inauguration in the 1999 Rugby World Cup; and from England, where the sports minister, Tony Banks, would like to see it take place at Wembley Stadium.

But any venue outside the US, including South Africa, is inevitably disadvantaged by the need to fit the event into American television's prime-time scheduling window. "I'd like to fight in London," Lewis emphasised yesterday but, to suit evening viewers on both coasts of the US, the bout would have to take place in the early hours of the British morning.

All three organising bodies, the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council and the International Boxing Federation, have agreed to waive mandatory title defences in order to ensure a unification re-match in six months' time. Lewis's manager, Frank Maloney, said that they hoped to conclude negotiations for the fight within the next 10 days, although Eliades acknowledged the difficulty of negotiating with Don King, Evander Holyfield's manager, who promoted the first fight.

Both Maloney and Eliades expressed scepticism at the idea of King promoting the re-match, wherever it may take place. They pointed out that he had been unable to sign letters of credit in advance of last Saturday's event, guaranteeing $20m (pounds 12.5m) for Holyfield and just under $10m for Lewis. He had been bailed out by Home Box Office, the pay-per-view distributor, which had secured the boxers' purses while permitting King to go on and take around $14m in promoter's profits from the fight.

But Eliades felt that even that windfall might not put King in a position to guarantee the purses at the re-match, for which Holyfield is asking $25m, while Lewis is demanding parity with whatever his opponent receives. "If we can't agree," he said, "we'll go to purse bids on a 50-50 basis."

Lewis, introduced to the media by Maloney as "the uncrowned undisputed heavyweight champion of the world", was asked whether he considered the adjudication of last Saturday's fight, at which each of the three judges produced a different verdict, to have been incompetent or corrupt. "I think it was incompetent," he replied.

"Looking at the fight, I fail to see where Evander Holyfield hit me with a jab," Lewis added, "I was scoring with the jab all night, and when I threw my right hand he was eating that up as well."

Lewis felt satisfied with his performance. "A lot of things can be made out of what you should have done or could have done," he said. "I never do that. Now, looking at it, yes, if I'd realised it was going to happen like that, I'd definitely have realised my only hope was a knock-out and gone after it.

"People say, why didn't you finish him off in the fifth round? But to me he wasn't as hurt as people thought. I've always said that, as a fighter, Evander Holyfield shows true grit. He's got a great big heart. He's a person who can take punches and come back.

"I didn't feel I could go in and throw combinations without him coming back. He was definitely playing possum. This time I felt that I did it technically right. What more can I do but next time knock him out?

"But I feel that a lot of questions about me were answered. There are still some questions, and I'll answer them as well. Evander Holyfield is holding my belts for me. They're actually my belts, but he's holding them. If Evander's a man, he should admit that he got beaten and hand me my belts. But he's not that kind of character."

In New York after the fight, Lewis had expressed doubt that Holyfield would want to face him again. Yesterday he had slightly modified his view.

"We're all driven by different things," Lewis said. "Evander Holyfield says he wants to be a billionaire. So, looking at good fights out there, I'm the only fight that he needs, that the public is once again demanding."

In a reference to Eugenia Williams, the New Jersey official whose scorecard gave Holyfield the fight, Lewis was asked if he thought women should judge boxing matches. "I think women can judge boxing," he said. "Good ones. I think they should go through criteria like any other judge, and be tested. Evidently this one is new to the game and she's gone through a whole heap of problems."

Lewis welcomed the news that the New York attorney general had announced his intention to impanel a jury to look at the way the fight was judged. He and Eliades were due to give evidence over the phone yesterday afternoon. "Everything should be looked into," Lewis said. "There's obviously some kind of conspiracy going on. In this fight I would say the public got hurt as well, not just me. They came to see the crowning of a champion and they really didn't get that. I'd say Don King should apologise to them. And so should the judges."

Eliades mentioned the post-fight allegation that Ms Williams, appointed by the IBF, had been declared bankrupt six weeks before being named to judge the fight. Maloney pointed out that her name had not been on the original list of five IBF nominees, and had only been put forward later. He nevertheless declared that he did not believe the rumours that illegal payments had been made. "I certainly wouldn't question the integrity of Larry O'Connell or Stanley Christodoulou, because I know both men and I've worked with them previously," Maloney said. "I don't know about the lady judge. But I think she'd be very stupid if she had, because she'd be facing a long time in prison."

Nevertheless, Maloney felt the affair might produce a benefit. "It's opened the eyes," he said, "and it may clean up boxing's act, in terms of the relationship between promoters and sanctioning bodies."

And what would Lewis do differently next time - assuming there is one? He said: "I'd definitely bring my own judges."