Boxing: Pugilistic predictions are liable to be painful

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The Independent Online
A RETIRED sportswriter of my acquaintance suffered acutely from dyspepsia whenever called upon to predict the outcome of a prizefight. This uncomfortable condition was brought on by fear of being held up to ridicule in his local hostelry. "If I get it wrong those guys will jump all over me," he would groan.

The worst day in this fellow's working life was unquestionably 22 January 1973 when George Foreman scored a surprise second-round technical knockout over Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Only two of his fellow pundits had got it right but this was of no consolation to him. "I'm supposed to know something about boxing, and I do [he was not without ego] but who's going to take my word now?' he sighed.

This springs to mind from the fact that there has been no expert unanimity in the analysis of tonight's collision between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden. Faced by the reliable chore of prediction, most of the fellow toilers I have spoken with sought endorsement of a lightly held opinion.

A terrific American boxing writer, the late Bob Waters of Newsday, was better at arriving at the correct conclusion about big fights than anyone I have ever come across. Setting all emotion aside he relied entirely on logic and instinct. Boxing writers have achieved temporary fame by taking a flier against the odds but Waters wasn't one of them.

Waters had a remarkable record. Back in the Fifties he forecast Ingemar Johansson's third-round knockout of Floyd Patterson when anyone who favoured the Swede was thought to have taken leave of their senses. He then predicted correctly that Patterson would regain the title by knocking out Johansson with a left hook in the fifth round of a re-match.

Great experience was at the core of Waters' judgement. An amateur boxer in his youth, he once took part in an exhibition bout with the great middleweight champion Tony Zale on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during the Second World War. Toward the end of the first round he landed a right cross that took advantage of Zale's generosity. "Cut my gloves off," Waters said on returning to his corner. "That mother says he's going to kill me and I believe him."

Waters wasn't among the many who were required to eat their words when the then Cassius Clay caused a huge upset in February 1964 by stopping Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. He'd got it right again as he did when Liston was knocked out in the re-match.

The best was to come. Deaf to the fears that were held out for Ali in 1975 before he went up against Foreman in Zaire for the title, Waters predicted one of the most sensational results in boxing history.

Waters' strike-rate was so good that it became a burden. "If I pick the wrong guy my editor blames it on the booze," I remember him saying one night in Glasgow.

Down the years, I have tried many times to benefit - without his expertise - from the formula Waters applied to prediction. Place the attributes of both men alongside every known weakness. Go back over past performances for evidence of technical flaws and shortcomings in temperament. Remember that contrasting styles can be important. Never overlook desire. Who appears to want it the most? Don't fall into the trap of any emotional involvement.

The main thing held out against Lewis (unfairly to my mind) on this side of the Atlantic is that he first gained the World Boxing Council title by mail after Riddick Bowe cast it into a garbage can. The question "who has he fought?" is central to the fact that only two American writers have publicly declared their support for Lewis.

However, Holyfield's record can be misleading. But for the 20-minute delay caused when a man and his paraglider dropped into the ring in Las Vegas six years ago, he would probably have lost three out of three against Riddick Bowe who, in common with Lewis, had a distinct physical advantage. Holyfield's two victories over Mike Tyson were seen as further proof of a remarkable will, but he was up against a shot heavyweight of similar physical stature to himself.

Holyfield's uncharacteristic prediction of a knockout victory in the third round, based on an unshakeable belief in divine intervention, could work against him. "Hey, if Lewis is still there after three, Holyfield may figure out that God has gone to a basketball game," somebody said.

There is still rather too much of the amateur left in Lewis but the view held here, although not with any great confidence, is that he will take the chance to be remembered as a significant figure in the heavyweight division.