Boxing: Surrender of a broken fighter

Harry Mullan in Las Vegas reports on the most bizarre night in boxing history
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The Independent Online
Oliver Mccall's trainer, George Benton, has been in some hard places during a colourful lifetime in the boxing business. His career as a pro middleweight good enough to beat most of his better-connected contemporaries ended with a bullet in his back, fired, he insists, for reasons which had nothing to do with boxing. But it must be doubtful whether the veteran Philadelphian has faced a bigger challenge than he tackled on Friday night at the Las Vegas Hilton when he, alone of McCall's large and noisy entourage (headed by Don King), had the moral courage to face the press and attempt to explain his man's bizarre surrender against Lennox Lewis for the vacant World Boxing Council heavyweight title.

The referee, Mills Lane, whose distinctive war cry is "let's get it on", decided to get it off after 55 seconds of the fifth round of perhaps the strangest contest ever fought for the game's most prestigious title. Only McCall, in the dark and troubled corners of his mind, knows why he suddenly turned his back on Lewis and, weeping copiously, ignored Lane's pleas to resume battle against the man he had beaten in two rounds when they first contested this title in 1994. Lane gave him every chance to grasp the enormity of what he was doing, tolerating the American's extraordinary behaviour for the last minute of the third round and all of the fourth before finally ending the farce in the fifth.

Benton blames McCall's long history of drug abuse: the fighter has been in rehabilitation since his most recent arrest in December, and gives the impression of retaining only a tenuous hold on reality and even sanity. "All I can think is that withdrawal symptoms suddenly caught up with him," said Benton. "He definitely wasn't using drugs in training - he was talking to himself, very hyped up, but that's normal for him.

"He didn't have heart problems, he didn't quit. This is a guy who will fight till he drops dead. But maybe this will be a blessing in disguise, for two reasons. First, it will give McCall a chance to get his life together, and secondly it will send a message to kids who are using drugs or are thinking of trying them.

"Excuse my language, but the message is 'Don't fuck with drugs because this stuff will mess with your mind.' This wasn't a movie, this was reality."

It may have seemed like reality to McCall, but it was a surreal and deeply disturbing experience for the rest of us, forced to watch the mental disintegration of a man whose fitness to fight was distinctly questionable. Dino Duva, who promoted the fight after winning a bitter court battle with Don King, said: "We pleaded with King and the WBC to pull McCall out and let Lennox fight the next rated contender, because we knew that the man was not physically or emotionally ready to fight. But King insisted McCall was ready and conned the WBC into letting the fight go ahead.

"He bullshitted everybody, and we're mad about that. It should never be allowed to happen again."

McCall's contribution to boxing's strangest championship fight has cost him his career as well as the substantial purse he was scheduled to receive. Within minutes of Mills Lane's decision to stop the fight on the unprecedented grounds that "McCall refuses to defend himself", the Nevada Commission announced that they had frozen payment pending a full inquiry. "McCall will have his day in court," said their executive Director, Marc Ratner, "but he will not be paid because he did not compete honestly tonight."

The circumstances of the ending will deny Lewis credit for a victory he would surely have earned anyway, but after two frustrating years, he was just happy to be champion again, however strange the route to the title. It was always going to be a difficult task for him, psychologically as well as physically, but apart from a few fleeting moments of panic ("flashbacks") in the second round as McCall bulled him around the ring in a bid to repeat his 1994 success, Lewis's performance was flawless. He controlled the action with a sharp and tantalising left jab, and caught McCall repeatedly with thunderous rights which ought to have felled the American.

But McCall shrugged the punches off, dropping his arms contemptuously and whooping at Lewis. Such is his reputation for craziness that even this was viewed as normal behaviour, but when he burst into tears and turned his back on Lewis late in the third round, it was apparent that something was terribly amiss. He did exaggerated dance steps after taking another couple of rights, and then refused to go to his corner during the interval and instead strode around the ring, grinning dementedly as he surpassed even his own standards in eccentricity.

Lane was clearly concerned, and when McCall repeatedly dropped his hands and walked away from the puzzled Englishman in the fourth, the referee asked him: "Do you want to fight?" Lewis seemed reluctant to throw punches, sometimes glancing at Lane as though seeking guidance, but when Lane waved him on, Lewis resumed his battering of a man who, for whatever reasons, had simply decided not to defend himself.

McCall did not attempt a single punch in the round, yet one of the three ringside judges, a Thai, somehow scored it to Lewis by the minimum 10- 9 margin.

Lane led the weeping fighter to his corner and ordered him to sit down. George Benton said: "Oliver told me: 'I don't want to go out there again.'" But after urgent consultation between the cornermen and referee, he changed his mind. Lane is one of boxing's most experienced officials, but he had never encountered a situation like this before and, when McCall made no effort to fight back in the fifth round either, Lane had seen enough.

McCall, still crying, left the ring immediately and ignored the shell- shocked King, who was standing bemused at the bottom of the steps. The British writer Daniel Herbert, a dry wit, salvaged something for his battered sport from that image. "One good thing about this fight," he remarked, "is that it has finally silenced Don King."