BOXING: Sweet scientist needs to locate the dark side
Lennox Lewis is cultured, smart and formidable, but when he faces Holyfield the British heavyweight must show his `killer instinct'
Thursday 11 November 1999
Intelligent, relaxed, naturally self-deprecating, inclined to reflection, courteous to strangers, aware of irony, conscious of his own physical prowess without feeling the need to get all narcissistic about it, he is the living rebuttal of the criticisms directed at the vast majority of contemporary pugilists.
Lewis does not bite people, or wrestle them to the floor, or hit them after the bell. He likes to win fights by the application of what he calls, in that over-used phrase, "the sweet science". A Lewis fight would be conducted in strict accordance with the Queensberry rules, and would probably not feature bloodstains on the canvas. It would be decided by the accumulation of points, reflecting superior technique.
Nor does Lewis display the personal eccentricities so prominent among his contemporaries in the game. He does not break down in tears in the middle of a fight or hold prayer meetings before each workout. If he is a soldier in God's army, he is content to keep the information to himself. When the nature of his sexuality is called into question, he responds in such a way as to ensure that the interrogator is the one who ends up feeling foolish. At all times, his smile comes more easily than his scowl - if indeed his repertoire of facial expressions includes a scowl, for which there is little evidence.
He does not even indulge much in the traditional name-calling - and when he does, it comes in a form so mild as to be highly unlikely to cause offence. The furthest he has ever ventured in that direction was during the build-up to his first fight against Evander Holyfield, last March, when he called his opponent a hypocrite for noisily promoting Christian family values while allegedly being prepared to father children outside his marriage. But even then you got the impression that the two men could have resolved the matter over a couple of beers.
No doubt Lewis is not without flaw or blemish. But his peccadilloes are not thrust in our faces, since he does nothing to draw attention to them. And in the ever sleazier world of professional boxing, that makes him a knight in shining armour, come to slay dragons.
The trouble with Lewis, however, is the fault that cost him the chance to add Holyfield's World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation heavyweight titles to his own World Boxing Council crown when the two met for the first time in Madison Square Garden in an attempt to establish which of them had the right to be called the undisputed world champion. Having established his superiority over the first five rounds, Lewis failed to finish the job. And the cause, it seemed, was an excess of circumspection.
Fearing that the older, more experienced Holyfield was playing possum when he retreated into a crouch on the ropes, Lewis kept his distance and relied on his jab to keep the score ticking over. His analysis was proved faulty when the three judges each arrived at a different verdict - one for Lewis, one for Holyfield, one for a tie - which meant that the bout was declared a draw.
No amount of harsh words aimed at Eugenia Williams, the IBF judge who declared for Holyfield, could obscure the reality, which was that Lewis had missed a golden opportunity to become the first British boxer to hold the undisputed world heavyweight title since Bob Fitzsimmons at the beginning of the century.
The contemplation of Lewis's nature inevitably evokes the remark the great trainer Cus D'Amato made about his protege, Floyd Patterson, almost 40 years ago. "He lacks the killer instinct," D'Amato concluded. "He just doesn't have the zest for viciousness."
Those words came back this week, when Lewis was asked whether, this time around, he would seek to settle the matter by knocking Holyfield out. "If an opportunity presents itself," he replied, with his usual level gaze, "I will definitely seize the moment."
But would creating that opportunity be his chief priority?
"I'm not going in there to say I'm going for the knock-out. Hopefully I'm going to allow the knock-out to come by itself."
Understatement is an all too rare characteristic these days, particularly in public figures, but it may not be entirely appropriate to a heavyweight boxing champion. And in conversations with reporters this week, Lewis would not acknowledge that he had been betrayed by his own lack of instinctive aggression.
"You guys are looking at it like that," he said, "but you have to remember that this guy [Holyfield] showed no aggression. This is a man who holds two belts. He's a giant-killer. He's beaten Mike Tyson twice. And I fail to see what he did in that fight. He's the one who was supposed to knock me out. I was the one who was supposed to have no experience, who hadn't been in the spotlight as much as he has. When it ended up the way it did, if Eugenia Williams had voted for me, we wouldn't be talking about this now. But when you guys see the fight you say: `He didn't do this, he didn't do that.' I've seen the tape. I know what I could have done and should have done. And now I know what I've got to accomplish in this fight."
That telling phrase - "could have done and should have done" - was repeated twice more during the same interview, suggesting that Lewis privately acknowledges the flaws in his own performance, however much he might put the blame on the judge from New Jersey. Nevertheless, in public he defends his failure to capitalise on his moments of superiority, particularly in the fifth round, when he appeared to have dismantled all Holyfield's defences.
"I still say I made the right decisions at that point," he observed. "They say I should have jumped on him and finished him off. But I didn't think I'd hurt him sufficiently at that point. And I was closer to the action than anybody else."
His confidence, he said yesterday, is currently higher than it was in March. "The way I feel now, I've been through it the first time, so the second time comes easier. I feel very focused. I can't wait for Saturday."
Looking at his physical condition as he practised combinations with his trainer, Manny Steward, before the media and a couple of hundred British fans at his open work-out in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, it was easy to see how such confidence might have been generated. His shape is sleek, his skin glossy. According to Steward, his weight is around 250lb, only 1lb below the weight at which he entered the ring in his second fight against Oliver McCall, in 1997, when he was at his heaviest. Against Holyfield in New York, he tipped the scales at 246lb. Yesterday morning he ran six miles, which might suggest that he hopes to shed another pound or two before today's weigh-in.
He finished his sparring programme last Friday, having completed more than a hundred rounds during his four-month period of preparation in Jamaica and Pennsylvania. He had wanted to go a few more rounds this week, sparring all the way up to the day of the fight, the way he had seen the Cuban amateurs do. "But Manny said: `No way.' He didn't want to take the risk of anything bad happening now that I'm so close."
Once again there is the idea of the avoidance of risk - and this time expressed by the man who had criticised him for failing to finish Holyfield off in the first fight. But Lewis sticks firmly to his belief that he made the right decisions that night in the Garden, and that he took Holyfield halfway to a career decision that will be inevitable after Saturday night.
"I think he lost a lot of respect as a result of what happened last time, when he was making up silly excuses," Lewis concluded. "After Oliver McCall beat me, I never made up excuses. I just admitted that I'd been hit by a great shot. And I also said that he wouldn't beat me again.
"I believe Evander doesn't want to get hurt in this fight. His main goal is to leave with all his faculties. He's been through a lot of great fights, and now he's coming up to retirement. And I'm going to make him retire on Saturday."
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