Boxing: The Brit they just can't make out: Lennox Lewis is confounding the American boxing scene as he prepares for the first defence of his world heavyweight title against Tony Tucker on Saturday. Jonathan Rendall reports from Las Vegas

RAY CHARLES smiles and sways like a punch-drunk old boxer on the tiny stage of the lounge bar of the Aladdin Hotel. Elvis got married at the Aladdin. It used to be the most fashionable place in Las Vegas. But that was 30 years ago. Now it is not. The lone bus boy takes an age to attract a cab driver willing to divert from his journey to the 50-deep queues of cabs amid the whooshing limousines outside the Mirage. Film directors use the Aladdin's gold, overhanging porch to depict the illusory image of a grand hotel.

Perhaps imagining he is at the old Aladdin Ray Charles continues to smile and salute at a huge, imaginary crowd. In fact there is no one but a dozen uninterested rednecks waiting to go into the nightly revue in the ballroom, Country Tonite. Ray Charles sings 'Georgia on My Mind'. He is wearing an ancient, greasy dinner suit and a soiled dress shirt with yellowing frills. When he stops he is led to a table where he sips from a glass while a woman who is with him removes the dollar bills from his pocket to pay for it.

A couple of years ago in a hotel room nearby a boxer said that he would win the title because he would inflict upon the champion the 'Ray Charles punch'. This, he explained, was so named because no one could see it coming. A few days later he was knocked out. He meant no disrespect to Ray Charles. Nor was he the first to invoke the 'Ray Charles punch', nor was his defeat surprising since there are only certain punches a boxer can throw and any attempt to invent another betrays the desperation of a man who knows he is about to lose. For example, when Lou Nova fought Joe Louis he said that practising yoga had enabled him to invent a 'cosmic punch' that would win him the fight. He was knocked out, too.

Tony Tucker is expected to lose when he challenges Lennox Lewis for the world heavyweight title on Saturday. He is a 34-year-old ex-champion, seven years younger than Lewis, slower than he used to be, and were this not America and Lewis British he would be at longer odds than 4-1 against. This is his last chance. Tucker is a serious, soft-spoken man who is too intelligent to believe literally in the 'Ray Charles punch', but must believe in something like it. In his mind must lurk something like the dread of a later life on a tiny stage in a cheap hotel. The fighter stands on a ledge between instant success above and instant failure below. Perhaps that is why we are drawn again and again to the easy image of the punchy veteran and the broken down old pro. It is only those who have been up but are now down, the ex-champions and the fallen stars, the Ray Charleses, the faded Aladdins and the Ray Charles punchers, who can give shape to their world where nothing is what it seems and what seems is nothing.

WHEN you are up you are up. Shortly before a press conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday it is evident that for Frank Maloney, Lewis's manager, life is a breeze. In his dapper blazer and tie he has the look of a man who has slept 10 hours, showered, breakfasted and taken in a leisurely haircut and manicure before ambling along to meet the press. In fact Maloney has not slept for three days and has just got off a plane.

That is what success does for you. How are the pay-per-view sales going, Maloney is asked. 'I don't really care as long as Don King comes up with the nine million.' How are relations with the promoter? 'King used the wrong negotiating tactic,' Maloney says, surveying a group of female admirers who are flitting between the tables of Lewis and Tucker. 'I mean look at that. If he'd got me a blonde he could have had Lennox Lewis.'

Maloney is in fact happily hitched to his girlfriend, Caroline, with whom he lives in New Malden. In the previous five days he has been to North Carolina at Lewis's training camp, to London for the Bruno-Williams fight, in Chicago, New York and now LA. 'While I was in England I also went to Kingston for an hour's shopping because I promised Caroline,' he adds. Don King cannot understand Maloney. Maloney is totally unphased by anything. It was with some reluctance that he had to give up running a pub in Crayford when the

demands of managing the future heavyweight champion became too great. In Los Angeles he is carrying a plastic bag containing a tape of the match between Millwall, who he supports, and West Ham. 'Had to miss the game, didn't I'

King cannot understand Lewis, either. Having first encountered Maloney it would not have been a surprise if King thought he would have little trouble getting round the management to get to the fighter. But Lewis proved unresponsive, not least because he asked Maloney to insert a clause in the fight contract preventing King from ever being alone in the same room as him. In New York on Tuesday King made one last effort to separate Lewis from Maloney, spending half an hour at a press conference ruminating on the gross deficiencies and disloyalties of Maloney's behaviour while offering his deepest sympathies for Lewis.

Lewis remained his usual supercool and unimpressed self. The only thing

that seems to concern Lewis, apart from Tucker, is the well-being of his mum, with whom he lives and who has accompanied him. Quite what Lewis's American trainer, Pepe Correa, who has worked with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, makes of this set-up no one knows. Apart from Correa, Lewis, his mum and Maloney, the camp consists of a publicist, a conditioner, Caroline, and Maloney's brother, Eugene. Eugene Maloney is a former bantamweight and Old Kent Road habitue who has given up his sandwich bar on the Commercial Road to become Lewis's running companion, confidant, and minder; a role he has taken to with bristling relish. It's all too much for King.

As well as being a disappointment, King's failure to establish more than a one-fight relationship with Lewis could cost him a fortune. The Lewis-Tucker fight went out to purse bids. King won with a huge bid of dollars 12m. This means that King bears the cost of everything but has no future hold on the likely

winner, Lewis. It also means that Maloney's promotional responsibilities are restricted to turning up at press conferences and picking up Lewis's dollars 9m cheque which has already been guaranteed by letter of credit and which will be paid in one go. 'After this fight Lennox only has to have two more fights and I'll never have to work again,' Maloney reflects. Since, if he beats Tucker, Lewis's next fight will be against Frank Bruno on 18 September, Maloney almost certainly has a life of leisure to look forward to.

Perhaps induced by his staggering burden, illness strikes King down in Los Angeles. He is not there in person. Instead his voice is broadcast through a speaker phone against which is rested a large mike. The conference proceeds with customary craziness. King's voice mournfully announces the fight as 'the most sensational heavyweight championship in history'. We watch a promotional video of Tucker and Lewis wrapped in their respective national

flags in which Tucker says: 'God may save the Queen but nobody's gonna save Lennox Lewis.' Frank Maloney tells the American press: 'Lennox is bigger than the Prime Minister. He's as big as the Queen.'

When you are down you are down. Tony Tucker looks distracted. He has just been talking to Don King, and he is not happy. This is not a good sign. Tucker is known as a sensitive type who in the past has let his heart rule his head. At the start of his career his heart led him to say yes to so many different managers that he gave away 120 per cent of himself. The realisation that 1.2 Tony Tuckers were owned by other people, and thus however many times he fought he would go deeper into debt, sent Tucker into deep depression and almost wrecked his career.

He came back to win a version of the world title by beating Buster Douglas in 1987. However, this brought him into King's orbit and in his next bout he was put in with Mike Tyson. Tucker had one good round and ran for the other 11. Nor is Tucker's camp likely to give him sober advice. It is led by Panama Lewis, a notorious King crony who is banned from the corner by almost every boxing commission in the United States. His crime was to remove the padding from the gloves of his fighter, Luis Resto, before a bout with a prospect named Billy Collins Junior at Madison Square Garden in the early Eighties. Collins was so badly maimed he had to retire. A few weeks later he died in a car crash.

Suddenly Tucker is on his feet, advancing on Lennox Lewis and shouting: 'Let's get it on now] you show me no respect, man]' He comes to within five feet of Lewis and stops. He advances another two feet and stops again. By this time Panama Lewis has caught up and is theatrically restraining him. Tucker sits down looking sheepish. At end he comes up to Dan Duva, Maloney's Napoleon-like American promoter, and says: 'I'm sorry. They told me to do it.' Maloney says: 'You have just seen a beaten man.'

THE SMALL plane dips down over Las Vegas. Maloney, Lewis, Eugene Maloney and Pepe Correa are in economy. Mrs Lewis is in first class. Lewis, wearing shades, spends the flight gazing intensely down at the desert. Someone says: 'You know where he told me he'd like to be now? Lying on a beach in Jamaica with a cold beer and some ganja. His hero is Kirkland Laing, you know. He's so focused. He just wants to get this over.'

Frank Maloney says: 'You know, this is like a dream to me. I must be one of the most powerful managers in the world of boxing. It's because I've got no ego. Everyone has underestimated me. They are all picking up the papers waiting to read that Lennox has left me. They all congratulate me but it's all false. I can see it in their eyes. What they never saw was I was studying them all. I've taken bits of Mickey Duff, Don King, Jack Solomons, Jim Wicks. I've worked for Duff, Warren and Hearn, studying them. I suppose I should say now that they were working for me. Yeah, I like that.'

At the airport Maloney, clutching the bag containing his Millwall-West Ham tape, is picked up by limo and whisked down the strip, past the Aladdin, to the shimmering Mirage. There he is greeted and entertained by casino presidents, pay-per-view impresarios and journalists. Night falls. Eugene Maloney reports that Lennox Lewis is in bed. Caroline and the publicist are drinking banana daquiris. The suite is painted lurid shades of yellow and green in a conscious attempt to make punters restless and drive them down to the gaming floor. This surprises Maloney. 'I find the colours quite relaxing actually,' he says. 'After all, this is the capital of boxing. This is the real thing. Mind you, I think the commercials for the fight are terrible. If it had been me I'd have had the redcoats marching out with Lennox behind them and more union jacks. They're not marketing it right.'

In the Aladdin the night's entertainment is starting up on the lounge bar stage. It is a revue of blues impersonators. 'You didn't think that was the real Ray Charles did you?' the barman says.

(Photograph omitted)

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