Boxing: THE fight - no dispute
Sunday 07 March 1999
BY BOB MEE
THE POINT of next weekend's New York showdown between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield is to provide order in a sport riddled with chaos. This is one of the pivotal fights in heavyweight history, a confrontation to which historians will refer to chart the progress of this strange, compelling championship.
The prize is plainly laid down: for the winner, the undisputed championship and recognition as one of the great heavyweights; for the loser, a reputation damaged, a lower place in the pecking order.
While the cost of defeat will be immense, the result will give boxing what it needs. There will be one generally acknowledged heavyweight champion of the world for the first time since 1992. This, in terms of world-wide public understanding of the boxing beast, cannot be underestimated.
Beyond that, in a decade that has been plagued by the proliferation of self-appointed sanctioning bodies off-loading minor fights as world championships, in a time where genuinely big fights have been sacrificed on the altar of promotional self-interest, Lewis against Holyfield will give us an indication of who is, and has been, the best heavyweight of this generation.
Boxing's maverick nature is its attraction and its curse. It thrives on, perhaps survives because of, its lack of an overall constitution and its ability to recreate itself whenever its existence is threatened.
And in the 1990s it has been threatened as seriously as at any time this century.
Back at the beginning of the decade, a crisis occurred in a New Jersey courtroom when the new champion Holyfield wanted to fight George Foreman. This was a specific move by his promoters, Main Events, to cut out Don King, who had lost control of the heavyweight division when Holyfield knocked out Buster Douglas. King and his friendly organisation, the World Boxing Council, argued that Holyfield should fight Mike Tyson, whom of course King promoted.
In the middle of a bizarre hearing in which the judge was entirely unimpressed by the WBC, he asked a question which cut to the heart of boxing. "What is a world championship?" he asked.
Eventually, he understood that it was an honour to be passed down from fist to fist, without fear or favour for as long as the sport lasts. Yet the wheelers and dealers ignored the warning. By the end of 1992 there was no acknowledged world champion. Riddick Bowe had refused to fight Lennox Lewis, who was acknowledged as his leading contender.
Confusion might have been avoided had Bowe met everyone else, but instead he dithered around against the has-beens Michael Dokes and Jesse Ferguson, so allowing the alternative claim of Lewis, who had the backing of the WBC, to develop. Public perception gradually became muddled. Eventually, by the end of 1994, Bowe had been succeeded as the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation title holder by Holyfield, Michael Moorer and the 45-year-old George Foreman, while Lewis had lost the WBC belt to the unstable Oliver McCall.
Foreman drifted away from the ring, Tyson drifted back into it only to fizzle out with his two climactic defeats by Holyfield, and Lewis continued to be avoided, or runs the other argument, to avoid.
Boxing largely defines itself by its champions: Dempsey, Louis, Marciano, Ali. Because of the muddle, no single heavyweight has been able to define the 1990s and to be linked inextricably with it for all time. American television networks, exasperated by what they perceive as a state of perpetual confusion, have walked away. So too has the casual fan.
The question of who will win is intriguing but of secondary importance. The point is that, barring the unlikely draw, there will be a winner and that boxing can move into a better, more understandable time, where the fights which the public want to see, between the top two men in a weight division, happen.
Of course, the question must still be put: Who will win? I think Lewis. In 1991 I would have picked him to knock Holyfield out with his brutally effective right hand. If that were the case when they were respectively 26 and 29, why not now? Holyfield's reputation rests on two big wins over Tyson. However, Tyson's style suited him and he will encounter a whole new set of problems against the bigger, heavier, stronger Lewis.
Holyfield is used to pushing men around. He may find that impossible against the 6ft 5in, 171/2st Lewis. Holyfield's mental strength gives him a chance with anyone, but Lewis's laconic, laid-back air has deceived many. It's easy to ignore the steely determination that it takes to become Olympic super-heavyweight champion and WBC champion twice.
Lewis often speaks in cliches - how many times have we heard him say he is "on a mission"? - but he means it. He understands this is the defining moment of his career, that if he loses he might as well have been another in the long line of horizontal British heavyweights.
There is doubt in the minds of some that he is able to take punches, that he is still shell-shocked after being knocked out by McCall in 1994. It is an outside possibility, providing Holyfield with his most realistic chance of winning. If Holyfield hurts Lewis and gets on to the front foot, he will set the pace - and be more effective for longer. Lewis would almost certainly tire first were that to happen.
However, I had my nose almost on the ring apron when Bowe, himself a rapidly fading athlete, overpowered Holyfield and made him look a tired, sick man. The image remains as a powerful reminder that this brutal sport wears men out.
I go for Lewis inside six rounds... and then boxing can take itself forward and perhaps even eradicate the administrative nightmares which will make the 1990s such a forgettable decade.
Last mission for boxing's guiding light
BY ANDREW LONGMORE
EMANUEL STEWARD, who has produced more world champions from a few square metres of cramped Detroit gym than the whole of post-war Britain, has not tried to minimise the significance of the events in Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Steward is not usually a dealer in boxing's hype market, so his words hit home with the force of a well-timed right hook. "If Lennox wins, he will be ranked as one of the greatest boxers of the century; if he loses, he will be back in the dark."
It is Steward's unenviable task to bring Lennox Lewis into the ring against Evander Holyfield ready to fight for his life. Unenviable because, after 10 years as a professional fighter, Lennox Lewis's psyche remains shrouded in mist. His old coach on the Canadian Olympic team, Adrian Teodorescu, who has been called back into the Lewis training camp in Mount Pocono, could have written a book on motivational technique after 74 fights in Lewis's corner. "Sometimes I had to calm him down, sometimes I had to kid him along, sometimes I had to slap him. It was always different."
Teodorescu guided Lewis to Olympic gold in Seoul, but he still cannot truly find the key to unleashing the full irresistible force of his power. Most good judges feel the destiny of the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world rests on Steward's ability to summon the demons buried within the awesome frame of the World Boxing Council champion.
"Lennox is ahead on all aspects," says Steward. "He's stronger, bigger and he has the right style to beat Evander. Evander is excellent on short and mid-range work, Lennox is best at long range. When Holyfield comes to get him, Lennox has to jab and move. If he gets inside, he has to hold on. It'll all be down to basics."
Holyfield himself well knows the capabilities of Lewis's long-time trainer. On the business card which lists Steward's 27 world champions, the name of Lewis comes a line above that of Holyfield. Steward had never noticed the subconscious priority. The two are not dissimilar in temperament, he says. "They are both quiet, good professionals. They don't want any hollering or running around. The only difference is that Lennox is a very for real person. Evander doesn't live up to what he preaches." The bible- belting Holyfield has bred a family of biblical proportions.
At times, during a long sojourn in the Blue Mountains, the strain of honing Lewis to perfection has begun to tell on Steward's naturally doleful countenance. The giant Lewis and his diminutive trainer make a comic pair. The contact is strictly business; despite the talk of a split after the last fight, Lewis knows the best tactical brain in boxing occupies his corner. Steward is 54 now and growing tired of the tawdriness of the sport he once loved.
"I've got a little kid in my gym back home, who's just turned 15 and he's my pride and joy. I want to see his career through, but I'm not sure you'll see me out on the road so much any more. I want to do something else. The ungratefulness of the fighters, the politics and all that, the fighters had more dignity and honour a while ago. Fighters today are only interested in who can offer them the most money. If Ali was a healthy man and fighting now, Angelo Dundee would still be in his corner. I'm from the old school that puts a value on those relationships."
If Tommy "the Hitman" Hearns is his all-time favourite, Dennis Andries is the fighter who most clearly advertises Steward's claims to be the best in the business. When he arrived in the Kronk gym to spar, battered and unloved, Andries was already well into his thirties, and was regarded as cannon fodder for the host of thrusting young champions in the gym. But Steward liked the way Andries kept coming back for more and slowly began to turn the basest boxing metals into a rough diamond. Andries was slow, plodding and predictable, but he was also fearless, indestructible and relentless and, under Steward's guidance, he became a thoroughly presentable world champion. "A real warrior," Steward says, gently shaking his head at the memory.
It was partly in response to Steward's flagging commitment that Teodorescu was summoned from Canada's Commonwealth Games team in Kuala Lumpur last September back into the Lewis camp. Teodorescu felt betrayed by Lewis's sudden return to London, his home town, in 1989 and his alliance with Frank Maloney, though he now acknowledges the wisdom of the move.
As the Romanian-born son of a half-Italian half Turko- Bulgarian father and a half-French, half-Serbian mother, Teodorescu understands the complications of nationhood, but having helped to nurture Lewis through difficult early years when Violet, Lewis's mother, was struggling to bring up a family on her own in Kitchenor, a town 70km west of Toronto, he had set up a company in anticipation of a profitable return on his investment in the gold medallist. "I worked with Lennox for six years, taught him all I knew," says Teodorescu now. "I taught him how to play chess and ping-pong. He knew I loved my fighters. After his mother, I am proud to say I was the person he listened to. But, being the most naive person on earth, I made the mistake of thinking I was irreplaceable. So the life slapped me in the face to tell me I was wrong."
Teodorescu's return is a symbolic gathering of Lewis's past. All the people who have shared his life will be around him on the night of 13 March. But the key presence is Steward, who masterminded Holyfield's revival and was in Oliver McCall's corner the night he caught Lewis with a sucker right hand. "I always said the best heavyweight in the world is that guy from England," Steward says. "I told Dennis Andries that before I worked with Lennox."
Win or lose, this fight could mark the parting of the ways for Lewis and his faithful trainer. It is not just Lewis who has a lifetime invested in victory.
GARDEN PARTY: HOW THE GIANTS MEASURE UP
1984, Los Angeles. Disqualified in Olympic semi-final against Kevin Barray of New Zealand.
12 July 1986, Atlanta. Wins first world title by outslugging WBA cruiserweight champion Dwight Qawi over 15 rounds.
9 April 1988, Las Vegas. Unifies cruiserweight titles with eighth-round stoppage of Carlos de Leon, sets sights on Mike Tyson.
25 October 1990, Las Vegas. A single right-hand brings him the undisputed world heavyweight title as he knocks out James Douglas in the third round.
13 November 1992, Las Vegas. A thrilling 12-round war with Riddick Bowe produces one of the great heavyweight title fights of all time - and Holyfield's first defeat.
6 November 1993, Las Vegas. Regains title in infamous fight interrupted by a para-glider.
9 November 1996, Las Vegas. Now considered a fading athlete he claims the title for third time at the age of 34 by stopping Tyson in the 11th round.
Stamina, mental and physical conditioning. Heart. Left hook. Ability to counter-punch. Chin. Achilles Heel
Age - he's 36. Campaigns may have taken their toll. Not hard to hit.
Fights 39: Won 36, K0 25, Lost 3
1988, Seoul. Won Olympic super-heavyweight gold medal, stopping Riddick Bowe in 2nd rd.
6 March 1991, Wembley. Entered world class by stopping previously unbeaten British champion Gary Mason in seventh round.
31 October 1992, Earl's Court. Stunning second-round KO of Razor Ruddock, Awarded WBC belt two months later when Bowe refused to fight him.
8 May 1993, Las Vegas. Decisive points win over Tony Tucker in first defence. First major payday, $9m.
25 September 1994, Wembley. Shock defeat in second round by Oliver McCall ends reign, and costs him a showdown with Bowe.
7 February 1997, Las Vegas. Regains WBC belt as a weeping McCall suffers emotional breakdown in ring.
4 October 1997, Atlantic City. Hammers Andrew Golota to defeat in 95 seconds, and clamours for showdown with Holyfield begin.
Power, physical strength, good jab when he is in a positive frame of mind, ferocious right hand. Heart. Boxing skills.
Tends to have dips in stamina. Some still question his chin after 1994 defeat by Oliver McCall.
Fights 35: Won 34, KO 27, Lost 1
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