Boxing; The heavyweight wonderers

A new generation of contenders are jostling for position
NOTHING LASTS. Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson will, sooner rather than later, become too old to cope with a new generation of fiery, young heavyweights.

Lewis is 33, Tyson an elderly, worn 32, Holyfield 36 in a fortnight's time. While Lewis looks the freshest of the trio, his points win over Zeljko Mavrovic in the bizarre Mohegan Sun Casino on a Connecticut Indian Reservation last week left many critics with furrowed brows.

While I was one of the few who found great interest in the 12-round fight, who came away satisfied that Lewis had performed well in strange circumstances, and that Mavrovic had fought with a stubborn heart and determination which belied his lack of world-class experience, it is increasingly apparent that it is time to look to the future. Behind Lewis, Holyfield and, if he retains his licence, Tyson, the queue is forming.

We have heard a lot this past week about and from Herbie Hide, but since losing in six rounds to Riddick Bowe in 1995, he has fought nobody of consequence. Before he can be taken seriously, he must do so. He holds the World Boxing Organisation belt, which is a minor bauble but which does attract some interest. He also has a major promoter, Frank Warren. He is not an avoided man.

Those jostling for position include several fighters in their middle 20s: David Tua, Michael Grant, Kirk Johnson, Lamon Brewster and the Ukrainian brothers, Vladimir and Vitaly Klitchako. Shannon Briggs, beaten in a thriller by Lewis last March, may also have a significant role to play.

Tua, who demolished a pathetic character named Eric Curry on the Lewis- Mavrovic undercard in 43 seconds, is perhaps the most interesting. Short and stocky, he was born on a tiny Samoan island and raised in New Zealand, for whom he won a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics. He turned pro in the United States and has a long-term deal with Main Events, who are Lewis's American promoters.

Unless the elusive Holyfield fight happens, Tua may get his chance next year. He is far from perfect just yet. He scaled 17st for the Curry fight, and when he stepped off the scales his trainer, Lou Duva, gave an impatient shake of the head. Once the bell rang, he rumbled straight into Curry and disposed of him, as he should have done.

Duva, the veteran Barney Rubble figure whose family runs the Main Events enterprise, is not slow to talk him up: "David is good enough to win a world title, whether or not we wait for the others to move out of the way," he said.

Grant, from Paterson, New Jersey, the rough town which produced the legendary Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, has won 29 fights in a row. Johnson, Brewster and the Klitchskos are all unbeaten.

Meanwhile, Lewis's next opponent is likely to be the Texan, Lou Savaresa, in January. It is not a fight Lewis wants. It is not a fight anyone outside the Savaresa camp wants. But it is almost certainly what we will be given.

Lewis and Holyfield should meet, but for all the talk in the 16 months since Holyfield's disqualification win over Tyson, a deal has not been struck. There must now be serious doubts that it will ever happen. Why? Because boxing people put their own interests first. They are not in the business for the love of the game, to serve human interest or for any other twee principle. They will make deals only if they suit their own pockets.

And as things stand there are too many people who believe a Lewis-Holyfield fight would hurt them financially. It's far easier to go on talking about it, to use the fight as a carrot to maintain public interest, and to sell a string of lesser attractions on the back of it. Meanwhile Lewis and Holyfield go on growing older and more vulnerable.

Savaresa, who is two months older than Lewis, is hardly a fresh face. He was good enough to give George Foreman a close fight and blew away Buster Douglas in a round, but he was also badly exposed by a Nigerian second-rater, David Izonritei, last year.

The bad reviews given both Holyfield, for his laborious points win over Vaughn Bean in Atlanta, and Lewis, for his unanimous decision over a brave, stubborn Mavrovic, suggest people are getting tired of them. One American television "face" said of Lewis in a private aside: "I just wish the son- of-a-bitch could fight better."

HBO's respected judge and analyst Harold Lederman said bluntly: "Mavrovic didn't try. He threw 20 punches a round." As astonishing as I found those reactions, they reflect a wider discontent.

More relevant is the evidence of a rift between Lewis and his trainer, Emanuel Steward. Steward's methods do not always endear him to others in the backroom - I have been told many times he has a tendency to flit in and out of camp and leave the daily grind to others.

Maybe that's fair criticism, maybe not. But if it is only other handlers he is irritating, then it has no overall relevance. This time, however, the indication was that he had annoyed Lewis, who said afterwards: "I trained for a different fight."

Lewis, like every other world- class man, knows boxing is not always predictable and that to survive at the highest level you have to be able to adapt. If all had been well backstage, he would not have even considered making such a complaint.

The process of change, both inside the Lewis camp and in the heavyweight division as a whole, may be accelerating.