Boxing: Unimpressive Lewis is stretched

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PROLONGED exposure to a gambling environment can loosen one's grip on reality, a phenomenon which casino operators have profitably exploited in the 20 odd years since New Jersey legalised betting. That might be the charitable explanation for Lennox Lewis's optimistic assessment of his eighth-round stoppage of the American challenger Phil Jackson here on Friday night. 'It's about time the American public saw something of my talents,' he said. 'I really got it together tonight, and I'm very happy that I looked so devastating.'

In fact, Lewis looked considerably less than devastating much of the time, despite scoring three legitimate and one distinctly illegal knockdown on the way to a victory which, while ultimately achieved with impressive power and combination punching, had too many echoes of his laboured win over Frank Bruno for his opinion to be received with anything other than a derisory snort.

The 29-year-old Jackson had been selected as the ideal showcase opponent for Lewis in his third defence of the World Boxing Council title, the kind of fall-guy who would help blow away the memories of Lewis's plodding defences against Tony Tucker and Bruno and set up a big-money unification fight with the real champion, Michael Moorer. He was regarded in the trade as something of a reluctant warrior, having on his own admission quit shamefully against Razor Ruddock in his only defeat in 31 fights.

The Lewis camp banked on the assumption that once their man started landing those devastating, chopping right- handers, the swirling uncertainties in Jackson's mind would swamp him again.

But, the challenger wrong- footed everyone by battling heroically in a cause which was always hopeless, and what had been scripted as a cynical marketing exercise for Lewis became instead a moving story of a battered fighter's quest for redemption and lost pride.

Jackson could have been excused further participation on at least four occasions before he crumpled under a fearsome right upper-cut / left- hook / right-hook combination after 1min 35sec of the eighth round, but he kept rallying with ill-directed but spirited counters until, cut, bruised and exhausted, he could take no more.

His futile bravery caught the imagination of the sparse crowd (little more than 4,000 in the 21,000-capacity Convention Center) and his every success was greeted with roars of encouragement. In truth, the fans had little to cheer: the punch statistics showed that Lewis had landed 247 of the 471 he threw, compared with only 64 of 218 for Jackson. Even more significant was the effectiveness of their respective jabs: Lewis connected with 158 of 310, while the challenger landed just 21 of 111. Lewis was five inches taller with a seven-inch reach advantage, which meant Jackson could rarely get close enough to hit him with punches of any significance, while Lewis was able to dictate the exchanges with a long, jarring left jab which he landed virtually at will.

One wished, though, for a little spite to go with the skill. Having established within 25 seconds that he had the power in his right to hurt and floor his man, we expected Lewis to finish him with the same kind of destructive authority which despatched the dangerous Razor Ruddock in two rounds.

A good finisher such as Mike Tyson would have capitalised on Jackson's nightmare beginning, and would certainly never have permitted him to recover from the traumas of the fifth round when Jackson was floored heavily, face first, and then inexcusably floored again as Lewis continued punching after the bell had sounded.

The referee, Arthur Mercante, a sprightly 75-year- old who handled the first of his 113 world title fights in 1960, penalised him a point, when a stricter interpretation of the rules would have justified disqualification. 'I guess it was worth it,' Lewis remarked cynically. 'All it did was cost me a point, so a 10-8 round became a 9-8 round.'

The days of Corinthian sportsmanship are long gone, but it was incredibly unprofessional of Lewis to risk everything to earn such a cheap advantage in a fight which he was clearly winning anyway.

The knock-down late in the fifth came just as Jackson was starting to capitalise on Lewis's hesitancy. The challenger twice broke through with solid left hooks which sent Lewis stumbling into the ropes, and for the first time it seemed that the champion might have a real contest on his hands.

The ability to respond positively to a crisis is always welcome in a fighter, and it was heartening to see Lewis display it here. The dogged American did well to survive the sixth and seventh, his swollen right eye started to bleed early in the eighth, and Lewis at last set up the kind of sustained attack which, had he launched it a few rounds earlier, might greatly have enhanced his bargaining position for the mandatory defence he must make against Oliver McCall and for the unification match with Moorer.

Moorer and the ex-champion Evander Holyfield were at ringside, their presence a reminder that the division's genuine hard men fight each other, not hand-picked nonentities. Until Lewis takes them on and beats them, which is well within his scope, his claim to the world title must remain spurious.

(Photograph omitted)