Boxing: Unloved Lewis to show his evil side

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The Independent Online
Britain's Lennox Lewis will be the loneliest man in Atlantic City when he defends his World Boxing Council heavyweight title in the early hours of Sunday, but, as he told Glyn Leach, that might just bring out the devil in him.

In times of adversity, a man discovers who his true friends are and for Lennox Lewis, a penny appears to have dropped regarding his six-year relationship with American promotional group Main Events. On Saturday evening, local time, in Atlantic City, the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion faces Poland's Andrew Golota, a Main Events stablemate, and Lewis has no doubts as to whom his "mentors" wish to win.

"It would be in Main Events' interest to get me beaten because they have more control over Golota and more investment in him than me," Lewis says. "It's just the way that boxing is."

Lewis is promoted by the London outfit Panix, co-promoted by Main Events, but the Chicago-based Golota belongs to the men from Totowa, New Jersey, lock, stock and barrel. Americans might term it a "no-brainer".

Lewis has often talked, if not always convincingly, of his willingness to face reality and there is no denying the truth of his situation; the men who helped make Lewis are now willing to break him. The chess-loving champion has become a pawn to be sacrificed for a piece perceived to be of greater worth in the long-term game.

"I don't like to think that Main Events see me as past my sell-by date," says Lewis. "But if they do, they're taking a hell of a gamble."

Golota is known for his fouls and transgressions rather than his victories. But while he may be one of boxing's betes noires, the Polish giant is a genuine great white hope; mean, moody and marketable. Lewis, despite just one defeat in 32 fights (25 wins by KO), has been found to be none of those things. Lewis has failed to capture the American public's imagination. And in boxing, if you don't sell you can go to hell.

Lewis, 32, is perhaps guilty of nothing more than a failure to stand up and be counted. Is he British, is he Canadian? Is he a boxer, is he a puncher? People are confused by the east London native with the transatlantic accent, so brutally effective an attacking force yet so often a seemingly reluctant aggressor.

A pleasant if somewhat aloof individual, Lewis, unlike many of his boxing brethren, seeks not to offend. But it seems that his half-hearted attempts to be all things to all men have resulted in him meaning very little to anyone. Anywhere.

In Britain, where Lewis has not fought since September 1994, his popularity has dwindled. Despite his fight being vastly the more competitive, Sky Sports has initially chose to present the following weekend's relatively routine outing by Naseem Hamed on a pay-per-view basis.

In the States, this fight is all about Golota. Main Events are paying Lewis more than they ever have, $7m (pounds 5.4m), to defend his title against a fighter patently undeserving of a shot; a man disqualified for low blows in his last two fights. This will be Lewis's first pay-per-view fight in America and the reason this window of greater financial opportunity has opened for him is Golota, the wrecker of Riddick Bowe, the "Beast from the East" that America wants to see beaten. But by one of their own, not by a spurious citizen of the world like Lewis.

When Golota sparred in Times Square, New York, earlier this week, a crowd of 300 admirers chanted his name. Advance tickets sales of 11,000 for the fight at the Atlantic City Convention Center have brought projections of the biggest fight crowd in the East Coast gambling mecca since 20,000 people watched George Foreman challenge Evander Holyfield in 1991.

"Make no mistake, 95 per cent of that crowd will be behind Golota. It's going to be very hostile," Emanuel Steward, Lewis's trainer and co-manager, said. "Lennox has never gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with people. He's no Frank Bruno, and this is the result."

For the first time since before his fight with Gary Mason, who was stopped in seven at Wembley Arena in March 1991, Lewis is an underdog.

If Golota can keep it clean, the American consensus says, victory is well within his grasp. The heat is on for Lewis, the pressure mounting and, he believes, a psychological assault has already begun.

Main Events claim to be embarrassed by the sense of alienation Lewis has expressed in the run-in to this fight. Have they not supported him for years? Was it not they who, in March 1996, fought a legal battle to win him a shot at the WBC title?

But it was also Main Events who failed to have Lewis picked up from the airport. They who did not have a suite booked for him when he arrived at his Atlantic City hotel. Mind games or misunderstandings? Lewis is in no doubt. "There's plenty of evidence to say they're against me," Lewis said. "But it brings out the best in me, makes me more determined. And it will give me the motivation to prove that I, too, can be evil in the ring."

Perhaps, at last, the real Lewis is ready to stand up and take the acclaim he has been denied. It would not be before time.