America craves aggression from laid-back Lewis

Richard Williamsin, New York
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At the 24th time of asking, Michael Grant finally found a pair of gloves that he can fight in. "I'm ready to go," he said, on the eve of his meeting with Lennox Lewis at Madison Square Garden here tonight. Some time around midnight boxing's Cinderella will find out whether the title of world heavyweight champion is an easier fit, and whether he has turned into a prince or a frog.

The saga of the 10oz Reyes gloves, and the challenger's inability to find one inside which his left hand could make a comfortable fist, has been among the few newsworthy items in the run-up to Lewis's first defence of his undisputed - more or less - world title. The fight is being sold under the slogan "Too Big", but "Too Boring" has been New York's reaction.

Somehow, it should have been more than this. After achieving his lifetime's goal of winning the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world, the worthy Lewis deserved to mount his first defence of the belts amid some sort of excitement. Look at the reception Manchester gave Mike Tyson a few months ago, and imagine how Britain's boxing public would have acclaimed their very own reigning champion's return to action on home soil. Instead, facing the prospect of fighting Grant in the Garden, Lewis seems to be having to prove himself all over again, while enduring the disappointment of bringing into the ring only two of the three belts he paraded in Las Vegas last November, thanks to the machinations of Don King and the World Boxing Association.

Never mind. In terms of naked aggression, the preliminaries may have have displayed all the bite of two middle-aged dads arm-wrestling at a Sunday picnic, making observers only too aware that the permanently smiling Lewis is a laid-back child of Jamaica while the bespectacled Grant is a model citizen who plays the organ in his local church in Norristown, Pennsylvania. The question is whether, once the fight gets under way, both men will find themselves wanting it badly enough to overcome the placid and civilised elements of their natures in order to produce a heavyweight title fight characterised by the appropriate level of aggression.

The omens are not particularly good. Grant would like to attack Lewis from the bell, aware that the champion is a slow starter and reluctant to seize the initiative. But he also knows that Lewis only becomes dangerous when aroused, and is perfectly capable of putting an opponent away in the early stages. But if Grant chooses to stand off and await his moment, a tiresome stalemate is likely to try the patience of the 16,000 fans expected on the night.

In most measurable dimensions, the advantages are evenly distributed. Lewis is 34, and reaching the end of his prime. Grant is 27, and approaching his peak. Grant is the taller, by a couple of inches, and also enjoys a similarly greater reach. Although both men have fought 31 times as professionals, Lewis's experience against high-class opponents is considerably more extensive. The champion weighed in on Thursday at 17st 9lb, three pounds lighter than Grant. Lewis is thus only one pound below his highest-ever fighting weight, recorded before his second meeting with Oliver McCall two years ago, while Grant is six pounds below the weight at which he entered the ring against Lou Savarese last June.

But age and weight are poor indicators in this division, particularly the latter. The fact that this is the heaviest world title fight in boxing history is pleasing only to the writers of cheap advertising copy. Great heavyweight title fights usually involve a good big 'un and a good comparatively little 'un, with Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali, to name but two, coming into the latter category. A match-up between two behemoths tends to block out the light of skill and variation. But at least Lewis - and his fans, and all those hoping for a stimulating contest - may take heart from the memory of his successful meeting with Riddick Bowe, another giant, in the 1988 Olympic Games.

At this stage of his career, Lewis is unlikely to reveal any unexpected facets of his character in the ring. The only imponderable is an old question, one raised this week by his trainer, Emanuel Steward, concerning his ability to find a means of expressing his inherent ability, rather than shrouding it beneath a cloak of caution. "I can no longer brag about this great talent if it doesn't come out in this fight," Steward observed this week. "I'm tired of saying it. I know it's never been shown. I can't keep saying it. I think Grant is a perfect opportunity for Lennox to step up to the plate."

Predicting Grant's response is a different matter. The challenger was 20 years old before he put on a pair of boxing gloves for the first time and abandoned his interest in other sports. Whether coming late to the game has given him a healthy set of unorthodox attitudes, or whether it merely renders him disadvantaged in terms of knowledge and ingrained responses, we shall find out tonight.

His trainer, the 61-year-old Don Turner, at least knows all about the champion, having produced the opponents in Lewis's last three fights - Henry "Hugger" Akinwande and, twice, Evander Holyfield. All week Turner has been constantly reminded of his unenviable record, principally by Lewis, who also borrowed from local sporting terminology when he remarked: "Three strikes and you're out."

Turner's response has been humourous but robust. "I don't look at it that I've had three shots at Lennox," he said. "But Ray Arcel had 25 shots at Joe Louis before he won with Ezzard Charles. He won on his 26th try. Maybe I'll win on my fourth." What had be learnt from three opportunities to study Lewis at close quarters? "I learnt what I knew all along, that he's a good fighter. America is probably prejudiced against him, but he fights tall better than anyone around today. He uses the ring well and he's very smart. For people to say he's not is unjust. Against Evander, he was up against one of the smartest fighters in history. That's why he had some problems." Would a bigger opponent, such as Grant, have more of an advantage? "It's always an advantage if the fighter executes. If the fighter don't execute, what I say don't mean nothing. I can only give him the information. He has to do the fighting. If Michael executes what he's capable of doing, if he lives up to his potential, it's an easy fight."

Steward's response was immediate. "Don's been saying Evander couldn't beat Lennox because he was too small, and Akinwande couldn't beat him because he was too weak. Now he says that Grant has the perfect package. But Lennox has trained for a knockout and he's going to establish himself as a solid heavyweight champion. If Grant comes out fighting, like he says he's going to, it's going to be over quickly. I feel that Lennox will knock him out inside five rounds."

The only significant form line is drawn through Andrew Golota, who was knocked out in the first round by Lewis in 1997 but who decked Grant twice in the opening round last summer. Grant's ability to pick himself up and wear down the troublesome Polish American, who quit in the 10th, undoubtedly represents the challenger's most impressive feat to date, but it hardly represents conclusive evidence of his ability to trouble the champion.

"We've been working on everything," Grant said, "specially on holding the hands up higher. Don says to me, 'Make this guy fight.' This is a big fight, and there's been a raising of the intensity in our preparation. If Lewis comes out brawling, we've prepared ourselves."

Given Lewis's gift for circumspection, that seems the remotest of possibilities. More interesting would be Grant's response to a typical Lewis opening, which involves watchfulness and distance. Lewis has talked down the likelihood of an early Grant assault, claiming that he hasn't won fights by pressing the issue. "I'm sure he hasn't seen all 31 of my fights," Grant responded. "Maybe he only saw two or three, and that's what he saw."

Both men have difficult calculations to make. Lewis needs a aggressive performance to increase his US box-office appeal and to establish himself as worthy of mention alongside the great champions, but to seize the initiative goes against his nature. The challenger might seem to have nothing to lose, but he will enter the ring knowing that since this might be his only chance of the title, he could be better advised to await his opportunity rather than risk offering Lewis an early opening. In the end, the champion's experience is likely to prevail, his ringcraft and weight of punch making the difference somewhere around the sixth round.