Boxing: Awesome Lewis back on top of world

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Redemption, in or out of a boxing ring, rarely comes as sweetly, or as majestically, as that achieved in the early hours of yesterday morning by Lennox Lewis. He did not so much re-scale the mountain as reduce it to a small hill of refried beans.

It meant that Hasim Rahman, who poured such relentless scorn on Lewis during his short-term lease of the reinstated champion's property, paid a terrible price for his refusal to show even a hint of respect. He was stretched on the canvas here at the Mandalay Resort only after being made to look no better than a club fighter. It was not so much a defeat as a disrobing.

Not only did Lewis win back his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation world titles with a shattering fourth-round knockout, he re-asserted the power and the skill which from time to time have made him look like a heavyweight of the ages. He also made financially huge the possibility of a collision with Mike Tyson next April, a deal which has been agreed in principle by the television paymasters of the sport, the American cable TV companies Home Box Office and Showtime, but now requires negotiations which may be complicated by Tyson's reservations about meeting such a dramatically restored Lewis.

''I've wanted Tyson since I beat Holyfield for the undisputed title two years ago," Lewis said, "but whenever the fight is mentioned he says he needs two more fights. But that's his problem, I'm ready and willing, and if he doesn't come around there are other people out there who deserve a shot. I have a few more things to show the world."

A place in the pantheon of great champions is, however, probably permanently denied him by the one-punch defeats he suffered at the hands of Oliver McCall, in London in 1994, and Rahman, the man he so utterly outclassed here, in Johannesburg seven months ago. But then history, even at its most unforgiving, will be obliged to give at least a sigh of recognition to the Lewis who joined Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield as boxing's only three-time world heavyweight champions.

Lewis may have a glass jaw, but on a night when so many were ready to perform the last rites on his reign as arguably the most dominant heavyweight of his generation, his heart and his nerve could have been made of tungsten.

He became only the fourth former world heavyweight champion to win back his crown in an immediate re-match – Jack Sharkey, Floyd Patterson and Ali were the others – as he vindicated his belief that what happened in South Africa was a grotesquely self-inflicted injury. It was a flawless performance built around a jab brought back to optimum efficiency and was helped to its withering climax by a left hook which brushed Rahman's jaw into the path of a looping right which may well have been the most devastating thrown by Lewis in his 12-year professional career.

At the count of nine Rahman groped his way back to his feet through what must have seemed an immense fog, then pitched back on to the canvas as referee Joe Cortez signalled the end of the fight. Acceding to the regulations of the Nevada Athletic Commission, Rahman left groggily for the hospital, but not before conceding that his defeat had been total. "It wasn't just the punch," Rahman said, "it was his movement and his length of punch. It was a great performance."

Lewis was exuberant to the point of triumphalism but, even if you believed that the business he was obliged to do here would have been comfortably accomplished in the highveld dawn seven months ago if he had not so seriously neglected his professional duties, it was impossible not to concede him a few bragging rights. He had, after all, run what could only be described as a gauntlet of scorn here over the last few days. Rahman was cheered as the creator of a new era of heavyweight boxing. Lewis was yesterday's news, at 36 too old, too cautious, too gun-shy and, some even said, too scared. Among his critics was the distinguished former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who questioned both his technique and his heart.

But it was all, Lewis pointed out with perfect authority, a collapse of the critical function. "I always said that a fighter at his level of technique could only hit the lottery once in a career. That's why I got so tired of all the noise he was making. I just said to myself that this guy was making problems for himself and that after his 15 minutes of fame I had to send him back to where he came from. In terms of being a genuine champion that was nowhere. He didn't face the real Lennox Lewis in Johannesburg but he did tonight, and everybody saw the result."

As it happened, from the sound of first bell here Lewis denied Rahman the 15 minutes of celebrity the old pop philosopher Andy Warhol said everybody deserved. Lewis's pulverising right hand lopped four minutes and 31 seconds off Rahman's allocation when it separated the fleeting champion from his senses one minute, 29 seconds into the fourth round.

Lewis said that he was pleased his knock-out punch had come a round earlier than the one which gave Rahman victory in the first fight, but he surely did himself less than justice by pointing to such a marginal distinction between the triumphs. In South Africa Rahman exploited Lewis's shockingly scant attention to the need for acclimatisation to an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet and, it has to be said, a probably limited physiological ability to take a truly heavy punch. Here, Lewis simply restored barriers of class he had allowed to erode seven months ago.

He won every round with ease, shrugging away the effects of Rahman's best moment in the fight, an impressively weighty jab in the first round, and working masterfully towards the moment when he would deliver the final destruction. Psychologically, he may have started the process in the final stages of the countdown to the fight. Then, Rahman continued his attempt to intimidate Lewis by trying to enter the latter's dressing-room. Rahman's cornerman, Miguel Diaz, would normally have been present during the gloving of Lewis, but he was assisting in an undercard fight, and Rahman attempted to take his place. "Lennox just laughed," reported his cornerman, Harold Knight. "He said it was time to end all that 'b.s.', and get on with the fighting. He had the security guards throw him out."

Lewis took over the job from the first moments of the fight, claiming the centre of the ring and establishing an unbreakable pattern of superior jabbing and judicious use of the left hook. According to the blueprint of Lewis's trainer, Emanuel Steward, complete domination was to be achieved by the middle rounds, but such was the composure and the rhythm of the fighter he achieved his own, advanced schedule. By the third round, Rahman was reacting rather like a nervous sentry firing at shadows. Once, after the smoothest of Lewis combinations, Rahman stuck out his hands as though attempting to plug invisible holes. It was not what he had in mind in the long months of Lewis-baiting, and when he finally fell there was not the slightest chance that he could resurrect his bombast or his hopes.

"I had six months of his insults, his lack of respect," Lewis said, "and it was time to put a stop to all of that. He did get under my skin to an extent, but I made it a positive thing. He did most of the talking, and I just trained. What I wanted to make him understand was that all he had achieved was making me completely motivated. What I wanted all of boxing to understand was that I was not ready to go away quietly. I think I've got at least a couple of good fights left inside me, and I have a bit to go yet with my legacy."

What that legacy might have been, but for the defeat by Rahman in the first fight and by McCall, who ironically enough earlier in the night had, on the undercard, produced an echo of his defeat of Lewis seven years earlier with a crashing right hand knock-out of Henry Akinwande in the last round, made for poignant speculation.

Certainly he had provided a vivid reminder of how he had stretched out his horizons so dramatically with his destruction of Razor Ruddock at Earl's Court in 1992. The punch which levelled Ruddock is being compared here to the one which detached Rahman from his illusion that he had a future as a world heavyweight champion. One thing is certain. It is that when faced by the possibility of a defeat which would almost certainly have ended his career, he produced a quite perfect performance.

Now, he finds himself courted by Don King, as he was when he first invaded the heavyweight division. No doubt he has his regrets, but for one night at least they were too few to mention. Here, no one could argue, was a great heavyweight at the regained height of his powers.