Boxing: Count starts for big three stuck on the ropes

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The Independent Online

When his powers were at their zenith, Muhammad Ali once mused in a rare moment of quiet contemplation: "One of these days I am going to lie on a beach and forget all this mess." He never did, because he never could, thanks to the proud forces within him and the marketing forces outside him. It is a situation with which Lennox Lewis has become worryingly familiar over the past six months.

For boxing aficionados, a new year quiz contains three intriguing questions: will Lewis fight a return with Vitali Klitschko? Will Naseem Hamed ever fight again? Will Audley Harrison fight anyone who hits back?

The answers? Probably, improbable and probably not.

"Show me the money, baby," was Lewis's reaction when Klitschko, awaiting 68 stitches in an eyebrow wound which looked as if it had been inflicted by a chainsaw, suggested the heavyweight champion might not fancy a return. Well, now they have, and it is make-your-mind-up time for a man who finds it as hard as Ali did to walk away.

"You know, when I was watching Ali at the end of his career I wanted him to quit," Lewis said recently. "I loved watching him box, but by the end I was wondering what made him go on. Now here I am, trying to find the answer to that question. The trouble is, every boxer thinks he has one more fight in him."

There are those, like his former manager Frank Maloney, who believe Lewis should quit now while his faculties and finances remain intact. "I don't see what he has left to prove," Maloney said. "The only people who want to see him fight again are those who make a living out of him. He's 38 years old now, and while the mind may be willing, the body doesn't want to go through what it has to go through."

However, a reprise with the Ukrainian Goliath would enrich Lewis by somewhere around £15m, although it is pride rather than the purse which is likely to persuade him go to the well one more time this spring.

For Hamed, nine years younger and - like Lewis - high on Britain's rich list, 2004 is also a year when he must put up or shut up shop. It is nearly 20 months since he fought, and all we have heard since have been sporadic, half-baked promises to resume his ring walks.

He has become a peripheral figure. Calls to his Sheffield-based promotional organisation remain unanswered, although he has been sighted in the city looking nearer to middleweight than featherweight, heavily bearded and in flowing Islamic robes.

The boxing world believes that the longer he stays away from the ring, the deeper he withdraws into his religion. And therein lies the Prince's problem.

Jay Larkin, head of the cable network Showtime, fears the impassioned Islamic rhetoric employed by Hamed and his entourage before his ill-starred World Boxing Organisation title defence against Marco Antonio Barrera now makes him virtually unsaleable to US audiences in the post-9/11 climate. The Americans have already labelled him "Nazbeen".

"It is not hard to understand that world events have not made it any easier for him," says Larkin. "A fighter entering the ring in America these days to cries of 'Allah Akbar' [Allah is Great] would have to have a superhuman ability to concentrate and a very unique ability to shut out his surroundings."

In other words, the crowd reaction would be hostile and Hamed would need to turn down the religious volume, which, to be fair, he did when he resurfaced in London a year later in May 2002. Unfortunately, his victory over the Spaniard Manuel Calvo was literally a pedestrian affair - the crowd walked out before the end. There was evidence that Hamed no longer had the appetite for the hurt business. As Marvin Hagler once said: "It isn't easy to get up for roadwork at dawn on a bitterly cold morning when you are wearing silk pyjamas."

And so to Harrison. It is nearly four years since he won Olympic gold. The man he beat in the Sydney semi-final, Paolo Vidoz, has become the Italian champion in fewer than a dozen pro fights. Harrison, at 32, seems no nearer a domestic title after 14, the last three part of a curious American odyssey which seems to have left him drifting in boxing's backwaters.

He now finds himself boxed into a corner because of his insistence on doing business here with no one but the BBC, whose rekindled love affair with the sport will be sorely tested over the next 12 months. As their financial resources are committed to funding coverage of Euro 2004, the Olympic Games and the return of Match of the Day, there is unlikely to be another million to spare for Harrison to nourish his skills on no-hopers.

Moreover, Britain's leading promoter, Frank Warren, who deals exclusively with Sky, has just signed up the British champion, Danny Williams, and a fistful of contenders, for his Sports Network stable. "Ordinary [Warren's nickname for Harrison] has my number," said Warren. "He can even reverse the charges."

My own prediction is that by the end of 2004 the "Big Three" will have been eclipsed by 2003's boxer of the year - light-welterweight Ricky Hatton. The Man-chester Hit Man, endorsed by Nigel Benn as the most talented fighter ever produced in Britain, has the personality and ability to become a bigger attraction than all of them, even without Beeb exposure. Ring in the new. And Audley, please ring Warren.