Boxing: Lewis admits fight with Klitschko was 'business gamble'

World heavyweight champion agrees he made inadequate preparations for title contest as re-match is scheduled for November or December
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The Independent Online

It didn't just peel away like the pale, torn skin of Vitali Klitschko but slowly the front that Lennox Lewis and his trainer, Emanuel Steward, threw up after their hazardous night down town began to break down.

Sitting side by side in a high-rent room in the Beverly Hills Hotel, they finally made a few admissions.

Yes, said Steward, it was probably Lewis's worst performance since he became a world heavyweight champion plainly talented enough to take his place in the roll call of significant boxing history.

The champion wasn't quite prepared to go all the way with that. But he did say that the disaster that didn't quite happen when Klitschko smashed a clean right hand against his head in the second round, and moved ahead on the scorecards before being stopped by medical decision on a cut eye, was the result, more than anything, of thinking like a businessman-promoter rather than a clear-headed pro who, when everything was decided, was obliged to get into the ring.

"Yes, I gambled in taking Klitschko at such short notice," Lewis said, "I'm doing the business now and different things weigh on you. Kirk Johnson was supposed to be my tune-up fight, but when he pulled out so close to the fight date I realised they [Home Box Office television and the Staples Center site hosts] weren't really interested in anyone else but Klitschko, and when I said, 'OK, we'll fight Vitali,' there was an outcry from people just glad the fight was occurring and that it would be a good heavyweight fight and give them what they wanted - and expected."

You pointed out that none of these exhilarated businessmen had to join him in the ring, and the champion nodded his agreement, mildly, it is true, but not with a hint of reflection. Both he and Steward agreed that after the Klitschko decision was made they both had "twinges' of doubt. Steward said it was normal for a heavyweight champion to have around two months of preparation for a challenge as "drastic" as the one Klitschko produced when he "fought the fight of his life" on Saturday night.

You couldn't see the look in Lewis's eyes behind the shades but if you could you would have expected to see a little evidence of some haunting. After the switch to Klitschko, Lewis said, he had just four rounds against an entirely suitable sparring partner, someone approximately as tall as the 6ft 8in Ukrainian, who could also move around the ring and throw punches without being wound up with a key.

Lewis insisted that he was in good condition for the fight, but then, apparently with no sense of a contradictory message, said that he would come in lighter for the return, which would be in November or December, probably in Las Vegas. This possibility had sharpened with the news from the Klitschko camp that plastic surgery, which seemed inevitable after the insertion of 60 stitches into the battered left side of their fighter's face, would probably not now be necessary. Before any final decisions were made, Lewis - yes Lewis, he was quite emphatic about it - would have talks with the Roy Jones people.

Then certain calculations would be made. Considerations such as bottom line financial return, of course, would hold considerable sway. Before Saturday's fight, when Klitschko was supposed to buckle under the sheer weight of Lewis's punching, Jones seemed like the last shot at mega-fight earnings this side of Lewis's 40th birthday, which is due in just over two years' time.

"But it's funny how quickly things can change," Steward said over a glass of Pinot Grigio in the Polo Lounge once frequented by Frank Sinatra and his Ratpack. "The night before the fight I went to bed around midnight and I woke up at 3.08. I felt something was wrong. I got a very bad feeling, something I'd never had so strongly before a Lennox fight. But it's an odd thing, on a night when everything could have gone so wrong, a night that was really a nightmare to live through, Lennox fought sloppy but didn't get beat and we finished up with a re-match that could make more than the first fight with Tyson - one of the richest in boxing history."

Yes, a funny old business, but perhaps not so amusing when a big, underrated Ukrainian is pounding his right fist in your face and you have come into the fight three pounds heavier than ever before and the crowd is howling for your blood and your feet are stuck in what seems like several truckloads of treacle.

One old pro, a long-time admirer of both Lewis's talent and his character, whispered that it can only get worse. "Lennox's dance is done," he said. "His well is dry; it's all over. He thinks he can go back to training camp and lick himself into shape like he did after Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, but you can't keep doing that. He's nearly 38, He's no different to Ali or Joe Louis or anyone. There's talk of Roy Jones, but what has Lennox to gain from Jones but a big pay-day. On the latest evidence, Jones would pick from Lennox like a thief in the night."

Lewis said that he will know when it is time to go. He will not suddenly find himself asking his body questions that can't be answered satisfactorily in the ring with the world looking on. "If that happens, it will not be in the ring," he said, "it will in the gym. You must remember that in normal circumstances I train with good sparring partners. I get people who can give me a true challenge, unbeaten fighters, and if they can't do that I get rid of them. But if people come in and start beating me up and knocking me out, I will say, 'maybe I ought to look at myself, maybe I shouldn't be in the ring'.

"I heard that when Sugar Ray Leonard was training for his last fights he just had a mirror and shadow boxed. He didn't do any sparring, so of course there was no way he could judge himself." Leonard's last fight was in Madison Square Garden. He received a merciless beating from Terry Norris.

"I know," Lewis added, "that the effects of ageing have already started. I've been fighting the ageing process since I was 21. But I still know what I can do, how I can get in great condition and win the fights I have to."

Steward said: "One thing Lennox has said to me is, 'I never want to be in the ring when I cannot control the speed and the tempo of the punching,' and I'm glad about this. Often times the people around the fighter will not accept that it has happened.

"When Muhammad Ali was training for his last fight in the Bahamas, I was down there with Tommy Hearns. Ali boxed Tommy one day. Tommy hit him with a big right, and handled him so easy he was playing with him. I went to the people involved in the fight and said Ali shouldn't be fighting any more but I was told, 'He is going to do it for some big money.' Of course he took a bad beating from Trevor Berbick and you could see it was going to happen from the training."

But if it could happen to Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, couldn't it happen to Lennox Lewis? The worry here was that maybe, in its first stages, it already had.