Before the remnants of a reputation which once shone so brightly in the murk of boxing are submerged in the psychopath ragings of Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis has the chance to make a statement that would ring out like a psalm in a brothel.
He can wash his hands of Tyson and the $50m (£35m) he will earn by stepping into the ring with a man for whom self-destruction is not a risk but a vocation, who showed the world again this week that he is beyond both self-control and medication.
Lewis can say that even at this late hour someone has to make a stand on behalf of a sport which is suffering Tyson not so much as an embarrassment but as a terrible self-inflicted judgement.
He could re-assert the values which he tried to live by for so much of his career, but which in the last year or so have been compromised by his fall from basic professionalism in South Africa last spring, when he arrived in the ring in no condition to defend his title against Hasim Rahman, and then his involvement in new depths of hype when he scuffled on the floor of a television studio with his opponent before the re-match.
It is also true that not the least depressing aspect of the day this week when Tyson went publicly mad again was the involvement of both Lewis and an entourage which he has allowed to grow grotesquely in the last few years.
But then Lewis can draw a line under his own submission to the tawdry tendencies of a professional sport he entered 14 years ago with an Olympic gold medal. He can walk away from Tyson and all that this tragically lost figure has come to represent.
Belief that Lewis may be considering such a course of action the day after Tyson's latest outrage in the Hudson Theatre in New York on Tuesday at least flickered on the graph of possibilities yesterday when his camp were known to be checking on viable alternatives to the now precariously scheduled fight in Las Vegas on 6 April.
The most likely option is a defence of his WBC title against the German-based Ukrainian, Vitali Klitscho, in somewhere like Berlin or Kiev. A deal involving Lewis's American television company, Home Box Office, and a German network might just drum up consolation earnings of around $10m.
Can it happen? Can Lewis drop $40m while fighting a clean, handsome, impeccably mannered, qualified doctor who doesn't mean a thing all the way from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego, rather than the convicted rapist and unshakeable sociopath Tyson? Can he defy the age-old boxing maxim that you go where the money is and make a reality of the disdain he has long shown for the behaviour of a fighter he once saw as the yardstick of his own ambitions?
In theory it would be as easy as hailing a cab outside his Manhattan hotel. Russ Greenburg, the man who signs the cheques at HBO, has already said that Tyson's behaviour at this week's aborted press conference, when he allegedly bit Lewis in the groin before yelling obscenities and making lewd gestures to members of a stunned audience, meant that the chances of the fight happening were now "Lennox's call".
But it is not quite as simple as that. Nothing is in boxing. Lewis has said that he will await the ruling of a licensing meeting of the Nevada Athletic Commission next Tuesday but he also knows that before the commissioners sit down to debate an issue which they first faced in 1997 – after Tyson bit the ears of Evander Holyfield and invited them to consider whether any sport, even boxing, could tolerate such conduct? – they have to deal with a snakepit of conflicting interests. He also has to consider the possibility that he will be seen as backing away from the threat of Tyson, the uncertainties and violent possibilities of a man who is plainly beyond any rational analysis. For an ordinary person such action might seem merely prudent. For a fighter it could represent a kind of defeat.
The New York matchmaker Don Majeski, a highly engaging and intelligent man who abandoned a college education because of the lure of the fight game and started his working life in the offices of Ring Magazine, was one of the wearier witnesses to Tyson's latest rampage this week. "I know Lennox is a decent man, and maybe he is tempted to walk away, but he is also a fighter and there is nothing worse for such a man than the sense that he has lost face.
"I suspect this could be one explanation for Tyson's latest eruption. We know his life is in a mess, that he has debts, he is being sued for divorce and has the threat of another indictment for rape, and maybe we think, 'here is a nice easy solution for him – go into the ring, earn your $50m and solve all your problems'. But we have to remember Tyson is a street man and that getting beat up by Lewis – as I think he will be if the fight ever happens – would mean that he too would suffer a loss of face. You cannot strut around as a macho man if you've just been taken apart, if your whole aura has been demolished. And if Tyson can't find comfort in the street, where can he? Maybe he is looking for the same out that he found when he bit Holyfield's ears. Maybe that's what motivated Roberto Duran when he said, 'No mas, no mas'. Defeat isn't the problem. Losing face is."
Whether Lewis will be obliged to make or duck a moral decision now depends on the deliberations of the Nevada Athletic Commission, and even they may find that a final judgement is taken out of their hands.
One word in boxing is that sheer economic pressure in Las Vegas may have slowed or ended the Clark County district attorney office's expected indictment of Tyson for another case of rape. "Give us the fight and we won't indict," was how one member of the fight crowd speculated upon the position of the gambling city's authorities. It is certainly true that local estimates of the value of Lewis-Tyson to Las Vegas, which has been hit badly by a downturn in business following the 11 September terrorist outrages, have risen to an astounding $500m.
Marc Ratner, the executive director of the Nevada commission, has already said that it would be "naive" to ignore the financial value of the fight. But then he also said: "I'm sure the commissioners will do what is best for the sport."
The commission's past record does not encourage too much optimism for an emphatic moral stand. When Tyson's licence was restored after his year's suspension following the biting incident, one commissioner dissented. It was Jim Nave, a local vet who had got up from a hospital sickbed to attend the hearing. He brushed aside the character references of such luminaries as Muhammad Ali and Magic Johnson, and some dubious psychological evidence – one witness said that Tyson simply needed to feel loved – and said that in all conscience he couldn't say that the fighter was fit to return to the ring.
Soon after, Nave was fired from the commission. His place was taken by Mrs Amy Ayoub, a political worker who had helped in the re-election of the Nevada governor, Kenny Guinn. She had no boxing background and she joined a commission comprising a general practitioner, a multi-millionaire owner of a hamburger franchise, and two representatives of the casino industry.
Nave refused to point a finger at anyone. He said: "Everyone came to the hearing with different instincts but I believe everyone had an open mind. There wasn't any other agenda than whether Mike Tyson was mentally fit to return to the ring." Jim Nave said nay to that last proposition. It cost him, no one much doubted, his involvement in a sport that had always been a passion of his since growing up on a farm in Missouri. But he said he believed he had done the right thing. Some in boxing wait to hear a similar phrase on Lennox Lewis's lips. But perhaps not with bated breath.Reuse content