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Boxing: Lewis deafened by voices from outside the ring

Lennox Lewis versus Roy Jones is a preposterous idea, but then boxing once planned a collision between Muhammad Ali and Wilt Chamberlain, the giant basketball player.

It might have happened, too, if Ali hadn't unnerved his prospective opponent in the preamble to the press conference called to announce the fight. "Whatever you do, don't mock Wilt, it could blow everything," Ali was told. The great man nodded solemnly, but when Chamberlain came walking up to the stage, Ali couldn't resist. "Timber," he shouted. End of fight.

Lewis, who like Ali back then is in search of a meaningful opponent, is much more circumspect by nature and on the run-in to his fight with the Canadian Kirk Johnson in Los Angeles on 21 June he refuses to stamp out speculation that the brilliant but diminutive Jones might be in the opposite corner for a farewell show some time next year.

With the reluctance of Mike Tyson to take up his option on a clause for a re-match with Lewis the world heavyweight champion says, "Most definitely I've been thinking about retiring on a last big superfight - it could be Vitaly Klitschko - or Roy Jones."

So why is Lewis fighting the mediocre Johnson rather than the Ukrainian or Jones, who so entertainingly stripped down the reigning World Boxing Association champion John Ruiz earlier this year? "I believe I've proved all I need to," adds Lewis, "and to me Johnson is the best fighter out of the B-Class. I'm the only one in the A-class. Roy Jones is a remarkable boxer, but not a true heavyweight. Yes, Ruiz beat Johnson, but styles make fights. Lennox Lewis is the best, there is none higher. Jones should call me sire."

But Jones might just also call Lewis his ultimate meal ticket, and decide that in another year's time the undisputed master of the heavyweight division, at 39, might just be a little more vulnerable to outstanding speed and ringcraft.

Of course boxing careers shouldn't end like this, and especially great ones. Before he became mired in boxing politics, Lewis had a clear picture of his exit. He was going to win it all. He was going to track down the evasive Riddick Bowe, who he had beaten in the Seoul Olympics in 1988, then round up Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.

It was all going to be so clean and conclusive. He would be around 30 at the time. Now, he is listening to the blandishments of those in his camp who, classically, don't want to see the end of the show. One tell-tale quote: "I said to my [conditioning] trainer Courtney Shand, 'I think I'm getting too old for this sport.' He said, 'You're not old yet. There's still a couple of years in you.' I listened to him and said, 'You're right.' I've still got a good year in me to take care of a couple of guys. I enjoy being a credit to boxing."

On Lewis's lips such rhetoric once had a blazing validity. Now it is trailing into self-parody. Once he represented the best of his game in his willingness to fight anyone out there. Now he is obliged to delve into the shadows to find someone who might just sell a ticket or two. Roy Jones would fill a hall with fans dying to shout "timber". It would be a curiosity more than a fight. As Lewis said, Jones is not a true heavyweight. But then what's truth got to do with it as Lennox Lewis listens to voices other than his own...voices from outside the ring.