Shortly before he fought Evander Holyfield for the undisputed world heavyweight title, Lennox Lewis talked about the brief, perilous journey he had to make into a "small window of time". It could, he knew, determine how he felt about himself for the rest of his life.
"All fighters have to make this journey," he said. "It's like crossing a wasteland. Michael Spinks didn't make it when he fought Mike Tyson. He froze, and he has to live with that." Here on Saturday night Lewis goes time-travelling again when he seeks to regain defeat by the unheralded man from Baltimore.
"When I was told the first fight [against Hasim Rahman] was over I couldn't believe it, but I knew I had the re-match," Lewis recalled this week as he sat pensively watching night fall on the desert stretching out to the Sierra Nevada from the clutter of neon below his hotel suite. "Now I know there's no second chance. This time I have to deliver. I don't like writing anything in stone, but I don't believe I would want to do anything but retire if I lost to Rahman again. I cannot see it happening, but that is the reality of my situation. I have to win, I believe I have the armoury to win and I don't see how I have any alternative."
One thing is self-evident. If Lewis falls again, if the widespread sense that the right hand of Rahman which removed him from the mountain top in Johannesburg in April has re-awakened too many of the demons which came with his only other defeat in 12 years as a professional, the second-round knock-out by Oliver McCall seven years ago, at least it cannot be said that he went carelessly to his oblivion as a fighter deserving of a high ranking in the pantheon of heavyweight champions.
His trainer, Emanuel Steward, swears that Lewis has worked as hard as at any time in the last few years which saw him rise, it seemed, into a dimension beyond any feasible challenge, and certainly the physical evidence could scarcely be more impressive. Lewis has lost the puffy, ill-defined look he took from a movie set in Las Vegas to his South African training camp just 12 days before the first fight. He looks certain to come in appreciably lighter than the 18st 1lb he scaled then, and when he moved around the ring in a light work-out this week he carried his old aura of a beautifully conditioned athlete. Indeed, it was not so easy to dismiss one of his more favoured soundbites over the last few days, the one in which he insists that Rahman is wrong to build too much self-belief around the circumstance of one successful punch.
That punch is, of course, a reality which cannot be expunged, and Rahman's manager, Stan Hoffman, is not slow to make the point. "Lennox can come in with all kinds of strategy, all kinds of belief that he is back in his best shape and must win this time," said Hoffman. "But deep down he knows that Rahman took him out with a great punch. It is a punch that changed everything, how Rahman thought about himself and how Lennox thinks about himself now. This is a huge factor and Lennox cannot talk himself out of it."
In fact up in the hotel suite Lewis abandoned much of the verbal bluster which inevitably swirls around the build-up to a big fight. He dealt coolly with the controversies of the last few weeks. His break-up with his old manager, Frank Maloney, was one of those things that happen in life, a matter of business, but he said that he felt Maloney would be with him again in spirit when he stepped into the ring. "You cannot spend so much time with someone without building up a real chemistry, and that isn't going to disappear. When I step into the ring Frank will be there," said Lewis.
His move in the direction of Don King, a man whose advances he had so long resisted, was not so much a betrayal of his own values as a practical recognition that, as time begins to run out on his long career, there is a compelling case for working with boxing's sharpest operator. "If you're not with King," said Lewis, "he's going to do everything he can against you. I know this well enough. He can even deny you sparring partners."
Lewis is not impressed by the argument that working with King will make impossible a climactic fight with Mike Tyson after the latter's declaration that he would never again sign a contract with the promoter. "Tyson," declared Lewis, "says a lot of things he goes back on."
Nor did Lewis have much appetite for recounting the precise circumstances of his much-hyped scuffle with Rahman in a television studio, beyond saying that the edited version did him little justice and that if anyone cared to see the untouched video they were welcome. The fact was it all finished with Lewis chasing Rahman out into the street. From there, Lewis alleged, Rahman sent in a bodyguard to recover a necklace lost in wrestling stemming from an exchange of insults which included references to Rahman's sister and Lewis's mother. It was, suggested Lewis, a minor spat indeed when measured against what he concedes will be the fight for the meaning of his life.
"It has hurt, no doubt," said Lewis, "as it did when I lost to McCall, but this is the second time I have gone through it and in a real way that helps. I know I handled it before and that I can do it again. I could be harder on myself, I know I should have prepared better for the first fight, and I know there is no way in the world that I would have gone into a fight with someone like Mike Tyson in that way.
"But that's over now, and I know how well I have worked for this fight. I wasn't properly focused in South Africa, there's no argument, but I'm completely focused now. I know what to do, and I know that Rahman didn't see the real Lennox Lewis last time.
"He's a freshman in the game and I've been doing it for a long time. He got me with a good shot when I came off the ropes poorly, but he's not going to get that chance again. He's going to face an eye-splitting jab and he's going to be sent back to where he came from."
Earlier in the day, as Rahman worked out, a woman spectator cried out that she loved Lennox Lewis. Rahman climbed on to the ropes and shouted back: "I love Lennox Lewis more than you do. He has given me so much money." When Lewis came into the arena his fan cried out again, but his reaction was somewhat less exuberant than Rahman's.
He gave a small wave and a fleeting smile. Some say he is displaying the body language of a troubled man, that the certainties of his life have been ripped away. It is not an outrageous interpretation given all the circumstances, but there is something in the mood of Lewis which cautions against assigning him too quickly among the victims of a game in which he was so recently so dominant.
The odds-makers are holding to their belief that a properly prepared Lewis will regain the ground he lost so dramatically in Johannesburg, though at 1-3 their confidence in the big man has shrivelled from the 1-15 they were offering before the first fight. Lewis understands the scepticism, says it gives him something of the edge he carried in those earlier days as a contender.
"I believe," he says, "that I have done too much as a fighter for it to end like this." It is no mean motivation, certainly, for a man attempting maybe for the last time to cross the wasteland that comes, sooner or later, to every fighter.Reuse content