As if Lennox Lewis did not feel sufficiently besieged as he did his roadwork on a jewel-like desert morning here, one of his most persistent heavyweight critics produced still another ambush of the mind.
Larry Holmes, arguably the most underrated champion in the history of boxing's most fabled division, has never been a fan of the man who fights to restore his titles here on Saturday against Hasim Rahman and his latest verdict is an emphatic: "Rahman wins – and again by knock-out."
Lewis has defied such doubts about his status as one of the most gifted champions ever to rule the big men often enough in the past, notably when outpointing Evander Holyfield and napalming such allegedly dangerous opponents as Donovan Ruddick and Andrew Golota – and this time last year here he made nonsense of predictions that he was vulnerable to the power of his No 1 challenger, David Tua. But, at 36, the impact of Rahman's knock-out punch in Johannesburg in the spring is still troublingly resonant, and Holmes' damning indictment of Lewis's chances do not come alone.
They are accompanied by the force of history. This is the 14th time a former undisputed heavyweight champion has tried to win back his crown in an immediate re-match. The record is not encouraging for Lewis's supporters. Ten of the attempts have failed.
Only Jack Sharkey, against Max Schmeling in 1932, Floyd Patterson, in his re-match with Ingemar Johansson in 1960, and Muhammad Ali, when he dredged up the last of his spirit to reverse the result against Leon Spinks in 1978, have pulled off one of the biggest comeback challenges in sport. Lewis might argue that he avenged his shock defeat by Oliver McCall in London in 1994 here four years ago, but that was for one branch of the world title, the World Boxing Council crown, and it is also not helpful to recall that McCall showed all the signs of a full-scale nervous breakdown when he got into the ring.
Ironically, though, Holmes might well have been able to help Lewis, at least statistically, if he had not suffered an appalling decision in his re-match with Michael Spinks here in 1986. Holmes bitterly railed against the "corruption" of Las Vegas judging after losing a second decision to Spinks. He was convinced that his criticism of the judging of the first fight had worked against him when the scorecards were totted up a second time. "I talked too much," Holmes recalls. "I put myself in a position where I had to win by knock-out and I couldn't do that because I wasn't that kind of a puncher. I got a lot of people angry and I paid for it in that I knew deep down I couldn't win on a decision."
Now Holmes believes that Rahman's one-punch knock-out of Lewis in South Africa has sown fatal doubts in the mind of the former champion.
"I could have gotten to Spinks but his awkwardness threw me off and that's what Rahman does to Lewis. Lennox knows now that this boy can punch and punch hard and that is in his mind. Lewis showed he doesn't take a good shot. He proved it against McCall and it was proven again when he fought Rahman.
"I think Lennox is a little weak when it comes to heart. He can box a little but he doesn't really jab. He paws the jab and that's a problem. He punches good with the right hand but he has to set it up , and Rahman will make that difficult for him. I think you're going to see a replay."
Lewis has defied such bleak prophecy in the past and he is producing a good impression of calm here. "I'm about the redemption business and I have no doubts that I can do it. Sometimes in life you have to concentrate your mind, and I'll give Rahman something. He has managed to concentrate my mind. He will find a different fighter in the ring on Saturday night – he will find the real Lennox Lewis. I have come back before and I will do it again. Rahman has the belts, but in my mind I haven't stopped feeling like the real champion. It is good to have the chance to put things right."
The concern is that such formidable champions as Jack Dempsey, Sonny Liston, Mike Tyson all believed fervently that they were in position to re-make history. They were all confounded, Dempsey by Gene Tunney, Liston by Ali, Tyson by Evander Holyfield. All of them had reason to believe that they had the power to reclaim the mountain-top, but all of them found that the other men had grown strong at their own broken places.
Lewis says that Johannesburg was a blip, an oddity, something to put alongside Johansson's sucker punching of the much superior Patterson, Schmeling's defeat of Joe Louis in a non-title bout and Leon Spinks' impertinent defeat of an Ali who, like Lewis in South Africa, had seriously neglected his preparation. He would say this, naturally, and the odds-makers have good reasons to make him favourite again, though at rather less than the prohibitive 15-1 against they set for the first fight. Lewis can also say that Rahman is no Tunney, no Ali, no Holyfield. However, no one can really know until Saturday night what Rahman's punch did to Lennox Lewis seven months ago. The concern must be that history so strongly insists it cannot have done him much good.Reuse content