Boxing: Lewis in the mood to cut Klitschko down to size

At 6ft 8in, this useful Ukrainian challenger is a genuine threat to the world champion. Alan Hubbard examines the possibilities
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The Independent Online

Many years ago, Britain's greatest-ever boxing promoter, the late Jack Solomons, used to boast when a top-of-the-bill opponent pulled out that he would obtain a substitute "better than the original''.

It was, you might say, the original spin. More often than not sheer promotional hype, of which he was the acknowledged master.

However, in Los Angeles next Saturday there is a definite ring of truth about what was once perceived as the wisdom of Solomons. There is no argument that Vitali Klitschko, the 6ft 8in Ukrain-ian who might well have modelled for the Russian giant who literally killed off Rocky's celluloid soulmate Apollo Creed, is superior to the undistinguished Kirk Johnson.

The Canadian's defection because of a chest injury sustained in training - "he seems to have pulled a heart muscle'' was Lewis's sceptical observation - suggests that what had the hallmark of a humdrum night may become a far more meaningful one. And also one where Lewis's World Boxing Council heavyweight title is genuinely at risk.

Klitschko's opportunity has been expedited by necessity. Tickets for Lewis v Johnson had been selling with embarrassing slowness, but by bringing in the No 1 contender the promoters have shown Solomons-esque sharpness. It becomes more of a fight, less of a formality.

Funny game, fisticuffs. Klitschko will be aware of the fate that befell his younger and supposedly better brother Wladimir, who was touted to be the real successor to Lewis before he was caught cold by the unranked South African Corrie Sanders.

With Wladimir at least temporarily out of the picture, step forward Klitschko the elder, the 31-year-old son of a former Soviet Air Force colonel, who may not be as intellectually accomplished as his brother, who holds a doctorate, but has a boxing brain that is at least his equal.

Like Wladimir, he is university educated and multilingual, fluently speaking the only language that Herbie Hide understands - a whack on the whiskers (Audley Harrison, please note). Klitschko silenced the noisy Norwich nuisance, stiffing him in two rounds and taking Hide's World Boxing Organisation title four years ago.

Another Briton, Julius Francis, figures in Klitschko's hit list of 31 stoppage wins. Could Lewis become the third in a hat-trick of British victims? Klitschko certainly has the ambition, as well as the artillery, but surely Lewis would not have taken this contest at such short notice had he been seriously concerned about the outcome.

Lewis is also supposedly around £5 million poorer than he would have been had the Klitschko fight taken place as scheduled next October. His TV backers, HBO, say they have insufficient time to market it for pay TV in the United States, though it will be screened here on Sky, and the upgrading of the occasion will have more fingers on the Box Office button.

Klitschko, who turned professional after the 1996 Olympics, where his brother was the super-heavyweight champion, was relieved of the WBO title he took from Hide after two defences when he retired at the end of the 10th round against Chris Byrd with a shoulder injury. It was his only defeat in 33 bouts.

He may be the world's tallest boxer, and men of his physical stature are usually freaks. But he is more than a boxing beanpole. What he lacks in lateral movement he makes up for by working behind the jab. He is also equipped to smother Lewis's best shots and test his stamina. At his best, he could make Lewis look bad; at his very best, he could make him feel foolish. But if Lewis is at his best, as he was when he made mincemeat of Mike Tyson a year ago, it should be a further notch on the Lewis belt that secures his place in history.

A lack of consistency in his performances and the occasional dose of complacency have spasmodically blighted Lewis's 43-fight, 14-year career. While he has a technique that brackets him with the all-time greats, he sometimes can be a bit of a slouch.

Of late, Klitschko has been taking his time to overcome mediocre opposition, labouring to a points win over Timo Hoffman in Germany, stopp-ing Vaughn Bean in 11 and Larry Donald in 12. His best hope would seem to be to catch Lewis on an off-night. Certainly one worrying aspect is the year of absence following the Tyson demolition.

Lewis will be 38 in November, and while he predicts he can carry on boxing for another couple of years he is at an age when the ring rust begins to form shackles around the ankles.

With both his losses - to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman - emphatically revenged, Lewis remains in a position to call the shots in a ho-hum heavyweight division.

He is at his best when he feels threatened, and there isn't anyone who might intimidate him after Klitschko - unless Wladimir can get his act together again, or Roy Jones can acquire a couple more stones and inches.

So is there life after Lewis? Audley Harrison would have us believe there is, and Lewis clearly sees him as a sorcerer's apprentice, inviting him to a training tutorial at his base in the Poconos.

There is a growing belief that this is the year when Lewis will retire and perhaps take Harrison in hand, but first he has to cut Klitschko down to size. A tall order? Probably not, though Lewis should remember Rocky.