Boxing: Lewis must beware an ambush from the past

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The Independent Online

Shortly before his defining fight against Evander Holyfield in Madison Square Garden, Lennox Lewis said that every time he got into the ring it was like covering a piece of waste ground full of danger and fear of the unknown.

Now, four years on, and a few months short of his 38th birthday, he says the mystery is gone. It is simply a lucrative form of employment. Old fight hands shudder at such talk. It makes them worry about the possibility of a man, even one as experienced as Lewis, sleeping on the job.

Certainly Lewis, who is describing himself as the "last great heavyweight champion" before his defence of the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Organisation titles against Ukraine's 6ft 8in Vitali Klitschko here on Saturday night, has the demeanour of a champion for whom defeat is an imposter sheepishly tip-toeing out of his life.

Earlier this week, in his last serious sparring, he stepped away from the bloodied Ty Fields with a shrug that may have signified compassion - or a heavy and wearying sense of the sheer formalities of his boxing life. That latter suspicion was not discouraged by the brusque decision of his camp to turn down the demand of the big Jamell McCline for $50,000 (£30,000) for one sparring session. Could it be that Lewis is once again sleepwalking into an ambush, that he has lost sight of his old imperative finally to leave the ring on his own terms - and by his own locomotion?

He swears it is not so. After a work-out that contrived to look relaxed despite musical accompaniment by Capelton and 50 Cent, he insisted he retained a firm grip - and focus - on the last years of his professional life.

"I know people are concerned I've lost sight of when to stop," he said, "but my thinking is based on the fact that I don't get hit. I don't get hurt - my last couple of fights have generally not been hard, but don't worry, I do have that concern about getting the timing of my retirement right. I definitely know when to quit - but it is not right now.

"I won't need anybody to tell me when to go, and it will probably be a surprise to everybody when I quit. I'm not thinking about it now because I'm still winning, still feeling good, still enjoying it - and at this point it is what I do."

You suggest that he really should have gone a year ago in Memphis, when he closed down an era with his wasting of Mike Tyson. That, surely, would have had a neat historical imprint? "Yes, that did go through my mind," he says, "but now I think Roy Jones would provide a natural finish to my career if he dares to take the test. Yeah, he might just be mad enough to get into the ring with me. There's so much money involved - the most he's ever earned from a fight is $10m, and there will be a lot more than that involved in fighting me. That may encourage him because people go funny over money."

Klitschko, despite a record of 31 knock-outs in 32 wins, with just one defeat, certainly looks vulnerable in his tendency to come on to all opponents, a habit made for Lewis's talent for releasing long and punishing rights and draining uppercuts, but here is another worry. When Lewis lost to Hasim Rahman in Johannesburg two years ago, he talked blithely of a forthcoming mega-fight with Tyson, and, seven years earlier, when he lost his only other fight, to Oliver McCall, he imagined he was merely coasting to a meeting with the previously elusive Riddick Bowe.

Could there just be an echo now of those comfortably avenged disasters which, he eventually conceded, were the results of pure complacency? "Definitely not," he says. "It doesn't drive me crazy that I have those defeats on my record because at those times I really think I needed them. I always say to people that you can't be great unless you know what it's like to lose, and in that sense I think losing to McCall and Rahman helped catapult my career to its present level. I noted that Muhammad Ali lost three times but on each occasion came back to prove his greatness.

"Those defeats helped me dig down and ask myself the important question: is this really what I want, and because of them I was so much stronger when I went into more important fights with people like Holyfield and Tyson. Now when people review my career they'll look at the first McCall and Rahman fights and say, 'freak mistakes'."

It is a category from which Klitschko will be ruthlessly excluded, Lewis says. "He's been calling me for a long time and he's someone who is big and thinks he is better than me, and I'm out to show him that he's not. He tried to take my title in court and I wouldn't allow it to happen. I said he would have to fight me for it, and I just don't think he's that good. I'm going to take an early night on Saturday. He just can't stand up to me."

He goes off to sell a few more tickets with an appearance at the Dodgers-Giants baseball game, leaving in the thick, clammy air of the Los Angles Boxing Club beside a freeway and the Olympic Auditorium which knew so many passionate fight nights and a few of his familiar profundities. Great champions are made by achievement not hype... he is like fine wine getting better with age... somewhere in the hot streets there is maybe a kid who will take something from his example.

But, in the meantime, he says he represents the last in the line of great champions. He is serene in that certainty, and no doubt he is in good condition. But is he a little too serene? Form and class ridicule the idea. But whatever he says, he is wrong about one thing. You cannot take the mystery out of boxing. It is why Klitschko's fighting talk has brought a little warmth to the box office, where 10,000 seats at the 18,000 Staples Center are said to have been sold. And why the great champion cannot quite remove a twinge of doubt.