Boxing: Lewis must knuckle down to realities of ring life

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When Muhammad Ali's physical disintegration was beginning to show, his erstwhile adversary Joe Frazier remarked with a sigh: "The trouble with the man is that he doesn't know how to die."

Not literally, of course. What Smokin' Joe meant was that Ali, by then an old soldier, wasn't in the business of shouldering his arms. He just wasn't ready to fade away.

Yet some years before, I recall Ali himself, then at the peak of his prowess, declaring in a rare moment of quiet reflection: "One of these days I'm going to lie on a beach somewhere and forget all this."

Alas, he never did, and we are all aware of the painful consequences. Will it be the same for Lennox Lewis who, judging from his truculent attitude after coming close to defeat by Vitali Klitschko last weekend, may, like Ali, be egocentric enough to ignore the flashing red lights which warn of fistic mortality?

They say in boxing the last thing a boxer loses is his punch. Wrong - it's his ego. The legs may go but blind pride lingers on.

Just what is it with Lewis? He has all the money he will ever need - certainly more than enough to buy his own beach to lie on in his beloved Jamaica - and after beating every opponent he has ever faced (albeit a couple at the second attempt) he has nothing left to prove, except perhaps the question of whether or not he would have overcome the giant Ukrainian but for that chasm-like cut.

It was the worst wound of its kind I have seen in heavyweight boxing since Ali sliced open Henry Cooper's eyebrow in their title fight at Highbury in 1966. It was exactly a year before Cooper fought again and Klitschko might need similar time before the injury is sufficiently healed to weather leather again.

One hopes the desire to get back at Lewis will not encourage him to cut surgical corners, for Lewis surely will not wish to wait too long. He has itchy fists. Coming up for 38 he must know time is not on his side and neither, at the moment, are the public.

There were occasions during the fight when he looked more like one of Audley Harrison's opponents than a world heavyweight champion and one has to agree with Sky's Jim Watt, the soundest of judges, that Lewis was overweight, over-confident and arrogant.

His trainer Manny Steward, whose reputation as boxing's No 1 guru is beginning to erode, seemed to misread Klitschko's style and ability. And for Lewis to infer he lacked heart was further testimony to the gracelessness that has pervaded his career.

There are those who have argued that Lewis is the best heavyweight champion since Joe Louis. Yet I cannot remember Ali fighting as poor a round as a champion as Lewis did in the second. Also, Ali was only ever stopped once (by Larry Holmes in his penultimate contest) whereas Lewis has twice been flattened by mediocre opponents. Holmes, too, had superior qualities to Lewis.

This is not to say Lewis has not been a great champion. But he has reigned in an age of relatively humdrum heavyweights. There are still a few of them around he could fight, such as Chris Byrd and John Ruiz, if he really is inclined to prolong his career into next year. And there is always Vitali Klitschko's equally huge younger brother, Wladimir. Now there's a thought. Wladimir's blossoming career was brutally blighted when he was caught cold by Corrie Sanders but there is no reason why he could not be resuscitated and become a contender again. After all, Lewis was - twice.

Then there's little old Roy Jones who condemned Lewis as being unprofessional both during and after the fight. The world's best pound-for-pounder will feel emboldened by Lewis's sluggish performance and could buzz round him like a firefly and sneak a points verdict. And next time Klitschko could KO him. Unless, of course, Lewis can re-discover the form, condition and motivation which enabled him to write Mike Tyson's ring epitaph.

He has done it before but you can't help feeling he'd be better off stretched out on the beach rather than the canvas.