Boxing: Lewis's limited appeal reflects the bleak state of boxing's flagship

On television the other day they were saying that once Andre Agassi, now 33, has gone tennis will be left crying out for a box-office figure, someone with the personality and style to reach a wider audience. Not being an avid follower of the fuzz ball, I was not greatly moved by this but it set me thinking.

Who in the modern pantheon of sport grabs the attention even of people who deem an interest in games evidence of arrested development? David Beckham, of course, although wearingly for reasons other that football prowess. Tiger Woods, possibly Michael Schumacher. And there you have it. Really.

We remember certain games, certain players, certain moves on vanished fields. Pele is performing tricks of marvellous invention, Ian Botham is belting sixes, John McEnroe is raising a storm. Above all, Muhammad Ali is leaving us breathless with his speed and audacity. The memories crowd together, quickly now.

The news that Vitali Klitschko has stepped up from the undercard to replace the injured Kirk Johnson as challenger for Lennox Lewis's WBC and IBO heavyweight championships in Los Angeles later this month causes no great excitement. Just another contest in the bleakest period of heavyweight history.

Here is another sobering truth; the only heavyweight with widespread crowd appeal is the utterly discredited Mike Tyson, who was beaten up by Lewis last year. Lewis, the dominant presence of his era, simply does not sell. Emphasising the parlous state of boxing's flagship division, Tyson's decision to pull out of a contest on the Los Angeles card resulted in a slashing of ticket prices and forced the broadcasters HBO to abandon pay-per-view transmission.

If, traditionally, Los Angeles is lukewarm to heavyweights - Ali failed to draw a full house when facing Ken Norton in a non-title bout almost 30 years ago - this does not entirely explain the lack of interest. "What do you expect?" asks a long-term observer of boxing in the United States. "Two foreign heavyweights fighting on American soil and neither one likely to quicken the pulse. I'd be surprised if pulling up Klitschko to face Lewis has sold twenty more seats."

It cannot be imagined that Klitschko carries enough threat to seriously trouble a properly prepared Lewis, but, whatever the outcome, heavyweight boxing will remain in the doldrums. If history suggests that someone always comes along - Tyson appeared as if out of nowhere in 1986 to spread terror throughout the division - things have not looked so bleak since the 1950s when the blown-up middleweight Floyd Patterson overcame a wizened Archie Moore for the vacant title and defended it against a series of no-hopers, including the Olympic gold medallist Pete Rademacher, who was knocked out in his first professional contest. All these triumphs were put into perspective when Patterson, after regaining the title from Ingemar Johannson, was twice battered to defeat in the opening round by Sonny Liston.

Twenty five years ago this week, Larry Holmes became the WBC heavyweight champion when he outpointed Ken Norton, an anniversary he celebrated with friends at his home in Easton, Pennsylvania. It took Holmes almost six years to get a title shot. "Those were different times," he said. "I came up in the era of Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, Mike Weaver, Norton. I took what I could get, hustled, looked and listened. When I sparred with some of those guys it was a learning process.

"I don't see that now, don't see much out there," Holmes added. "Tyson is shot. Lewis is huge and talented but, because he never takes a chance, he doesn't get through to the public. A fighter is entitled to go about things the way he thinks best but you've got to take risks to be known as a great champion."

A pretty solid conclusion is that decline in heavyweight standards can be traced to socio-economic changes in the USA. When Joe Louis transcended boxing in the 1930s and 1940s, major American sports were off limits to black aspirants. "Baseball, basketball and football were white games," said the former Associated boxing correspondent Ed Schuyler. "Now, it's fair to say, they are dominated by black players. Because there are other opportunities, the impulse to take up boxing is no longer as strong. Although it's my guess that someone will come along, frankly I don't see anyone out there."

Forty years ago next week, Henry Cooper almost brought about one of the biggest shocks in heavyweight history when he dropped the then Cassius Clay with a trademark left hook in a non-title fight at Wembley Stadium. In that dramatic context the bluster emanating from Audley Harrison's camp is quite fatuous.