Boxing: Lucky escape for Lewis may only be a stay of execution

Ukrainian's valiant display looks likely to earn him a re-match as Britain's world heavyweight champion is forced to struggle

Lennox Lewis, blowing harder than a harpooned whale, was rescued from both himself and his advisers here in the small hours of yesterday morning when a ring doctor ruled that his challenger, Vitali Klitschko, could no longer properly defend himself. The champion's reaction was to drag himself off his stool and raise a leaden arm of triumph.

Triumph? The fear has to be that it was really a stay of execution, and that what lay beyond it was not another redemption but a journey to the darkest place in a fighter's soul.

The decision, at the end of the sixth round, gave Lewis his 15th world heavyweight title victory but did nothing to quieten fears that, in his 38th year, his legacy as a great champion, and maybe his health, is being put at needless risk.

Klitschko, who required 60 stitches to a tattoo of wounds on the left side of his face, led on every judge's card when the referee, Lou Moret, was advised that the Ukrainian challenger could no longer properly defend himself because of impaired vision in his left eye.

But then who is going to protect Lewis in the last years, or months, of his career? The willingness to fight Klitschko, the No 1 contender, at two weeks' notice was considered reckless and bizarre by many boxing insiders, and the extent of the folly was only compounded when, as early as the second round, Lewis was gasping for breath and offering himself as a sitting target.

Later, Lewis insisted that he was on the point of knocking Klitschko out when the doctor, Paul Wallace, made his second inspection of a severely cut eye.

It is true that in the sixth round Lewis landed three of his best punches, an explosive left hook and two powerful uppercuts, but even his trainer, Emanuel Steward, admitted that at the end of the round both fighters were exhausted ­ a statement that in boxing, particularly at the heavyweight level, is the same as saying that anything can happen.

It also made nonsense of claims by the Lewis camp that by coming into the fight at 18st 4lb ­ 3lb heavier than ever before ­ he was merely conforming to the fight strategy of increasing his power. If this was true, it simply completed a pattern of absurdity. Lewis, so imperious when separating Mike Tyson from his dark myth in Memphis last year, and a half stone lighter, now looked overweight, overwrought and, it has to be said, over the hill.

He said that he would be happy to give Klitschko a re-match because "next time I'll beat up the other side of his face. I'll definitely be lighter."

The clamour for a re-match will no doubt be led by Home Box Office Television, which offered the weekend fight free to its subscribers but is certain to pitch for a pay-per-view re-match in November or December. Kerry Davis, the HBO vice-president, who before the first bell talked up the chances of World Boxing Council title-holder Lewis's next, and maybe last, fight being against the World Boxing Association champion, Roy Jones, gave the green light to a re-match when he said: "This was a great fight, and I'm sure there will be a big demand for a return."

There is no doubt about it. Sixteen thousand fans in the Staples Center, the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, gave Klitschko a hero's ovation and booed Lewis out of the ring. Lewis shrugged and said: "That was because they like a good fight and were pleased to see that Klitschko had come to fight. But if there is a re-match, there can be no doubt about the result. Just look at the state of his face."

Lewis might also have profitably looked at the state of his own image. He came into the ring, or at least Thursday's weigh-in, as the respected and untouchable king of the heavyweights, rated by George Foreman, no less, as one of the five greatest in history. He left it to a chorus of sneers, and a tirade from the International Boxing Federation champion, Chris Byrd, who shouted: "We saw tonight what you got left in the tank ­ it's nothing. The way you prepared for this fight was a disgrace. You were garbage against a guy who quit on me."

In fact, Klitschko's only previous defeat came when, after leading Byrd comfortably, he tore his left shoulder and decided to stay in his corner because of the risk of permanent injury. Here, Klitschko passed all the tests on his nerve and courage, and in the second round he swept the floundering Lewis close to defeat with a series of powerful right hands to the head.

"He didn't hurt me, he woke me up," Lewis said. Unfortunately, though, that didn't end the nightmare. It was broken only when the doctor asked Klitschko to look at him directly and noted that the fighter had to move his head to do so. "I noticed," Wallace said, "that his upper eyelid was cut away and obscuring the pupil of his eye. That meant he could not see a punch coming from straight ahead, which told me he couldn't defend himself."

Klitschko protested that he could see perfectly, adding: "I knew Lewis was not in great condition and I was going to exploit that in the later rounds. At the end of the fight I pushed him because I wanted him to say to the camera what he had said to me. He told me that he would give me a re-match."

Almost certainly Lewis will, not least because of his track record of redeeming himself from critical breakdowns in professional concentration. It happened after his shocking defeats by Oliver McCall in 1994 and Hasim Rahman two years ago.

On both occasions Lewis reinvented himself as a dedicated champion, went to training camp, did his work and demolished his conquerors. But there are only so many times a fighter can do that.

Even though the record says that Lewis beat Klitschko by technical knock-out, the truth was that his performance belonged in the McCall-Rahman category. It wasn't a victory but a seriously disfiguring blemish, one that he will seek to remove at the first opportunity while dramatically improving his income.

Lewis earned around $7m for his weekend's work. He will demand at least three times as much for a re-match that will carry something of the aura of one of the creations of ringside observer Sylvester Stallone. His Rocky Balboa went to war with the robotic Russian, Ivan Drago. Klitschko happens to be Ukrainian, but no less robotic. As robots go, though, Klitschko was surprisingly inventive, and Steward admitted: "He surprised me. I believe Lennox would have knocked him out in the seventh round if the fight hadn't been stopped, but there's no doubt he gave us some problems."

However, they were not so many as Lewis gave himself when he came into the ring so heavy. When the fight was halted, Klitschko led by two points on the cards of all three judges. It meant that while Tyson was being arrested in Brooklyn for an early-morning affray, his tormentor Lewis was travelling in precisely the opposite direction, out of jail.

The source of his salvation was a well-thrown right hand early in the third round. It opened up a cut over Klitschko's left eye and checked the momentum he was building with his clear edge in the first two rounds.

"Klitschko was ready to be knocked out before it was stopped," Lewis said. "His strength had deteriorated to the point where I knew I could knock him out. At the start, that was my problem ... my confidence that I was going to have too much power for him, and that I could put all the other stuff aside. People are talking about my condition, but why was it that he was doing all the holding? I certainly don't regard this as any kind of defeat. A fight is over 12 rounds. We had another six to go. I was going to put him away."

That confidence was not widely shared. At the end of the fight the HBO paymaster Davis was approached by a friend of Roy Jones, who said: "Roy just called me on my cell phone and told me to tell you that he could beat both of these guys on the same night."

A flight of fantasy from the egotistical though undoubtedly brilliant Jones? Surely, but his remark certainly caught the mood in the Staples Center. All week Lewis had been talking about his membership of the A-class heavyweight list ­ a club of one. But it was a claim that dissolved before our eyes.

Lewis, the boos said, had to go away and find himself again ­ if there was anything much left to find. Naturally, he believes there is. "I'm still the man," he asserted as he marched into the night.

But for how much longer? The fighter is often the last to know. He goes into denial and there is no more dangerous condition in an already hazardous game.

Impaired vision checked Vitali Klitschko. The worry is that it could just as easily destroy Lennox Lewis.

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