Boxing: Will Lewis risk all to put Rock in a hard place?

Britain's finest faces another gruelling popularity contest as America struggles to grasp the inaction-man style
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The Independent Online

As a piece of sporting theatre, episode two of Hasim Rahman versus Lennox Lewis may not be the most enthralling spectacle to be paraded before the American public. But it will be one that the sorely-troubled nation observes with edge-of-seat intrigue if not apprehension for Saturday's world heavyweight championship in Las Vegas is the highest profiled single sporting event to be taking place in the United States involving a significant Muslim figure since 11 September. Not that Rahman is a proselytising one; though deeply religious and committed to the cause, he was quick to publicly condemn the atrocities, as was Muhammad Ali.

Like Ali, he may say his prayers in the ring, but there will be no repeat of the disturbing night at the same Mandalay Bay Hotel arena seven months ago when Britain's Naseem Hamed and his noisy supporters unwisely turned the occasion of his fight against the Mexican Manuel Antonio Barrera into an Islamic convention. Many in the audience were deeply embarrassed, but Rahman is sensible enough to adopt a more restrained approach, and not risk offence. Not even the promoter Don King has had the audacity to promote the coming encounter as any form of holy war. Lewis has his own religious beliefs, but if anyone in boxing is born again it is surely the King who once again seems to be holding all the aces.

There is speculation that Rahman, a decent man, may be booed because of the terrorist atrocities. More likely, it is Lewis who will be the butt of the crowd's taunting, for the Las Vegas audience recall only too well his last appearance there in November when his defeat of the Samoan David Tua was pedestrian in every sense. The audience walked out.

Lewis has never achieved the heights of popularity in America, not so much that he is British with a transatlantic twang but because more often than not he treads the boards warily. He is no action-man, getting stuck in when the opportunity arises unless the opposition offers less than stern resistance.

Also they do not take kindly to the sort of arrogance he exudes, typified on the eve of his departure from Las Vegas last April to face Rahman in South Africa. Sage boxing heads nodded in astonishment when Lewis discarded the soundest of advice, inflicting upon himself a gross professional miscalculation which was to cost him the titles he had unified. He preferred to remain filming a bit-part in a Julia Roberts movie instead of acclimatising to the altitude in South Africa. It was said that Lewis had stars in his eyes; he was certainly seeing them for real just before dawn in Johannesburg two weeks later. Rahman is no better a fighter now than when he knocked out Lewis, but what he has acquired is an innate confidence that comes with being champion. It is born of the knowledge that Lewis can be biffed and bemused.

A "one-punch wonder'', Lewis continues to maintain, offering an array of excuses, which include the incredible allegation that the referee counted too quickly when he was poleaxed in a corner during the fifth round. "This is just a maths question which I need to solve," said Lewis bafflingly last week.

Yet watching the reruns it is clear the official could have tolled 10 times 10 and Lewis would still not have been in a fit state to continue. It is one of many delusions that Lewis has suffered about this defeat, for which he only grudgingly admits that he was under-prepared. He seems to be in a state of denial spraying blame in every direction but his own, acting as if the championship was his by right, and not confiscated by Rahman's right.

If he wishes to make a real fight of it the 35-year-old Lewis has every chance of regaining the title because Rahman's sobriquet of The Rock is certainly not a testimony to his chin. But going for a knockout himself involves a high-risk policy that Lewis may not care to undertake against such a dangerous puncher. It is more likely he will elect to stay behind the jab, shoving and shuffling his way towards a points victory that may satisfy his own ego, but not the public. Lewis deserves immense credit for his achievements. He is the finest heavyweight Britain has produced and is worthy enough to be bracketed with the heavyweight greats.

But for such a big man he has too rarely translated his talents into the explosiveness expected of him. Technically, he may be the best heavyweight of them all, but temperamentally he is deeply flawed. Mr Cool has become Mr Complacent and, as the British promoter Frank Warren says, complacency has no place in boxing. "You have seen what happens when people try to walk on water."

There isn't too much sympathy in boxing with the man who has become a self-proclaimed lord of the rings, surrounding himself with a coterie of cheerleaders. It was sadly significant that last week he chose to eject from his camp his manager, Frank Maloney, who was much more than a mere court jester in a silly suit. He was the one adviser who had the bottle to stand up to Lewis, telling him where he was going wrong.

But Lewis will simply not be told. He has had a bit of a cob-on of late, even refusing interview access to one of his paymasters BSkyB, who screened the fight pay-per-view. Those of us weaned on Ali cannot comprehend such behaviour. "Can we speak to the champ for five minutes?'' we once asked Angelo Dundee when Ali was bedridden with flu in Dublin. "No chance,'' replied the trainer sombrely. "He never speaks to anyone for less than an hour, go on up."

Coming up to 36, there aren't too many fights left for Lewis, except of course the big one with Mike Tyson if they can get it together. But Rahman-Tyson is an equally attractive proposition for King should we see a repeat of last April's upset. Rahman believes he has the will and power to do it. "I don't think they underestimate me now, they just refuse to bear witness to the truth. However I knock him out they can't accept that I have got this guy's number."

Lewis may have dismissed Rahman as a one-punch wonder, but it is one punch that could have worked wonders for the 29-year-old American. Lewis, should he remain deep in heavyweight hubris, could succumb to it again at around the same time. However, we hear that this time he has done his homework and his roadwork, which suggests we are in for 12 rounds of tedium with Lewis's foot poised reluctantly over the accelerator.

Lennox the lion or Lennox the lummox? If, as he believes, he is still the real champion then it is time he stood up to be counted. And not counted out.