High quality of a reticent ring hero

First British undisputed heavyweight champion this century restores dignity to the division of derision
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The Independent Online

It has been a tumultuous week for boxing. The achievement of Lennox Lewis in becoming the first Briton this century to hold the undisputed world heavyweight championship has provided the sport with a desperately needed way forward.

It has been a tumultuous week for boxing. The achievement of Lennox Lewis in becoming the first Briton this century to hold the undisputed world heavyweight championship has provided the sport with a desperately needed way forward.

Logic suggests that, at 34, Lewis cannot remain at the top for long but, after a year wracked by scandal and disappointment, boxing could not ask for a better role model as its figurehead. Quiet, dignified, classy men are rarities and especially so in the high-pressure society of world-class sport. Lewis is a calmly decisive man. If he remonstrates with anybody, it is in private. He's not cold, but deliberately sets himself apart. At times it would be easy to believe he's shy.

Apart from family and loyal friends, few get close to him. From what we are told, there has been at least one long-term girlfriend, but she was either not allowed, or had no wish, to share the glare of the public spotlight. For a man who is cautious by nature, this is understandable. He has seen the mess and turmoil which has afflicted his contemporaries, Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, and Evander Holyfield, whom he beat on a unanimous points decision in Las Vegas last weekend.

It was the fate of Tyson, who is nine months younger than Lewis, to find fame and untold wealth too soon. He won the World Boxing Council version of the heavyweight title before his 21st birthday. He was at his peak in the summer of 1988, when Lewis won the Olympic gold medal in Seoul. By the following year, Tyson's marriage to the actress Robin Givens had ended in acrimonious divorce. While they had been together she had humiliated him on a live television talk show, labelling him a violent manic depressive who needed medication in order to maintain control.

Tyson went on to spend three years of a 10-year sentence in jail after being found guilty of rape and deviant sexual conduct. During a separate case dealing with what was basically an unwanted grope in a club, Tyson suffered the embarrassment of being called a serial buttock fondler. He has remarried but his wife has had to accept that their life together is subject to intense scrutiny because of Tyson's past. So too, Tyson's comments on all things domestic. For example, the joke that misfired when he allegedly described their new-born daughter as "so beautiful she makes her mother look like a junkyard dog". When they moved to Phoenix, Tyson had to cope with the humiliation of registering as a sex offender. "I have no dignity," he said.

For years Riddick Bowe, whom Lewis beat in the Olympic final, was a model family man. The loss of his heavyweight title and, after two bruising disqualification wins over low-blow addict Andrew Golota in 1996, the loss of his career, sent the poor man into despair. An ill-considered attempt to join the US Marines was curtailed because he admitted he was missing his wife, Judy, and five children. He was laughed at. Soon afterwards his marriage broke up.

Now he awaits trial and, if convicted, a possible jail sentence for forcing his wife into a car and driving her, against her will, from North Carolina in the direction of their Maryland home. It was said that his wife, whose ordeal ended when she telephoned her sister from a service station, did not want him prosecuted but it is beyond her control. He is 32.

Even Holyfield, whose religious zeal is publicly displayed whenever he boxes, holds up his hands so far as his personal life is concerned. He has nine children, several born out of wedlock. His second marriage to a qualified doctor, Janice Itson, fell apart when he admitted to fathering two children while she was pregnant. They are still coming to what appears to be a bitterly fought settlement.

Lewis is understandably wary of putting himself in a vulnerable position. This week writers looking for behind-the-scenes material have really only managed to come up with his mother, Violet, who raised him on her own and who took him to Canada when he was still a child. She still cooks for him.

The Lewis camp is remarkable for its stability. His conditioner, Courtney Shand, was a schoolfriend in Kitchener, Ontario; his second trainer, Harold Knight, who was a world-class fighter until a subarachnoid cyst was discovered in a routine brain scan, has been with him since the early days; his manager, Frank Maloney, and Dennis Lewis, the champion's elder brother who manages and organises everything behind the scenes, have been there from the start. Lewis has hired the same cut man, Al Gavin, for years.

The only changes have been the replacement of his disgraced backer Roger Levitt with Panos Eliades in 1992, and in the role of lead trainer. John Davenport was replaced by Pepe Correa, who was ejected in 1994. Emanuel Steward has held the job for close to five years.

The fact that Maloney has remained in power is evidence of the value Lewis places on continuity. When he signed Lewis in 1989, Maloney was a small-time south London fight manager who dabbled in co-promotions. The big players of the time said he would not handle the job. He has, and in 1993 even withstood serious heat from that most practised of operators, Don King.

When King shelled out around $12m to stage Lewis's first defence of the WBC championship against Tony Tucker in Las Vegas in 1993, the American launched a vicious attack on Maloney. His publicists released a vitriolic pamphlet under the titleThe Indiscretions of Frank Maloney - Vicious, Stupid or Both? which also labelled the diminutive manager a "mental midget" and "pugilistic pygmy". Maloney's skin was thick enough to accept the insults, but when King set off with another verbal assault before the world's media, Lewis himself intervened. He cut King off in mid-rant and made a public confirmation of Maloney's position as his manager. "I try to stay with natural people," he said a while ago. "People that I know and that were there in the beginning." At one time he wore an earring called an ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol of life, and practised meditation. "I'm at peace with myself," he said. "Too many people are in a rush. I just take things nice and easy."

Too often people want too much from sporting giants. They expect them to be in some way larger than life. Being ordinary, disciplined and respectable is too often perceived as unattractive. For years Lewis belaboured the point that he was on a personal mission to unify the heavyweight title. Now the quest is complete. The British public will make its own choice, but it would be good for sport as a whole in this country if this understated, sensible man were feted for his qualities rather than faulted for his failure to fit stereotypes which have existed for far too long.