Lewis and Tua return to the days of dignity

James Lawton in Las Vegas
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The Independent Online

Something strange, even freakish is happening here at the approach of tomorrow night's world heavyweight title bout between the champion, Lennox Lewis, and his exuberant challenger, David Tua.

Something strange, even freakish is happening here at the approach of tomorrow night's world heavyweight title bout between the champion, Lennox Lewis, and his exuberant challenger, David Tua.

Lewis and Tua are in grave danger of giving the old fight game a good name.

They are doing it in various ways, all enhanced by a shared natural dignity, but most striking is their refusal to indulge in the kind of grisly hype which a few years ago provoked the respected boxing man Teddy Atlas to leave a ballroom in the MGM Grand Casino Hotel here in search "of a long, cold shower and plenty of soap and towels".

Atlas, who once famously held a gun to the head of the teenaged Mike Tyson and threatened its use if the fighter continued to bother a local girl in the little upstate New York town of Catskill, had been revolted by the behaviour of Tyson'sentourage in the build-up to the first fight with Evander Holyfield.

One of Tyson's co-managers, the subsequently banished Rory Holloway, for whom the fighter had the habit of buying a large piece of diamond jewellery before every big fight, scraped the floor when he declared: "If Holyfield stands up to my man, he leaves town in a casket."

Several of Holloway's "team-mates" looked at Holyfield and drew their hands across their throats. It was sickening in the way of Tyson's much earlier announcement that one of his ambitions was to drive the nose bone of an opponent into his brain. Later, he shrugged off the remark as a joke. It was the kind of joke which became a stock in trade and when Atlas, a not notably squeamish fellow who carries a deep scar from the street fighting of a wild youth on one of his cheeks, walked out of the big room with bile in his mouth he evoked a time when the great fighters treated each other with respect if not tenderness.

Atlas would have been a lot more comfortable around Lewis and Tua this week, and most notably on the day when they met in another big Vegas ballroom - this time at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino - for a last yank at the publicity pump.

There was just one echo of the Tyson style. It came from his retained rabble rouser, Steve Fitch, the ex-convict who wears battle fatigues and rejoices in the title The Crocodile and whose presence here, following the appearance earlier of one of Tyson's trainers, Stacey McKinley, is still more evidence that the former world champion is indeed committed to fighting Lewis.

When Fitch started to heckle Lewis, the world champion, whose new promotional company is called Lion, pointed out with more bite than geographical precision: "Lions live in the jungle and I'm the king of the jungle - crocodiles live in the swamp." Sub-Churchillian, perhaps, but Lewis's remark was not delivered archly. It was rather one of a series of easy asides from a man who has grown without stress into the role of world champion and these last few days has shown, more than ever, absolute command of both physical and psychological preparation for a big fight. It clearly helps that he has wrested much closer control of his affairs from his promoter, Panos Eliades, and he talks comfortably, if imprecisely, of his impending life after the ring. "I have some gyms in Canada, some promotional interests and I may open a restaurant in London, where we could have Jamaican jerk chicken on the menu. But I do have a little fighting left to do, and I would be a fool to take anything for granted. David Tua is a worthy challenger."

The Samoan is also an extremely engaging and amusing young man, who brought peals of laughter to the big room when he introduced himself and made a short speech entirely in his native Polynesian language, and then walked abruptly from the microphone with excellent comic timing. He returned to pay his respects to the champion, threaten the chandeliers with a high-pitched war cry and said that he represented above all a challenge to the spirit of a fine champion.

The nearest thing to an old style tirade came from Tua's manager, Kevin Barry, the former New Zealand Olympic boxer who beat Evander Holyfield on a disqualification at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. He listed the reasons why Tua would wear down Lewis, pointed out that the champion had never before faced such a hard-hitting opponent who could deliver a knock-out punch as easily in the 12th round as the first. But more than anything it was an impassioned statement of his fighter's strengths. Lewis asked for Barry's notes and then slowly tore them up for the benefit of the TV cameras.

"Fiction," he said in an exaggerated Jamaican twang.

So much for the hype, which was never less than good mannered and thus did not contain a single threat of death or maiming.

More substantial is the quality of the fight, a serious one between a dangerous No 1 challenger and a champion, who, in his own younger days, was relentlessly avoided by Riddick Bowe, the undisputed world heavyweight champion. Bowe had lost to Lewis in the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and rather than fight him as the World Boxing Council champion chose to throw the belt once worn by Muhammad Ali into a rubbish bin. In the year following his own ascent to the undisputed heavyweight championship, Lewis will have fought two leading contenders, Michael Grant, who was ransacked in two rounds at Madison Square Garden, and the hard-punching Tua. In Bowe's first year as champion he fought Michael Dokes and Jesse Ferguson, respectively a pitiful wreck of a former champion and a hopelessly overmatched journeyman who was one of Tyson's early sacrificial pieces of jaded mutton.

Naturally, there is one point of contention here. Lewis's American co-promoter, Gary Shaw, has complained about Tua's high warrior hairstyle, suggesting that it might house chemicals which could affect Lewis's vision should it brush against his eyes. Lewis, though, dismissed the idea that Tua's refusal to take a trim might threaten the fight. "I'll just have to get into the ring and give him a haircut myself. Tua has power, but he needs a lot more than power and a hair-do."

That was about as hostile as it got. However, the prospect of serious action tomorrow night could scarcely be more vivid. Teddy Atlas can come here without a pressing need for extra towels and soap. Still less a gun.

Scheduled is a good fight.Between good men.