"Lewis is going to bop him," Amiri Baraka said with a chuckle, his head down as he signed a copy of his collected writings for an admirer in a deconsecrated church in New York's East Village on Wednesday night. "Lewis is going to knock Grant out."
Twenty blocks uptown, at Madison Square Garden, Lennox Lewis and Michael Grant had just completed the formal press conference that is among the standard preliminaries to a big fight. There, too, it was hard to find anyone, outside of Grant and his connections, prepared to disagree with the prediction that Lewis will wake up on Sunday morning still looking at the heavyweight champion of the world in his bathroom mirror.
Baraka had just finished reading his latest poem, "A Modest Proposal for Giuliani's Disposal", a hilariously scabrous broadside aimed at the city's unloved mayor, to a large Poetry Project audience. A playwright, jazz critic, social commentator and prominent 1960s black rights activist, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, he was introduced on Wednesday as "one of the remaining handful of Americans willing to describe themselves as communists".
His fans also remember him as an occasional but always provocative observer of boxing and boxers, the author of a particularly resonant 1963 essay on the cultural impact of Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and the rising Cassius Clay - and, almost exactly 10 years ago, of a vivid description of the effect on the black community of Mike Tyson's defeat at the hands of James "Buster" Douglas, written for this newspaper's Sunday sister.
Only in America does the heavyweight champ carry cultural baggage. Patterson's assimilationist attitudes, Liston's thuggery, Clay/Ali's provocations and Tyson's social crimes assumed a significance far beyond the lives of the individual fighters. Michael Grant is given little chance of winning tomorrow night's contest for the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles, but a look at him this week suggested that his victory, however unlikely it may seem, would restore to boxing a sense that the world heavyweight champ had an existence outside his exploits in the ring.
Grant is 6ft 7in tall and weighs a shade under 18 stone, which makes sense of the information that during his schooldays he also had options to pursue careers in basketball, baseball and gridiron football. But he also wears a pair of almond-shaped metal-framed spectacles and a studious expression that make him look as though he just might have a copy of Baraka's writings tucked away in his jacket pocket.
For this is, indeed, a different sort of boxer, and one who, on the face of it, will make a very different sort of champion if things go unexpectedly well for him this weekend. Most obviously, he is a boxer who did not take up the sport until he was past the age of 20, which is to say only just over six years ago, meaning that he did not grow up with a pair of gloves under his pillow and the fight statistics of the great champions scrolling through his brain.
Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the youngest of a steelworker's nine children, and raised on Chicago's South Side after his father's premature death, he became interested in boxing only after seeing Riddick Bowe - another outsized fellow - beat Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title in 1992. A visit to a Las Vegas gym drew him away from the sports at which he had excelled in high school and towards an amateur career in the ring. A dozen bouts later he entered the professional ranks.
By that time Grant had hooked up with Don Turner, the avuncular 61-year-old trainer who came to prominence with Holyfield. "Michael was a strong kid, but he didn't have any rhythm about boxing," Turner told reporters this week. "But it took only two days to give him balance and to get him throwing combinations. He adapted right away."
The bond between the youngster and the veteran developed to the extent that it survived even the desire of Bill Cayton, Grant's manager in his early professional days, to link his protÃ©gÃ© up with another trainer, Kevin Rooney, thus recreating the team that had worked with Mike Tyson. But Grant's loyalty to Turner carried the day, deepening the relationship between the two men. Now Grant lives with his wife and child in Norristown, which is also Turner's home, playing the piano in his local church.
But when Panos Eliades, Lewis's manager, claimed this week that "Grant is the toughest opponent Lennox could choose out there", he was responding to criticisms that the challenger's record is nothing like distinguished enough to warrant his inclusion at the top of tomorrow night's bill. Grant's record of 31 pro fights without defeat (including 22 stoppages) features such victims as David Izon, Lou Savarese, Jeff Wooden and Ahmad Abdin - hardly a triumphal procession.
Only one man, Andrew Golota, has managed to put him on the canvas, the Polish-American brawler knocking him down twice in the first round last November, in Grant's most recent fight. Experts are divided on whether the embarrassment of that brief episode is outweighed by the significance of his resolute fightback, which ended with Golota giving up in the 10th.
"You can dress a fighter up and teach him everything," Grant observed this week, remembering that experience, "but you can't teach him how to react under that kind of pressure. I know how to deal with it when the kitchen gets hot. I know how to take the heat."
And tomorrow night the temperature inside the ring will be the highest he has faced, by a considerable margin. "I've pretty much intensified everything," he said, responding to a question about his preparation for the challenge posed by Lewis. "It's a big occasion to rise to. But every fight I've taken has been a step up. I've positioned myself well, and I have my time to come. Whatever has been written about me, good or bad, I haven't used it as fuel. No matter how much attention or excitement comes around, I try to keep myself humble."
Those carefully considered words were typical of the poised manner with which he conducted himself at an open question-and-answer session. But when, only minutes later, he answered Eliades' invitation to observe the formality of speaking from the podium to the assembled representatives of the media, Grant gave a rather different impression.
"Giving honour to God, my lord and saviour Jesus Christ," he began, conventionally enough for a devout American sportsman, as his opponent glanced incuriously across the dais from behind a pair of wrap-around shades. But then, without warning, Grant came over all emotional. "Everyone here is trying to gain and protect someone's best interest," he continued. "I've got to ask you a question. What's happened to the truth? Where is the truth? I fought my way into this position, whether you recognise it or not. On Saturday night we're going to see the truth."
There was some more in this barely coherent vein before he resumed his seat, leaving the rest of us to wonder whether this was merely an aberration caused by a momentary flutter of nerves or an indication of a more serious mental flaw that Lewis will be able to exploit tomorrow night, ensuring a successful defence and depriving Amiri Baraka of the chance to turn his gaze upon a new kind of champion.Reuse content