Lewis faces tough fight to reach the public

World Heavyweight Championships: Basketball play-offs, new baseball season and televised murder trial keep champion in low profile
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The Independent Online

As ever, New Yorkers are busy-busy-busy and, in any case, not exactly short of stuff to talk about. Which means that Lennox Lewis has got his work cut out this week, in more senses than one, if he wants to stop the midtown traffic on Saturday night.

What with the televised trial of Sandy Murphy, the "Irish Venus", charged with murdering her lover, a millionaire Las Vegas casino owner, and the decision of the Yankees' No 1 pitcher, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, to sit out a game against Minnesota Twins in solidarity with the one-day Cuban American work stoppage in protest against the Elian Gonzalez snatch, Lewis will probably have to ride naked on a white horse down Fifth Avenue all the way from Central Park to Washington Square if he wants to get the city to pay attention to his first defence of the world heavyweight title against Michael Grant at Madison Square Garden.

Lewis, of course, has never been exactly a dab hand at self-promotion. A courteous, placid sort of chap, he is exactly the fighter people were looking for when they complained that the heavyweight division was being overrun by thugs and hoodlums more familiar with switchblades than fish knives. Now they have him. And, quite unreasonably, the world suddenly seems a slightly duller place.

The rhetoric of the carnival barker has never been Lewis's bag, and neither has poetry. His verbal play extends no further than a reliance on borrowings from the lexicon of the late Bob Marley, his fellow Jamaican. The constant references to boxing "politricks" and to his endless "trials and tribulations", used in relation to his lengthy battle to earn what he saw as his rightful standing at the head of the world's big men, have been tiresomely in evidence once again this week, with little variation.

He can hardly be blamed, as the most significant event in his life since he won the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world by defeating Evander Holyfield in Nevada last November has been the decision of the World Boxing Association to strip him of one of the three belts he claimed that night. In a ruling recently upheld by a New York judge, the WBA claimed that Lewis had forfeited its championship by refusing to defend it against its preferred challenger, John Ruiz. Should an appeal by Lewis's manager, Panos Eliades, fall on stony ground, Ruiz will fight Holyfield for the "vacant" title in Las Vegas this summer.

There will be no surprise attached to the news that, like Holyfield, Ruiz has strong connections to Don King, whose ability to hold on to a stake in the heavyweight division is a trick that would make Harry Houdini envious. Smoke and mirrors are what King deals in, which is why Lewis has always kept his distance.

A purse of $10m (just under £7m) for the champion's exertions on Saturday, to add to career earnings of almost £50m, suggests that a plan calling for years of patience has paid off handsomely. Yet Lewis continues to attract admiration rather than excitement. With only two-thirds of the Garden's 20,000-odd seats sold in advance, and facing competition on the night from the basketball play-offs and the new baseball season, Saturday's fight needs talking up. Here, for the first time in years, is a heavyweight title fight taking place beyond the shadow of Mike Tyson, which may be a victory for decency but is not good news for the box office.

If Tyson continues to make some sort of recovery, and should Lewis manage to hold on to his titles for three or four more fights, the showdown may come some time in the middle of next year, by which time both fighters will be long past their prime and the only purpose of the fixture will be one last giant payday for all concerned. But there are too many unpredictable twists in that particular narrative to make such a fight any part of this week's subtexts.

Grant, who is seven years younger (27 to 34), two inches taller (6ft 7in to 6ft 5in), and a few pounds heavier (probably 17st 12lb to 17st 7lb) than Lewis, did his bit for the cause this week. Unusually, he chose to spar two rounds during his public work-out on Tuesday, giving the promoters and the pay-per-view television people palpitations at the thought of a last-minute injury. Then the challenger's management disputed Lewis's choice of gloves, traditionally the champion's prerogative.

"Glove Spat May KO Grant-Lewis", the New York Post's headline screamed yesterday morning over a story in which Craig Hamilton, Grant's co-manager, announced his man's rejection of the chosen 10-ounce Reyes gloves, claiming that they did not fit Grant's hands well enough to protect his fists.

"I think we're going to have to make this a health issue," Grant said yesterday. "The right hand is fine, but I can't make a proper fist with my left hand, which is the bigger. I've tried on 16 pairs. If they want to come up with another 16, I'll try those, too. But I'd rather not waste my time. I'm going through every possibility to try and use these gloves. But if I can't, we have a problem."

Far less experienced than the champion, particularly in the matter of big fights against meaningful opponents, Grant will go into the fight hoping to profit from his opponent's disinclination to seek an early advantage. On paper, nevertheless, it should be an easy night for Lewis.

But this is New York, where the experience of his first fight against Holyfield and now the judicial support of the WBA's risible decision have taught Lewis not to be sure of a verdict until he is on the plane home with the cheque in the bank and the belts in his bag.