Lewis lines up with history's greats

World heavyweight champion is dominating division as few have done and his only remaining motivation is to destroy Tyson
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The Independent Online

Lennox Lewis will dine with Muhammad Ali in Los Angeles tomorrow night. In one way it is a merely a charmed piece of scheduling. Ali is in town on behalf of his charitable foundation and Lewis is doing some promotional work following his majestic defence of his world heavyweight title against David Tua at the weekend. But there is also a delightful little historical frisson.

Lennox Lewis will dine with Muhammad Ali in Los Angeles tomorrow night. In one way it is a merely a charmed piece of scheduling. Ali is in town on behalf of his charitable foundation and Lewis is doing some promotional work following his majestic defence of his world heavyweight title against David Tua at the weekend. But there is also a delightful little historical frisson.

The truth is that even Lewis's most relentless American critics are beginning to accept that he does indeed belong on the top table with the greatest heavyweight champion of the mall.

Victory over Tua carried Lewis to third place on the all-time list of percentage success in heavyweight title fights. Only Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis have a superior ratio of wins against losses, but then, as we know, statistics are often the cover for damned lies.

What is not open to debate is that at the age of 35 Lewis has come to dominate the heavyweight division more profoundly than anyone since the fabled Louis. Fans of Marciano, Ali, the hugely underrated Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson may wish to disagree but the facts betray their arguments.

Marciano picked his opponents and studiously avoided the menacing Cuban Nino Valdes; Holmes lost twice, though admittedly dubiously, to the blown-up light-heavyweight Michael Spinks, and at around Lewis's age Ali was having difficulties with the likes of Leon Spinks, having been earlier required to fight wars with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and, stupendously, George Foreman. Tyson fell to both the journeyman James "Buster" Douglas and the worst excesses of his own nature. Lewis, on the other, never ducked an opponent and after his one reverse, the now six-year-old Oliver McCall disaster, is getting better and better.

So much better, indeed, that his trainer, Emanuel Steward, was floating the hint that Lewis had not pressed too strongly on the trigger against Tua for fear of completely scaring Tyson away from the last fight which could seriously augment the reigning champion's soaring reputation. "I have it," said the often mischievous Steward, "from inside Tyson's camp that he is already scared of Lewis. If Lennox had destroyed Tua physically, rather than just his spirit and his ambition, I think we could have kissed any Tyson fight goodbye."

A collision with Tyson remains the last big lure for Lewis but, with the former champion's camp talking about a possible third meeting with Evander Holyfield, he could be disappointed. So what is left for Lewis? So little that his first post-fight comment that he wanted to rest until at least next September was the strongest hint so far that he is in the mood to say: "This is what I want, and if I can't have it I might just as well call it a day."

For various reasons, some not unrelated to finance, Lewis's camp and his television patrons, Home Box Office, are mentioning names like Kirk Johnson, of Canada, Vladimir Klitschko, of Ukraine, and Hasim Rahman, of Mediocreville, USA, on a list of possible future opponents. There is no doubt, though, that one of the sounder reasons for keeping Lewis active, whatever the quality of even the best of the rest, is that he benefits so enormously in confidence and touch.

"Lennox," says Steward, "could beat Johnson, Klitschko and Rahman in three weeks. His confidence level is quite staggering now. If it was up to me, he would go on some version of Joe Louis's bum-of-the-month campaign. He is so far ahead of the rest of the field. I was disappointed with Tua. Lennox drained his spirit so quickly, so completely. Quite frankly on that performance I would have sent him away from our gym. I wouldn't have considered him good enough to spar with Lennox - too small, too slow." So much for the pride of the South Seas, the man who was widely considered to be the most dangerous opponent out there for Lewis.

"The amazing thing is that I really believe Lennox would deal more easily with Tyson than he did Tua," says Steward. "The difference is that though Tua was very limited he took a hell of a punch. Tyson in his condition now would fall apart under punching like that."

What was most striking about the Tua fight was that while boos came down from the terracing at the Mandalay Bay Events Center they were, it seems, provoked not so much by Lewis's ultimate refusal to go beyond a technically brilliant shut-out but the failure of the challenger to make any kind of serious challenge. It is also true that, for every disgruntled high-roller in the crowd, there was someone on his or her feet applauding pure boxing technique. Indeed in the coffee shops of Las Vegas, the front page of the local Review Journal offered a viable debating point for the sporting crowd. It splashed a picture taken in the last moments of the weekend fight. It showed Tua, the fierce Samoan warrior, hurtling into the ropes in the style of a maddened bull and Lewis executing a turn that would have gone down well enough at the Plaza de Toros. Who, of all the heavyweight champions since Louis, apart from Lewis, could have conjured such a tableau?

It was Lewis's dining companion in Los Angeles. Four years ago, in New York, Sylvester Stallone threw a dinner to celebrate the anniversary of the first of his Rocky blockbusters. Ali and Lewis were among the guests. Ali signalled for Lewis to sit by his side. In a roomful of champions, it was for Lewis a thrilling gesture. Prophetic, too.

 

It is interesting that the great Republic should be floundering so desperately because of suspected electoral hanky-panky in one of Florida's 67 counties. Certainly, alarm bells are ringing among patriotic sections of the fight crowd. It is being noted with some horror that the offending county is Palm Beach, one of whose leading ratepayers just happens to be Mr Don King. We should be grateful that the coincidence could, as he would say, only happen in America.

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