Lewis must unleash the fighter within

The success of tonight's heavyweight rematch could help to rebuild boxing's tarnished reputation

More than 6,000 British fight fans will take their seats at the Thomas and Mack Centre in Las Vegas tonight to witness Lennox Lewis' second attempt to install himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. They will form a third of the audience in the 18,000-seater arena, and their behaviour at Thursday's weigh-in suggested that they will create considerably more than half the noise as Lewis faces Evander Holyfield over 12 rounds in a fight for which he is the overwhelming favourite, at local odds of almost 2-1 on.

More than 6,000 British fight fans will take their seats at the Thomas and Mack Centre in Las Vegas tonight to witness Lennox Lewis' second attempt to install himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. They will form a third of the audience in the 18,000-seater arena, and their behaviour at Thursday's weigh-in suggested that they will create considerably more than half the noise as Lewis faces Evander Holyfield over 12 rounds in a fight for which he is the overwhelming favourite, at local odds of almost 2-1 on.

So warm will be the welcome that Lewis, who was born in Britain to Jamaican parents and raised in Canada, is likely to feel that this corner of the United States represents a home from all his other homes as he bids to become the first British-born undisputed champion since Bob Fitzsimmons took it from Jim Corbett in another Nevada town, Carson City, in 1897.

The bookmakers have been doing poor business, which is seen as indicating a general lack of faith in boxing's ability to deliver a straight contest. Last time the two men met, at Madison Square Garden on 13 March, Lewis left the ring aghast at being, as he and his supporters saw it, robbed of the victory that he had earned through his unquestionable domination of the fight. Holyfield, much the worse for wear at the end of contest, was clearly relieved to hear that he could hold on to his World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation titles.

So widely criticised was the verdict that it appears to have awakened the sport to the need to prove itself competent at the basic matter of judging fights if it is to begin the task of rebuilding its overall credibility. The job starts tonight.

"We're very confident that whoever wins the fight in the ring will get the decision," Marc Ratner, the head of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said at this week's press conference, his choice of words indicating the state of disrepute that professional boxing has got itself into.

The men immediately responsible for an improvement are the three fight judges. Between them, Bill Graham, Chuck Giampa and Jerry Roth have scored 220 title fights. And there is a good chance, despite the fighters' promises, that they will find themselves watching something quite similar to the contest which divided the original judges in New York. On that occasion, a previously anonymous New Jersey woman called Eugenia Williams became an international pariah after her scorecard revealed her belief that Holyfield's nose had done so much damage to Lewis' fists that her fellow American deserved the verdict.

When Lewis was asked this week to predict the course of tonight's fight, he told us to watch for fireworks in the first three minutes. "I'm going to go after him," he said, "especially in the first round, to see what he's got to offer." That would mirror the surprising burst of aggression with which he opened the original fight, although on that occasion his assault blew itself out as he became increasingly wary of the danger posed by an apparently wounded Holyfield.

Much criticised, not least by his own trainer, for failing to take the opportunity to end the fight when he had his opponent reeling in the fifth round, Lewis has been giving conflicting answers to an endless series of questions about whether he would try to finish Holyfield off this time. Five minutes after saying that he would do "everything in my power" to knock the American out, he was backtracking. "A lot of people want to see me go in there and knock him out," he said. "But I'm still on a mission to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, and I'm going to do whatever I have to do to achieve it. If the opportunity presents itself, I'll take advantage of it. But I'm not going to take the chance of leaving myself open."

His words reinforce the suspicion that the fight will be Part Two in more than name alone. Lewis said that he is not worried about being caught by a single punch. "Evander doesn't knock people out with one punch," he said. "He knocks them out with 15 punches." But he remains wary of the consequences of letting Holyfield get inside his guard.

Specifically, he is conscious of the danger posed by his opponent's use of his head. It was Holyfield's head-butting, real or imagined, that enraged Mike Tyson in both their fights. Somewhere inside his mind, Tyson came to the catastrophic conclusion that since Holyfield had stepped outside the law, so must he. Lewis is a far more phlegmatic character, not given to contests of raw machismo, but he left Madison Square Garden in March with two cuts around his left eye, and they were not caused by Holyfield's fists.

"He runs in with his head," Lewis said this week. Mitch Halpern, the highly rated 32-year-old referee appointed by the Nevada Athletic Commission, will need all his skills of interpretation to discern legitimate aggression from systematic abuse.

Lewis weighed in at 242lb on Thursday, a surprising four pounds lighter than his weight in the first fight. At 217lb, Holyfield comes into the fight only one pound shy of the weight at which he fought Tyson in their second meeting, when he was the heaviest of his career, and two pounds heavier than his weight at the Garden eight months ago. The extra bulk may reassure him, but his best option will be to try and slip under Lewis' left jab, using the skills of movement which his assistant coach, Kenny Weldon, has been trying to reawaken, and then do his work at close quarters.

Lewis is inclined to believe that, in this division, size counts. "You have to remember that Evander is a small heavyweight," he said, "and he's a built-up heavyweight at that. It's always going to be hard for him to fight a natural heavyweight."

Holyfield's response was, as usual, refreshingly straightforward. "I've never been in a fight that wasn't difficult, whether the guy was smaller or bigger, " he said. "My job is not what you'd call a convenient-type job. I have to do what is necessary, and what I believe in. The price that you have to pay is to take yourself out of the comfort zone. Some people are not willing to get out of the comfort zone." Lewis' reluctance to leave the comfort zone created by his jab was, in many people's view, the failing that cost him the first fight.

Then there is the question of rematches. By beating Riddick Bowe and Michael Moorer at the second time of asking, Holyfield avenged two of his three career defeats. "Everybody always talks about how well Evander does in his rematches," Lewis pointed out, "but I also do well. In fact I've never lost a rematch." He was referring, half-humorously, to the revenge he extracted from poor Oliver McCall, the only opponent he's met twice as a professional, who broke down and burst into tears during their second meeting in Las Vegas almost three years ago. Looking at tonight's fight, just about the only certainty is that Holyfield will not be weeping until he knows whether he has won or lost.

It should not be forgotten that Eugenia Williams' misjudgement, although frustrating the boxers' professional ambitions, also worked to their benefit. The two men will earn around $15million (£9m) each from tonight's fight, a sum that may seem outrageously disproportionate to the value of their work but which would be justified in strictly commercial terms even if the take-up of $50 subscriptions to the US pay-per-view TV broadcast failed to match the figure of 1.1 million they achieved last March. (The record, for Tyson-Holyfield II, is 1.9 million.)

In virtually every significant measurable dimension, Lewis goes into the fight with an advantage. He is younger and bigger, and his reach is six inches longer. He has lost only one of his 36 fights, scoring 27 knockouts, against Holyfield's three defeats in 40 fights, 25 of them won by knockout. But Holyfield has measured himself against the best of his time, whereas the career of the chess-playing Lewis has been characterised by a difficulty in manoeuvring his peers into the same ring.

Now, for a second time, Lewis has his date with destiny. Pitting his intellect against Holyfield's instinct, he must decide whether to surprise his opponent by changing his approach or to gamble on the strategy that he believes earned him a victory, in truth if not in fact, the first time around.

It's a long, long time from March to November. The veteran Holyfield is eight months older than he was at their first meeting, while Lewis, whose lack of experience at this level makes him a comparatively callow fighter, may be eight months wiser. If he is not, if he simply repeats the form of March, when he threw 348 punches to Holyfield's 130, but did not make enough of them do damage, he deserves nothing.

In the balance between caution and risk, Lewis must adjust the equation in favour of the latter. The fighter in him must listen to the chess player, and decide to fight. Only then will he earn the right to add Holyfield's belts to his own World Boxing Council title, and to call himself the undisputed champion of the world. And then, sometime in the second half of the fight, Holyfield may finally start to feel the weight of his 37 years, and conclude that enough is enough.

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