Lewis unleashes the storm within

Grant overwhelmed by early onslaught as Britain's world champion silences his critics in emphatic style
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When Lennox Lewis hit him with the right uppercut, Michael Grant went down like a skyscraper under demolition, collapsing from the inside and travelling the shortest route to the ground. The punch had be launched along a perfect vertical axis, from Lewis's braced knees to Grant's lowered chin, which meant that none of its power was dissipated by the lateral movement of the recipient. Poor Grant absorbed every ounce of its concussion, and the fight was over.

Lewis is often accused of lacking a gift for the spectacular gesture, but the blow with which he retained his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles in the second round at Madison Square Garden here on Saturday night was, in the circumstances, as eloquent a riposte as he could have fashioned to those who doubt his appetite for the game. It was a Pete Sampras ace, a Roberto Carlos free-kick, a Curtly Ambrose bouncer. The sort of thing that lingers in the memory of victim and spectator alike.

It will have done nothing but good to Lewis's worldwide standing as boxing's current figurehead, and will have increased interest in his forthcoming appointments. These begin with a rendezvous with François Botha, of South Africa, at the London Arena on 15 July and then with David Tua, of New Zealand, probably in Las Vegas, possibly to be followed by a meeting with Wladimir Klitschko of the Ukraine, another two-round winner - over David Bostice, of the United States - in the Garden on Saturday. Lewis's forfeiture of the World Boxing Association title now seems even more of an irrelevance.

The sceptics will call Grant an unworthy challenger, and in truth the 27-year-old's effort to separate Lewis from his titles was exposed as gawky and naïve long before he was counted out after two minutes and 53 seconds of the second round. But before the fight he had been widely described - and not just by the promoters - as the only credible challenger available, and his attack in the opening seconds of the first round was enough to awaken the momentary belief that he could, just possibly, spring a surprise.

His mistake, during that brief initial phase, was to throw a punch that hurt Lewis. The champion is slow to anger, which can be a frustrating quality in one of his calling, but he is undeniably swift to respond. "I said that if he came out aggressive it was going to make for shorter fight," Lewis said afterwards, and while his reaction to the provocation was not pretty, it was certainly effective.

Before the minute was up, Lewis had cuffed Grant around the head with a left hand which stopped the American in his tracks and made him reconsider the wisdom of his pre-emptive assault. And after 90 seconds the champion threw two right hands which put Grant down for the first time. The second of them, an overhand to the side of the head, was what Grant later described, with feeling, as "an equilibrium punch". Right away he was in the sort of trouble from which there is unlikely to be recovery, and before long he was hurtling backwards, propelled by another overhand right, his feet hardly touching the ground as he fell into the ring post, where he draped his arms helplessly over the ropes while taking a standing eight count.

Still willing to contest the issue but suddenly revealed as hopelessly unready for such a predicament, Grant was an easy target for the punches that countersigned the defeat. There was dread in his eyes as, with 10 seconds of the first round remaining, he stood virtually transfixed for the two seconds it took Lewis to fire a devastating left-right combination, the long arrow-straight right hand sending the challenger back to the canvas.

Grant's success in rising just before the bell astonished the 17,249 spectators assembled in the Garden, most of whom assumed the bout was over. It spoke volumes for his recuperative powers and fighting spirit, but little for his good sense. "I could not believe it when he got up," Emanuel Steward, Lewis's trainer, said. During the break, Steward emphasised to Lewis that the fight was not yet won. "I told him to go out and try to line Grant up and to jab and hold him out and look for a good, clean punch. I told him not to get careless and not to take any chances, because with big guys things happen strange."

As a result the second round opened less promisingly, with a measure of watchful pawing and nuzzling. But in the third minute, five consecutive right-hand blows from Lewis revealed the scale of Grant's disorientation, forming the prelude to the grapple which gave the champion the opening for his uppercut. Suggestions that Lewis had held Grant with his left glove while unloading the knockout blow with his right were muted by the knowledge that the outcome had not been affected.

"This fight proves that I can take you out with any punch," Lewis said later. "I've always felt that if I have the opportunity to land a good shot, not many people can withstand my power. Grant showed a lot of heart, specially getting up at the end of the first round after I'd hit him with a tremendous punch. But this was an opportunity for me to show my aggressive side, and when he came out aggressively, I definitely had to match him."

Steward, who had seen his fighter criticised for twice taking the scientific route to victory against Evander Holyfield, seemed relieved to be able to apply the term "brawl" to this encounter. "It was not a beautiful fight, not a technical fight," he observed. "It may have been a little clumsy in the beginning, but to me this is the first time I've ever seen two big guys go in and produce a good fight, a real slugfest."

He was pleased by the way Lewis, not always noted for spontaneous decision-making, had reacted. "In the second round Lennox was thinking real good, when he was trying to anticipate which way Grant was going to move and looking to find one clean punch. That was very satisfying. The uppercut wasn't planned. Once Grant got close, he bent down and left his arms stuck out, so the natural punch was an uppercut. And Lennox was smart. He got Grant relaxed before he got off the shot. It was experience, that's all."

While proving that Lewis can dispose of such a challenge with a flourish, this performance was not, by itself, enough to certify him as a great champion. Similar victories over Botha, Tua and Klitschko would considerably advance the recognition of the value of a fighter for so long denied the chance to measure himself against the best of his generation, but perhaps only one thing can complete the process. The possibility of a career-defining meeting with Mike Tyson in 2001 remains the most enticing prospect in what remains of the champion's active participation in the sport. "My fans would like to see it," Lewis said. "His fans would like to see it. The whole world would like to see it." But none would like it more, to judge by the smile on his face as Saturday night shaded into Sunday morning on Seventh Avenue, than the champion himself.