Undisputed champion left short of a title

Intrigue turns into confusion over the number of belts Lewis holds as IBF version disappears into the night because of missing payment

When Lennox Lewis arrived at his post-fight press conference in the Thomas and Mack Centre in Las Vegas on Saturday night, he held up two ornamental belts for the cameras. One, which he had brought to the fight, was his own World Boxing Council belt. The other, which he had just won from Evander Holyfield, was the symbol of the World Boxing Association's title. So where was the third belt, the final piece of the jigsaw that would allow him to be called the first undisputed champion since Holyfield lost the unified title in 1992?

When Lennox Lewis arrived at his post-fight press conference in the Thomas and Mack Centre in Las Vegas on Saturday night, he held up two ornamental belts for the cameras. One, which he had brought to the fight, was his own World Boxing Council belt. The other, which he had just won from Evander Holyfield, was the symbol of the World Boxing Association's title. So where was the third belt, the final piece of the jigsaw that would allow him to be called the first undisputed champion since Holyfield lost the unified title in 1992?

The answer was that Holyfield's International Boxing Federation belt had disappeared into the night some time after the fight, withdrawn along with the IBF's sanction after a last-minute dispute over payment of the sanctioning fee by Lewis's manager, Panos Eliades.

Four of the IBF's top officials, including its president, Bob Lee, were indicted two weeks ago on charges of taking bribes to falsify their rankings. With that in mind, and given the fact that Lee actually runs two versions of IBF, Eliades was reluctant to commit himself to an outright payment of the $300,000 (£187,000) sanctioning fee which gives a fighter the right to challenge for a title.

Lee founded the first version of the IBF, an ostensibly non-profit organisation, in the mid-Eighties. Aimed at challenging the supremacy of the WBC and the WBA, it had its headquarters in Newport, Rhode Island. Ten years later he set up a for-profit commercial body of the same name, with offices in Oregon, on the other side of the United States.

While Violet Lewis, the new champion's mother, sat quietly next to the new champion on the dais, Eliades and his lawyer, Patrick English, tried to make themselves heard above the derisive cackling of Don King as they explained their side of the events leading up to the disappearance of the belt.

"We met the IBF supervisor for three hours today," English said. "The IBF is in a state of flux, and we thought it was important to reach an agreement on how the sanctioning fee should be distributed. By 5pm we had reached an agreement."

Rather than pay the $300,000 direct to one or other of the IBFs, Eliades agreed to place it in an escrow account pending resolution of the body's problems, which he was led to believe would take place within 45 days. "It's important that the sanction fee goes to a decent organisation," he said. Lewis's connections signed a document to that effect, which was then returned to the IBF man, a lawyer named Walter Stone, for their signature to be added. No signature, however, was forthcoming, and therefore no money was paid.

"Literally one minute before the bout," English continued, "when the fighters were in the ring, I was approached by the IBF supervisor, who said he had received instruction from higher authority that he could not go ahead with the agreement."

The fight went ahead, and afterwards Lewis posed briefly in the ring with all three belts, his own and two of Holyfield's. By convention, the loser's belts are then handed back to him, while the sanctioning bodies present new belts to the winner. But by the time Lewis made his triumphal exit, Walter Stone had left the hall with his new IBF belt, leaving the champion with only two-thirds of the seals of his new office.

"Irrespective of these difficulties," Eliades said, "the world knows who is the undisputed champion. The way the IBF has behaved is a disgrace. Until the boxers got into the ring there was an amicable agreement. The negotiations were difficult, but it was amicable."

Then the room's attention turned, inevitably, to Don King. Defeat for Holyfield appeared to have meant that King, the fight's promoter and Holyfield's personal promoter, had finally lost his grip on the heavyweight division. But King's mastery of boxing politics is legendary, and the confusion over the IBF's decision aroused the widespread thought that if Lewis had not won the IBF title, then Holyfield must still be the IBF's champion, and therefore King would retain a hold on one third of the heavyweight cake.

King had attempted to draw attention away from what Eliades and English were saying by holding his own simultaneous mini-press conference a few feet away. Eventually, however, he turned his attention to their claims and joined the conversation. "I don't want to get drawn into this controversy," he shouted. "I've got enough problems of my own."

But he was not slow in pointing out where he believed the British camp had gone wrong. "You should have paid the money," he bellowed. "You're trying to take the law into your own hands. I'm defending America, where a man is presumed innocent until he's found guilty. What you guys did was wrong."

Someone asked him if he had been the "higher authority" who gave the IBF supervisor the instruction to withdraw the sanction.

"Noooo," he crowed, with a harsh grin. "I'm not the higher authority."

The question for Lewis and his camp seemed to be whether a title could be won in the absence first of the payment of the requisite fee to the sanctioning authority and second of the belt that symbolises the title. Lewis had certainly done his job, meeting and beating the holder of all the titles he did not already own. But his entitlement to call himself the holder of all three championships was suddenly called into question by the sort of tawdry technicality that exemplifies boxing's ability to bring itself into disrepute even at the hour when it seemed to have found some sort of way out of its recent problems.

Lewis, as he claimed, will be a good champion for the sport. Whether he is two-thirds of a champion or the champion of the whole shooting match will be settled over the next few weeks, and is bound to have a bearing on the identity of his next opponent. Lewis would like to face Mike Tyson, the greatest fighter of his generation, a man who once paid him $4m to step aside. But a further meeting with Holyfield, prolonging a turbulent series, is not entirely out of the question. It will certainly not be out of the thoughts of Don King.

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