Lewis braves the brawler

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The Independent Online
Recent heavyweight history suggests that Lennox Lewis might be well advised to invest in a tungsten-reinforced protector and a pair of workman's earmuffs before entering the ring in Atlantic City on Saturday to face the division's resident loose cannon, Andrew Golota, in defence of his World Boxing Council title. It is a brave move by Lewis, whose last two championship fights - against the unbalanced Oliver McCall and the reluctant Henry Akinwande - have left him with minimal credibility in the heavyweight market and reduced him to the bottom of the wages table.

Even Michael Moorer, a man whose own credibility was terminally damaged when trainer Teddy Atlas had to shame him into continuing his 1994 title fight with Evander Holyfield, earned $2m more for defeating the obscure Vaughn Bean in defence of the IBF version than Lewis got for beating Akinwande, when Lewis was paid less than the fine imposed on Mike Tyson for biting Holyfield's ear.

There were many easier options available for the 31-year-old Englishman, so it is to his credit that he has sought out the most dangerous and unpredictable contender the division has to offer rather than mark time against the likes of Frans Botha or Axel Schulz. Golota, for all his spectacularly undisciplined ways, is capable of beating anyone on his night, on the improbable assumption that he can remember to confine his attentions to legitimate target areas. He shattered Riddick Bowe's career in two brutal encounters in 1996, although each time he contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by committing fouls of such uninhibited ferocity that his trainer, Lou Duva, was moved to question his man's sanity.

Those were not isolated incidents, either: the 29-year old has a long record of erratic behaviour in and out of the ring, and was facing charges of criminal assault when he fled Poland for Chicago in 1992. When he returned home a conquering hero (of sorts) this year, the case was quickly and quietly settled. He is one of the few native-born Poles to make a splash in the professional boxing world, and the authorities were keen to spare him embarrassment.

The boxing authorities have proved equally accommodating, forgiving him a whole succession of outrages which, had they been committed in any other sport, would probably have brought a jail sentence. Golota's problem, put simply, is that when the opponent doesn't fall over from fair punches, he resorts to the street-fighting, pub-brawling techniques which got him in trouble in Poland. He flattened 20 of his first 22 opponents, 12 in the opening round, but showed his frustration when the durable veteran Marlon Wilson twice took him the distance.

Against the giant Samoan Samson Po'uha in May 1995, Golota even anticipated Tyson's action when he bit Po'uha after legitimate tactics had failed. Po'uha had been in charge of the fight until then, but lost concentration and was stopped in the fifth round. The Pole's peformance against Dannel Nicholson in March 1996 was equally reprehensible. Nicholson was getting on top, with Golota looking arm-weary and fading, until Golota dropped him with a savage head-butt. When Nicholson rose, still groggy, Golota hammered punches into his groin until the former Olympian was halted in the eighth. Given that background, his extraordinary display against the once-mighty Riddick Bowe in July 1996 was quite in character. The fight showcased the best and the worst of Golota, who had the former world champion teetering on the brink of a dramatic stoppage only to throw the victory away with a series of shocking fouls which brought him a seventh-round disqualification and sparked off the worst riot in the long history of Maidson Square Garden.

The rematch in Atlantic City five months later was even more one-sided, with Bowe absorbing a frightful, career-ending beating only for Golota to hit him wincingly low in the ninth and be thrown out again. Had he been a professional footballer who made a habit of breaking opponents' legs he would have been drummed out of his sport, but boxing's administrators are more tolerant, especially when the serial offender is a talented heavyweight puncher with the invaluable asset of a white skin.

Boxing is no longer overtly racist, but the emergence of a white heavyweight who can actually fight still causes a frisson of excitement. The joy is not confined to the redneck element: the champions, invariably black, are delighted because marketable oppponents mean bigger purses. The link between pay and pigmentation is direct. "I wish there could have been 20 more Gerry Cooneys for me to fight," Larry Holmes told me when we discussed his rivalry with the Great White Hope of the 1980s. "I had to fight five black guys to make the money I did for fighting that one white." Much the same is true for Lewis, who will earn $4m more for facing Golota than he got for what looked, in theory, an equally difficult fight against Akinwande.

In fact, the Akinwande fight proved almost as big an embarrassment as that in which Lewis regained the title against McCall, the unfortunate drug addict who suffered a mental breakdown before being led, weeping, from the ring in the fifth round. Akinwande merely lost his nerve rather than his sanity, and clutched Lennox in a lover's embrace until referee Mills Lane (who also handled the McCall fight) lost patience and disqualified him. Lewis was criticised for his failure to dispatch McCall and the petrified Akinwande in more convincing style, but McCall, once Mike Tyson's regular sparring partner, has a famously stout chin while the 6ft 7in Akinwande is notoriously awkward and difficult to hit cleanly.

No such problems apply with Golota, who is roughly Lewis's size and weight but lacks the champion's technical variety. Despite his middle-class manners and mild personality, Lewis can fight when he has to, as he proved in that bruising 10-rounder with Ray Mercer last year. He assures us that when Golota starts fouling he will foul him right back, and while dear old Queensberry might tut in disapproval, he never had to deal with a 240lb Polish nutter coming at him with murderous intentions. Nothing less than an emphatic victory will satisfy Lewis's American critics, and I believe that a combination of class and a hitherto unsuspected hardness will see him through in about eight rounds.