Lewis determined to set the record straight

Britain's former WBC heavyweight champion tonight tries to regain his title - against the man who took it from him.
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The Independent Online
Oliver McCall arrived 40 minutes late for the final press conference before tonight's World Boxing Council heavyweight title fight with Lennox Lewis at the Las Vegas Hilton, sprinted to the podium and missed his footing as he skipped up the steps. Had Lewis's corner man, Harold Knight, not been on hand to steady him, the former champion would have taken an unfortunate pratfall.

It was not the happiest omen for the troubled McCall, whose on- going problems with drugs have dominated discussion of the fight for the vacant title in which he seeks to repeat the stoppage he scored over Lewis when they first met in 1994, but he recovered gracefully. Spotting Lewis's mother in the packed room, he turned to his opponent and said: "I want to say hello to your mum. May we have a good, productive and safe fight, and may the best man win."

After the shenanigans which have enlivened such events in recent years, ranging from massed punch-ups to chair throwing, it was all boringly civilised. Even Don King, who can sometimes take 10 minutes to complete one of his tortuous sub-clauses, was mercifully brief - although he could not resist pointing out that if a New Jersey judge had not ruled against him, the fight would have taken place on 11 January and paid each man $1.5m (pounds 950,000) more.

The legal background to the affair is impossibly complicated, with Mike Tyson vacating the title rather than accept a reported $45m (pounds 28m) to fight Lewis, but I suspect that Lewis would gladly have forfeited the $1.5m just to get the chance to regain what he still regards as "his" title. It has taken two years, six court actions and a fortune in legal fees to clinch the match: as he puts it, "We've been around the world and back just to get this far."

It has been a frustrating but enlightening experience for the 31-year-old Lewis, who was awarded the title retrospectively on the basis of his defeat of Razor Ruddock in 1992 and who retained it three times before McCall stopped him with a single mighty right hand at Wembley in September 1994. "When I started as a pro, I thought you could work your way up from the bottom to the top," he says, "but now I realise that you can only work your way up so far and after that the politics and the lawyers take over.

"But now I've proved I'm a champion in that side of the business too, and all I want to do is beat McCall so I can say I've erased the only loss on my record. In order to get the fights I wanted I've had to go all over the world. Frank Bruno fought in England all the time, and he panicked when he came out of there, but fighting in the other man's back yard is all part of the sacrifices you have to make if you want to get ahead.

"My dream is to win all the belts, then sit back and say to the contenders, "I've done my travelling - now if you want the championship, come over to England to get it."

First, though, there is the unfinished business with McCall, and that could prove to be rather more than a tiresome formality. The Las Vegas bookmakers are confident enough about the outcome to make Lewis a 5-1 on favourite, which considering the ease with which McCall brushed him aside last time, is surprisingly generous. McCall's recent, well-publicised problems with crack and cocaine have obviously influenced their judgement.

Yet the Lewis camp, like the rest of us, will have been impressed by the American's appearance and bearing at yesterday's conference. He did not look or sound like a man besieged by demons: he was calm, articulate and clear eyed, and is genuinely convinced that what he did once, he can do again.

Lewis blames himself for the outcome last time. "I got sloppy and careless, and made a silly mistake," he acknowledges. Yet despite all the hard work of trainer Emanuel Steward, who replaced Pepe Correa after that Wembley debacle, there must be a danger that if McCall can drag Lewis into a brawl, the nightmare may recur.

Lewis admits the possibility: "I have a warrior's heart," he says. "I'm very competitive, and sometimes that drive in me takes over."

Steward, who has worked with most of the top heavyweights at various times, disagrees. He has long felt that the laid-back Englishman has the potential to be the best of them all, but is yet to find the fire in the belly which distinguishes the truly great champions. "Lennox has the tools and the talent, and the hand-speed of a welterweight," he says. "But often he's too cool and analytical in the ring. He could have knocked out Tommy Morrison in two rounds, but instead he got cautious, stood off and boxed him and let the guy go six rounds.

"Thomas Hearns [the superb welterweight with whom Steward made his reputation] could never be like that. I've had him in fights where he's been hurt and exhausted, and I've told him just to coast the last round and win on points, but he'd still be in there trying to knock the guy out. Looking good was what mattered to Tommy, but winning is what's important to Lennox."

When the stakes are as spectacularly high as they are for a successful heavyweight, caution has much to recommend it. The opening rounds, when McCall releases all that pent-up aggression, will be fraught with danger for Lewis. But when the storm abates, his vastly more impressive range of skills should take over.

Somebody reminded Lewis of the extraordinary spectacle McCall presented before the first bell last time, striding dementedly around the ring in floods of tears, his face twisted in emotion.

"That's what he's going to look like at the end this time," Lewis dead- panned. He is probably right, in about seven rounds.