Lewis eyes rich harvest beyond the Garden

Harry Mullan reports on the legal bouts that preoccupy Britain's ring hope
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The Independent Online
The collective sigh of relief exhaled in boxing circles when Chicago police announced that they did not plan any further action against Mike Tyson over his latest alleged sexual misdemeanour must have reached Gale Force 10. Iron Mike is everybody's favourite money machine, and had he been removed from the scene the other leading heavyweights, notably Britain's Lennox Lewis, could have struck a nought off the end of their earnings potential for the next couple of years.

Lewis, the official challenger for Tyson's WBC title, fights former WBO champion Ray Mercer in Madison Square Garden, New York, on Friday. His future, like Tyson's, is more dependent on matters legalistic than pugilistic these days. Tyson had hoped to face WBA champion Bruce Seldon in Las Vegas on 13 July without the WBC title being at stake, thus side-stepping the WBC's stipulation that Lewis must be his next championship opponent. But on Thursday New Jersey Superior Court judge Amos Saunders refused Seldon permission for the fight, and upheld the injunction issued on 15 March preventing Tyson from fighting anyone but Lewis next.

Lewis plans to box again in London on 12 July, but that date may now be scrapped to expedite the Tyson fight. "I expect Don King will be getting in touch with us very quickly," Lewis's manager Frank Maloney said after the court ruling, but it could be in the challenger's interest to let the fight go to purse bids rather than accept an offer from King. Lewis's American promoters, the New Jersey group Main Events, work with the HBO TV company, a Time-Warner subsidiary who would pay hugely for the pleasure of stealing the fight from their rivals Showtime, who have screened Tyson's three comeback fights.

But there is another possible scenario. Ex-champion Michael Moorer faces Germany's Axel Schultz for the vacant IBF title in Berlin on 22 June, and should win. Moorer is also a Main Events fighter and a match between them could be made with a phone call. Lewis will eventually face Tyson, but it would strengthen his negotiating position if he had a championship belt of his own. With Tyson holding the WBC and WBA titles and Lewis the IBF's, the fight would become even more valuable - and the survivor could look for a gargantuan payday early in 1997 against WBO champion Riddick Bowe.

Mercer, 35, is unlikely to spoil the script. He won the heavyweight gold medal in the 1988 Olympics at which Lewis was super-heavyweight champion, and was briefly WBO champion in 1991. In shape, he is still a decent fighter and gave Evander Holyfield a tough 10-rounder in his last fight, but my abiding memory is of him sleep-walking to a points defeat in Madison Square Garden three years ago against a rank outsider, Jesse Ferguson.

I went to my hotel across the street from the Garden for dinner after the fight, and Mercer and his trainer occupied the adjacent booth in such high spirits that I wondered whether he had perhaps bet his purse on the underdog, an unethical but not entirely unprecedented transaction. Such cynical suspicions were dispelled a few days later when Ferguson alleged that, during the interminable clinches which filled most of the 10 rounds, Mercer was actually offering him large amounts to lie down. A criminal investigation ensued and Mercer was eventually cleared, but the defeat did terminal damage to his championship prospects. Mercer had never been stopped in 27 fights (23 wins, one draw) but Lewis will be keen to impress in his first appearance in the world's most famous boxing venue and should ruin that record.

Two former champions at opposite ends of the financial spectrum are also featured. Holyfield, whom his trainer describes as "rich enough to air- condition Hell", faces Bobby Czyz, a former lightweight and cruiserweight champion, while former WBC and WBA champion Tim Witherspoon, his money long gone at 38, takes on Cuban Jorge Luis Gonzalez, who looked a star in the making until Bowe destroyed him in six rounds.