Lewis learns how to be loud and wild

Glyn Leach reports from New York on the boxer taking one fight at a time
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The Independent Online
Lennox Lewis is familiar with the price of looking beyond the next fight. Despite ring earnings of around $30m, it is hard for him to swallow the loss of a potential $4m more. The cancelled diary of a catastrophic 1994 still sticks in his throat.

Sitting in a smoked glass and chrome side room at Strykers Gym, Manhattan, 13 blocks from Madison Square Garden where he faces Ray Mercer tonight, the 30-year-old former WBC heavyweight champion refused to let his mind wander ahead.

"The Ray Mercer fight is all I'm concentrating on now," he said. Lewis would not be drawn on a future which could feature a $10m challenge to the current WBC champion, Mike Tyson, this summer - "could" being the operative word.

He could have faced Tommy Morrison for a $7.5m purse in March 1994, but Morrison blew it by losing his warm-up bout. A projected $15m fight with Evander Holyfield disappeared when Holyfield lost to Michael Moorer in April. Then an $18m payday against Riddick Bowe evaporated when Oliver McCall handed Lewis the only defeat of his career in September 1994.

Better for Lewis to concentrate on the job in hand, then, and let his Detroit trainer, Emanuel Steward, do the pontificating. "It won't go two rounds," Steward said. "Tyson will be easier than Mercer. Mercer takes a hell of a punch."

That, however, is the only accolade which can be paid these days to the 35-year-old former US army sergeant from New Jersey. Complacency and controversy have dogged a career that started promisingly.

Mercer was the heavyweight gold medallist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where Lewis became super heavyweight champion. In those days, Mercer's commitment could not be doubted. When his room-mate, Riddick Bowe, kept him awake at night with his constant ponderings on defeat, which Lewis would hand to Bowe in their final, Mercer moved out and slept on a couch in the hall. Defeat was for losers back then.

For three years Mercer went unbeaten as a pro. He became the WBO champion and gained an "iron jaw" reputation. But his last appearance at the Garden, in February 1993, saw him blow a pounds 1m pay-day against Bowe by dropping a decision after turning up out of shape.

Worse still, his opponent Jesse Ferguson accused Mercer of offering a bribe during their fight, and a court case ensued. That Mercer would be acquitted and gain his revenge over Ferguson in the ring was of little consequence. The damage to his reputation had been done, and was compounded by subsequent confessions of drink and drug problems.

He has fought just twice in the last 25 months, winning neither contest. His last fight saw him lose on points to Holyfield a year ago, when he was dropped for the first time in his career and suffered broken ribs. It is a cruel fact of life in boxing that a fighter who has never been stopped has freak value. Mercer ceases to exist as a marketable commodity from the moment he fails to be standing at the final bell. That moment looks nigh.

Emanuel Steward believes that no heavyweight in the world could last eight rounds with Lewis. Since Steward became his trainer after the McCall fight, Lewis's three oppo- nents have failed to pass the sixth round. The fourth should follow suit.

Steward feels that a killer instinct has emerged in Lewis. "Like with a lot of British and Canadians, Lennox is quite a conservative type," he said. "A lot of fighters are highly strung kids, but he's a different type of person.

"When Lennox first came to my gym in Detroit, he would just huddle with his little crew in a corner. But while all this secrecy and privacy bullshit is nice, a fighter needs to be around a little more of a wild atmosphere. Contrary to what some might think, boxing is loud and wild. Now he comes into the ring with a more cocky attitude."

Not as cocky, it is to be hoped, as the one he took with him into the Wembley Arena ring prior to facing McCall.

Without doubt, Lewis has flourished under the tutorship of Steward. His enthusiasm has been rekindled and his skill level has increased proportionately. Their relationship is an impressive work in progress.

"It's like we're up in the mountains developing this tremendous, destructive machine," Steward said. "But we have to bring him down to the valley sometimes so he can devour something."

If Lewis feeds with caution, Mercer will fall. Then and only then will Lewis allow himself the luxury of a long look ahead.

Also featured on the Madison Square Garden card, expected to break box office records at the arena, are the former two-time heavyweight champions Evander Holyfield and Tim Witherspoon, who continue their quest to join Muhammad Ali as the only heavyweight to win a world championship three times.

Holyfield should stop Bobby Cruz before the fifth, but Witherspoon may have to go all 10 rounds against Jorge Gonzalez.

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