Lewis needs the Briggs one

Bob Mee suggests that a stiff test awaits Britain's enigma in Atlantic City; Boxing's great unfulfilled talent must see off the younger generation to claim his place in history

GEORGE FOREMAN spent the last 10 years of his career inspiring greybeards and grandparents to rail against the restrictions of political correctness. When the world demanded fat-free rib-cages and rippling pecs, Foreman displayed his fortysomething, burger-nurtured belly with pride. He had eight children and to avoid the inconvenience of identifying them, called them all, boy or girl, George. When, in 1994, he astounded boxing critics and fans alike by regaining the heavyweight championship of the world with a 10th-round knockout of Michael Moorer, he was celebrated and cherished.

Yet boxing remains essentially the haunt of the young, of the bright- eyed, and of the fast; of those who are still naive enough to put themselves on the line with no concession to cost. There are still those who drive themselves on beyond their time, but even Evander Holyfield has defied the years against only men of his own era. So it should not be taken as read that this weekend in the Atlantic City Convention Centre, the 32- year-old Lennox Lewis will blow away the 26-year-old Shannon Briggs.

Briggs' close and controversial defeat of Foreman last November at the Taj Mahal, Donald Trump's gigantic monument to tack, is considered a flawed achievement. Sound judges considered him fortunate to get the decision, and its validity was diminished further by revelations that the two judges who voted for him were woefully inexperienced, and worse, may even have had connections with Briggs' millionaire manager Marc Roberts. "Fix!" yelled the sceptical, as they always will.

The temptation is to compare Briggs' tentative, defensive, counter-punching win over Foreman with Lewis's wonderful, 95-second demolition of the moody, uncertain Pole, Andrew Golota, in October. For those who see only those two performances, a Lewis win is indeed a formality.

Yet boxing is rarely as superficial as it seems. For years, Lewis has seen the fights that would have cemented his place as one of the great champions elude him. Through no fault of his own, he has not fought Foreman, Bowe, Holyfield, Tyson or even Moorer. Bowe and Foreman have gone now, Tyson is in the background, suspended following his ear-biting disgrace last summer. Ironically, Tyson is reduced by his financial crisis to accepting an embarrassing engagement as a wrestling referee 48 hours after Lewis and Briggs have traded real blows.

It is not unreasonable to suspect Lewis, who by his own admission has more than enough money for the rest of his life, is staying in boxing in order to fight Holyfield. In the past he has been exceptional, against Golota and Razor Ruddock in 1992 to name two examples. But he has been ordinary several times. In 1994 he was surprisingly knocked out by Oliver McCall. No man, especially in this game, is perfect, and only the great are consistent.

Briggs was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn which spawned Tyson and Bowe, spent time on the streets and lived with the burden of an alcoholic mother, but in spite of what publicists might have us believe, he did not endure an unduly uncomfortable childhood. He is not averse to surfing the Internet, and has traced his ancestors back five generations to Virginia slaves before the Civil War. He was a backing singer on the Fugees' CD The Score, has done some bit-part acting and is said to write. Boxing generations are measured not in decades but in Olympiads. Whereas Lewis belongs to the controversial and scandalous Games in Seoul, Briggs' time should have been Barcelona 1992. In fact, he was ruled out of the US trials by a doctor who happened to notice he was planning to fight with a sprained wrist.

As is the tradition with heavyweight hopes, Briggs spent his apprenticeship learning how to knock out men of little ability. His former co-manager, Michael Marley, was once captured memorably on film replying to a telephone question about the capabilities of one opponent. "Well," said the likeable Marley. "If you put a mirror against his face, you get mist on the glass..."

There were 25 wins, mostly knockouts, none of which meant much. And then in Atlantic City in March 1996, the show collapsed. Briggs was floored and stopped in three rounds by a club fighter named Darroll Wilson "He folded like an accordion," said one critic. Briggs was slaughtered, most hurtfully by his own trainer, Teddy Atlas. "A weak mind and panic can bring on a lot of things," said Atlas. "Shannon was always more interested in finding the easy way to do things. Physically, he worked hard, but mentally it was all a big con." They parted company, with Briggs blaming his defeat on a recurrence of childhood asthma. He regrouped with four wins in modest company and then out-pointed Foreman. In the dressing-room afterwards, he acknowledged the 48-year-old Punching Preacher "hit me so hard I thought I saw the Messiah". Then he added: "I was lucky. The judges were nice."

Yet for all the tales of emotional fragility, it takes a strong man to come through bad times and succeed. And while Briggs' independence is liable to make him unpopular, it may eventually become his strength as a fighter. Whether he possesses the inner drive and desire to beat Lewis, we are about to discover.

But at least he has a strong plan. He will go out to counter-punch as he did against Foreman, in effect to do what he wants, not what Lewis wants. This is only a reflection of the rest of his life. And, we must not forget, he is young, with only his youth to lose.

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