Lewis reaps a king's ransom

Harry Mullan tells how a Briton's independence has been richly rewarded
Gerry Adams having a night on the tiles with Ian Paisley? Improbable. Mike Tyson running scared from Lennox Lewis? Even less likely. We are talking here of the man who, as surely as any master butcher, can remove the backbone from normally courageous opponents just by glaring at them across the ring.

Yet that is the interpretation we are being asked to put on Tyson's reluctance to face the Englishman, which resulted last week in the World Boxing Council withdrawing recognition from Tyson as their heavyweight champion.

Lewis will now contest the vacant title with Oliver McCall, the man who wrecked his unbeaten record and took his WBC championship with a shocking second-round stoppage two years ago. That all fits neatly into Tyson's master-plan, orchestrated as ever by his promoter Don King. Now that Riddick Bowe has ruled himself out of contention with that appalling performance against Andrew Golota, whom he could only beat on a disqualification, Lewis is the solitary "serious money" opponent on Tyson's horizon, providing he can set the record straight with McCall.

He will be heavily favoured to do so, since McCall's life has spun so drastically out of control since beating Lewis that he has only recently been discharged from a court-enforced stay in a detox centre after being found in possession of cocaine. McCall's lethargic display in losing the title to Frank Bruno last year is a truer measure of his ability than his win over Lewis: he could have fought Lewis 10 times, and lost nine of them.

Assuming Lewis wins the rematch and Tyson beats the International Boxing Federation champion Michael Moorer and the World Boxing Organisation's representative Henry Akinwande, a Tyson-Lewis showdown becomes even more attractive and marketable. It would involve all the various championship belts, in the first contest for the undisputed title since 25 February 1989, when Tyson stopped Frank Bruno in their first fight. Side-stepping Lewis at this point makes sound economic sense from both men's viewpoints, since a fight involving all four versions of the title would be infinitely more rewarding than a match for just the WBC and World Boxing Association titles.

Lewis is actually making a profitable career out of not fighting Tyson. He received pounds 4m in "step-aside" money from King for allowing Tyson to fight the WBA champion Bruce Seldon rather than comply with a New Jersey court ruling that his next fight must be against Lewis, and now he will share an astonishing purse of pounds 6m with McCall. King won the purse bidding, conducted in Mexico City on Thursday, by a margin of more than pounds 2m, which prompted Lewis's manager Frank Maloney to remark, only half-jokingly, that "King must be printing his own money".

King had originally planned to put the fight on his 9 November show in Las Vegas, which features Tyson's defence against the former champion Evander Holyfield, but Maloney's comment that "I wouldn't bet against the fight going on in England as a co-promotion between King and Frank Warren" suggests that such a deal may already have been done.

In America, Lewis v McCall would merely be an expensive sideshow, but with an 18,000 capacity crowd in the Nynex Arena in Manchester it becomes viable. Warren plans a mega-show there on 9 November, but since he has already scheduled three world title fights for that card he is unlikely to throw away Lewis v McCall on a show which is already capable of selling out on its own merits. Lewis has remained stubbornly independent of King, who controls the division's other main players apart from Bowe, and now that independence is being richly rewarded.

Fighters rarely receive anything like the published purse figures, since deals are usually struck with the promoter in return for home advantage or similar "edges". But Lewis does not need to make any such arrangement with King, and will insist on every last pound of his entitlement. Lewis's management team of Maloney and Panos Eliades have been derided in some quarters for their handling of his career, but the criticisms are invariably promoted by jealousy. It is hard to find fault with decisions which ensured their client earned hugely without having to face any of the major heavyweights.

Maximum pay for minimum risk is the ideal to which boxers and managers alike aspire, and Maloney and Eliades have fulfilled that ambition in some style.