Lewis scraps towards Tyson

Durable Mercer spices heavyweight plot by posing British world title hope his toughest test
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The American promoter Don King has a nose for sniffing a weakness that is as highly developed as his eye for spotting a quick buck. That's why the scent emanating from the historic Madison Square Garden here on Friday, where Lennox Lewis struggled to win a majority 10-round decision over Ray Mercer, could not have been sweeter.

King was nowhere to be seen, but his resonating chuckle echoed hauntingly around the magnificent arena as Lewis, his face disfigured after the roughest half an hour of his 30-fight professional career, faced the ringing boos from an unimpressed audience, whose appraisal hinged unfairly on Lewis's inability to dispose of a 35-year-old opponent who had never before been stopped in 27 fights.

The Americans have never taken to Lewis, though they rose to their feet to applaud a wonderful contest before making their displeasure at the judges' decision known.

Lewis, the No 1 challenger for Mike Tyson's WBC crown, was a deserving winner, but the manner of his victory did more to hasten a date with Tyson than any ruling in the US Supreme Court and one might now suspect that King, who made Lewis a $10m (pounds 6.75m) offer last week before choosing again to contest the court's decision, will make a rapid about-turn.

For an additional $2m, Lewis could buy himself more time and allow Tyson to go ahead with a 13 July unification match with the WBA champion Bruce Seldon in Las Vegas, but a thorn of Lewis's size needs to be removed immediately.

Lewis could wipe the smile from King's face by insisting the match go to purse bids, where Lewis's backers, namely Home Box Office, the American promoters Main Events and Panos Eliades, could try to take Tyson from King's hands - if only for one fight - in a financial war King could ill- afford to lose.

Under such circumstances Tyson might vacate his title, leaving the way clear for Lewis to face the next available challenger. If reports prove true and Britain's Henry Akinwande (ranked No 2) takes on the Russian Alexander Zolkin when the WBO title falls vacant, which it will do soon, then according to the WBC rankings, Lewis's challenger will be Frank Bruno.

That barely plausible scenario would leave the heavyweight division nursing more scars than all the six heavyweight stars who performed on a show which drew record gate receipts of $1.7m and a crowd of 17,041.

Lewis against Mercer was the main attraction, but the crafty 38-year- old Tim Witherspoon expertly knocked the Cuban Jorge Luis Gonzalez out of the title picture in five rounds while Evander Holyfield, another former two-time champion, insisted he would fight on until he regained his title, after Bobby Czyz, a former title-holder at light-heavy and cruiserweight, retired also after five rounds.

Witherspoon and Holyfield must take their place in the queue behind Lewis, whose performance was exciting in attack and flawed in defence. Had it been a football match there would have been plenty of goals and scoring chances as Lewis was so often open to a counter-attack.

In a somewhat hostile environment, Lewis leaned away from making excuses more successfully than he did Mercer's dangerous right hands, though the small ring and heavy canvas slowed his feet and trapped him on the ropes where the exchanges were often explosive.

The durable Mercer, who won Olympic gold at heavyweight in the same year (1988) Lewis won at super-heavyweight, declared himself a moral victor, but, as Lewis said: "Mercer was in a no-lose situation."

With arguably the finest trainer in the world, Emanuel Steward, at his side, Lewis's improvement is difficult to assess (after four fights together) against opposition far tougher than anyone Tyson has bludgeoned since his release from prison.

While the statuesque Bruno flattered to deceive, making Tyson appear at his destructive best, Mercer defused Lewis's firepower and Steward made an interesting comparison by recalling Muhammad Ali's (then Cassius Clay) testing match with Doug Jones in the 1960s, shortly before he tackled Sonny Liston. "Liston wasn't fighting anyone [good] at the time," said Steward. "And when Clay fought Liston it was easy because he was used to tough competition."

The only conclusion to be drawn from Lewis's win, awarded by margins of one and two points (the other card was level), is that, after seven years as a professional, we have discovered he can fight as well as box.