Next Saturday Lewis fights Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock at Earl's Court in the most meaningful heavyweight bout to take place in this country for years. Most meaningful because there is no evident phoney-ism beyond usual hype. Neither fighter is over the hill, and in neither has some sharp matchmaking informant detected the seeping undertow of punch saturation. Although it contains, in Lewis, a British interest, the match is not merely a domestic attraction. As Hank Kaplan, a veteran American fight figure who has travelled from Miami to see Ruddock-Lewis, says: 'It's going to be a hell of a fight. Ruddock is the heir apparent. In America you'll find the consensus is that Ruddock is the best heavyweight out of jail. Lewis is the brightest prospect around, the best defensive heavyweight in the world. It's a gamble. It's about who's betting the most.'
Of course for Lewis's connections, including his agreeably morose South London manager Frank Maloney, Lewis's arrival at the arena will herald only the closing stages of an elaborate and complicated process of negotiation, bluff, patience and opportunism. There is no higher-stakes poker game than the business of manoeuvring a heavyweight, and when the final cards are dealt in the ring one side will know with grim suddenness that it has come to the wrong table.
The credit-card-activated cables of American Home Box Office pay-per-view and European satellite networks will ensure that both contestants are handsomely paid. But in the grander scheme it is winner-take-all. The winner is guaranteed a shot at the world heavyweight championship, a whole casino unto itself and the only one in the world where there are no financial losers. Saturday's loser will be left outside fortune's door, at best having to go through another speculative ordeal to gain entry, and at worst being excluded indefinitely.
The camp of Ruddock, 28, a seasoned Jamaican-Canadian whom almost all the top contenders have avoided, know their man has the mental resources to make the best of most hands the deck can deal. There can be little, if anything, worse than being dealt a beating by Mike Tyson, and Ruddock has taken two and still emerged in credit. Less is known about the ability of Lewis, 27, the unbeaten rising star, to survive professional pressure. Lewis's connections believe him to be a natural who by his intuition and their daring can produce the ace in the hole. Others say the only hole near Lewis is the one his connections have dug for him.
That the intelligent, coolly confident Lewis is not known in the Bruno sense to the wider public is not because Lewis is an enigma. Some might say the reason is entirely explicable. Lewis won the 1988 Olympic super-heavyweight title, and numerous other amateur laurels, in a Canadian vest. Although he was born in the East End of London before emigrating to Canada as a boy, it is unlikely he would have returned full-time to his country of birth had not Roger Levitt, the now fallen financier, provided Maloney with the funds to make him an offer he could not refuse.
They were not the only ones to notice that Lewis's exceptional talent and his eligibility for a British passport, if married up, might provide the best opportunity yet to exploit our fascination with the so far fantastic idea of having a world heavyweight champion this century. Mickey Duff and Jarvis Astaire, the Bruno promoters who have not been in the habit of sharing out home-grown heavyweight talent, also made a vigorous approach but Lewis turned them down. Maloney, who had previously worked as a matchmaker for Duff's small-hall shows, admits: 'I am under no illusions that if I wasn't Lennox Lewis's manager not many people in boxing would bother talking to me.'
Lewis's choice was not popular in some quarters. Duff publicly accused Maloney of doing 'a Cecil B DeMille in reverse' by taking a star and turning him into a nobody. Maloney at first reached for his lawyer's telephone number, but then decided to let Lewis's fists do the talking. He accepted a match for him against Duff's unbeaten heavyweight prospect, Gary Mason, and Lewis outclassed him. Shockingly, two judges from the British Board of Control had scored Mason in front at the time of the stoppage.
When the Levitt Group went under two years ago, Lewis resisted further blandishments to make himself a 'somebody' and instead stuck with Maloney, who found another backer. Lewis-Ruddock is this country's first world heavyweight title final eliminator not to be promoted by Duff, Astaire and their associates since the eclipse of Jack Solomons' power in the mid-1960s.
Scepticism about Lewis's British credentials is not shared among the increasing numbers of scuffling youths from recession-punched streets around London gyms or the large black British audience for boxing, to whom Lewis is becoming a folk hero in the way that Frank Bruno, because of his marketing, could never be. This was not Bruno's fault. It was just that he began his career in another era, when the fact that Maurice Hope had defended his world titles before half-filled arenas still exercised its remarkably enduring lesson - as understood by promoters - that black people do not buy tickets. So Bruno was marketed to whites.
Although Lewis has spent most of his time in the United States recently this does not necessarily indicate that he has used Britain for easy ranking boosters on the way by picking off the local titles (he was, until recently, the British, Commonwealth and European champion). It seems more likely that Lewis, as a bone fide prospect, did not have to be shielded from anything but carefully orchestrated sabbaticals in American gyms and rings.
In addition Maloney sometimes got the impression that the British boxing establishment was not extending him too many favours. Having, amazingly, failed to interest BBC Television in Lewis's fights on any regular progress, he negotiated a deal with ITV only to be told by the Board that it was against the rules. Maloney also claims that opponents deemed suitable by the Board for Bruno and Mason in advanced stages of their careers were refused Board approval to fight Lewis at the start of his. Not, Maloney says, that he was looking to import what are known morbidly in the trade as 'bodies'. 'I'm not interested in building up fighters just for a pay-day,' he says. 'I want to find out if my kid can fight before he gets to the pay-day.'
It was galling for Maloney that having taken the leap in the dark of the Ruddock fight he found it suddenly prefaced by an event billed as being of equal importance: an eliminator for the world heavyweight championship between Pierre Coetzer and . . . Frank Bruno. Even in the extraordinarily agile career of Mickey Duff, obtaining official sanction for such a match remained a remarkable feat of negotiating-table gymnastics. Bruno had not beaten anyone in the top 10, while Coetzer was coming off an inside- the-distance defeat by Riddick Bowe - the man Lewis stopped in the Olympic final.
The supposed experience of nearly 80 fights that Bruno and Coetzer brought into the ring between them was belied by the following impression, however entertaining, they then gave of two men flailing through treacle. Bruno's performance was as usual brave and commendable. But likening his achievement to the task facing Lewis would be a travesty.
Through all the wranglings Lewis has remained composed and cocksure. He has not let Bruno's ghost rattle him. Indeed, he said last week he would rather not ever fight Bruno because Bruno is too well loved by the public. Those are the words of a natural fighter, who knows that he will go in for the kill. But so will Ruddock. Theirs has been the strange and chilling serenity with which the best pugilists enshroud themselves before the bell.
Meanwhile the connections sweat. Frank Maloney takes another phone call and wonders how the cards will fall. 'If Lennox Lewis loses I will declare myself bankrupt,' he says matter-of-factly. It is dangerous poker all round.
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