Profile: The battle for respect: Lennox Lewis: Harry Mullan studies the qualities of a British-born boxer craving a place in the nation's hearts

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The Independent Online
IN THE course of a 25-year career in the business it has not always been possible to find the easy way out; occasionally, risks must be taken. But there is a sensible limit to the dangers one should face in the name of journalistic integrity, and telling Mike Tyson that I did not accept his claim to be the world's best heavyweight would most assuredly have been mine. Yet that is exactly what, as editor of Boxing News, I have been doing to Lennox Lewis throughout the near two years the World Boxing Council has recognised the 29- year-old as heavyweight champion of the world.

That, my paper thundered, is an insult to the real champion Michael Moorer, who won his title the hard and honourable way by beating the man who had been champion before him. Lewis, we pointed out ad nauseam, won his green plastic WBC belt in a boardroom and was notified of the Championship Committee's decision while lounging on a Jamaican holiday beach. That's not the way Ali did it, or Marciano, or Louis, or Dempsey. Real champs bleed for their crowns.

One might have expected Lewis, who defends his title for the fourth time at Wembley against Oliver McCall in the early hours of next Sunday morning, to be at least mildly irritated by this stubborn and maybe even pedantic stance. As the first British-born claimant of the world heavyweight championship this century, he could reasonably have supposed the paper would have been in there waving the flag with the most jingoistic of the tabloids. Instead, he remains infuriatingly nice, invariably warm and welcoming, and in every outward way unchanged from the poised, quiet but unmistakably sophisticated young man who first visited our cramped little offices after winning the 1988 Olympic

super-heavyweight gold medal. If he was any more laid back, you might contemplate calling out an embalmer.

That is why there is something faintly ludicrous about the attempts by the promoters of next weekend's championship defence to project it as a 'grudge fight'. Lewis would be incapable of bearing a grudge if you insulted his mother's cooking, never mind his right to championship recognition. The message clearly is that you can write, say or think what you like so long as the cheque doesn't bounce, and so far Lewis's questionable status has been worth an estimated pounds 11m to him - and that after commissions, overheads and expenses. With that kind of financial cushion, he can afford to be magnanimous.

Last week's press conference theatricals, which saw Lewis's trainer, Pepe Correa, throw a red garter belt at McCall and tell him 'that's the only belt you'll wear' is a sign that the tickets are moving sluggishly, rather than that the champion has turned nasty. The British public have never warmed to Lewis, and it shows in the gate receipts.

Maybe Joe Bugner was right, at least in general terms if not in specific reference to himself, when he said: 'You British love a loser - you can't appreciate a winner like me.' That was a bit rich coming from a heavyweight who lost virtually every big fight he had, but it is a curious fact that both Bugner and Lewis experienced similar rejection by a sporting public who chose instead to worship less successful performers like Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno.

That amiable pair were distinctly and audibly British which, significantly, is more than can be said for either Bugner or Lewis. Bugner was Hungarian by birth, temperament and accent, while Lewis has never lost the Canadian twang he acquired during the years he was growing up there. He won his impressive haul of amateur championships in a Canadian vest, and even when he took the Olympic gold (stopping Riddick Bowe in the final) the press coverage usually made only passing reference to his London birth.

When he opted to launch his professional career in Britain, it was widely seen as a piece of opportunistic carpet-bagging, a calculated decision to exploit the fact that he happened to have been born here. The British heavyweight division is infinitely less competitive than the American circuit, and the cynics argued that he was merely trying to take a short-cut into the world rankings via the British and European titles.

Besides, there was something, well, un-British about the management deal that brought him to this country rather than into the contractual arms of any of the big American promoters who would have paid handsomely for his services. Young professionals traditionally claw their way up from the dole queue, yet Lewis struck a fabulous deal with the insurance millionaire Roger Levitt which assured him financial security before he even threw a punch. By the time the Levitt Group crashed spectacularly in 1991, Lewis had already banked his first million and was so well established on the world championship scene that he was able to walk away from the wreckage straight into a similarly rewarding deal with one of Levitt's friends, a London-born Greek Cypriot called Panos Eliades.

It was a hefty gamble for Eliades, who paid pounds 150,000 for Lewis's personal management contract and then lost pounds 500,000 when his company promoted the 1992 fight with Razor Ruddock which earned Lewis retrospective recognition as champion by the WBC. Had Ruddock won, Eliades's involvement in the high- risk, high-finance world of heavyweight boxing would have ended as unexpectedly as it began. Instead, those figures now represent little more than training expenses for a fighter who is well on his way towards out-earning Mike Tyson.

Eliades admits that he knew nothing about boxing when he bought Lewis's contract, but he has made the deal work by treating the fighter as if he were another business operation. He hired the right people to look after the boxing end of affairs, while keeping tight control of the finances himself. For a while, Levitt remained part of the team as Lewis's commercial manager, but was eventually dropped because Eliades and Lewis felt that, in the wake of his fraud case, he was not the image they wanted. But another important link with the Levitt era was retained, Frank Maloney.

Maloney was strictly a small- time figure on the boxing scene when, improbably, he announced that he had put together the deal which would bring Lewis back from Canada. His background was as a bit player, an occasional match-maker for the big boys like Mickey Duff and Frank Warren. He later dabbled in promoting, sometimes in association with the former IBF champion Terry Marsh, but had never made the kind of profits which would have entitled him to go after such a golden prize as Lewis. But he knew a man who had the money, and Lewis liked what he saw and heard of the personable south Londoner. Maloney took charge of the boxing end of Lennox Lewis Inc. and the unlikely lads took on the world.

For a while it seemed that Lewis might have made the wrong move: while his beaten Olympic rival Bowe was surging up the world rankings, Lewis was still scuffling around in boxing outposts like Sheffield, Bradford and Crystal Palace. Duff, whose wit can be woundingly funny, famously remarked of Maloney at this time that 'he's done a Cecil B De Mille in reverse - taken a star and made him an unknown'. But Maloney knew exactly what he was doing, and had the last laugh when Lewis made his breakthrough into world class by beating the Duff- managed Gary Mason.

Lucrative deals with Sky Sports and at present with Wire TV have ensured Lewis's financial success, but popularity continues to elude him either side of the Atlantic. Over there, he is seen as an Englishman and that, by definition, means he can't fight. Over here, he is seen as a Canadian who only became British again when it suited his bank balance. It's a shame, because in a business full of ex-cons, reformed or practising drug addicts and, most notoriously, a convicted rapist, Lewis should be the man with everything going for him. He is an image-maker's dream: a British heavyweight champion who flattens American contenders and is also intelligent, handsome, rich, impeccably behaved and good to his mum.

Part of the problem could be that because his fights were shown exclusively on satellite TV he has been unable to build a mass market for himself in the way that Chris Eubank has done so brilliantly on ITV. Sporting legends are created in the public houses, as much as on the playing fields, and the punters can't talk over their pints about performers whom they haven't been able to watch.

Having just signed a new, exclusive contract with Wire, Lewis can't do much about that, but if he really wants to be accepted like dear old Henry and Frank, he could start with that accent. How about elocution lessons from Terry Downes?