Showtime for Lewis in expatriate games

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The Independent Online
As I queued for my credentials for the Holyfield-Tyson fight in the MGM Las Vegas last weekend, an extremely large black man in front of me was growing increasingly irritated by the absence of his name from the list. Considering that he was Henry Akinwande, who, if he takes the World Boxing Council title from Lennox Lewis at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, on Saturday will become Holyfield's next logical challenger, his anger was understandable.

The green-blazered official on the door had never heard of him, and like blazer wearers the world over was unmoved even when his identity was established. Akinwande eventually got in, but the episode was Las Vegas, and boxing, in microcosm; in both, you are only one big win away from celebrity status.

That big win has been a long time coming for the 31-year-old Akinwande, who won the European and Commonwealth titles under Mickey Duff's management but, despite a long unbeaten record, could not make an impact at world level until he came under the Don King umbrella when his contract with Duff expired. The rewards were instant: he won the World Boxing Organisation title a year ago, and retained it twice before relinquishing it in order to challenge Lewis.

A 3,000-seat arena in a northern Nevada ski resort is a strange place to stage what is, ostensibly, an all-British world heavyweight title clash, but neither man has been able to command a significant following in Britain and not even their most fanatical followers would argue that the WBC belt they contest is anything more than a staging post on the way to the real world title.

Both were born in London, but Lewis was raised in Canada and Akinwande in Nigeria. Akinwande feels no regrets about leaving England. "It was the best thing I ever did," he says in a curious amalgam of Nigerian, London and American accents. "I was getting nowhere over there, and I should have made the move years ago."

He is quietly confident about Saturday's outcome, and was impressed to learn that his former manager Duff has been dispassionate enough to back him at 11-8. "What has Lewis got to beat him with," Duff reasoned. "Akinwande's 6ft 7in, with a long, stiff left jab, a good chin and a fair right hand. He's awkward as hell and he can frustrate Lewis."

That is a believable scenario, especially if Lewis turns up in the soft and lazy mode he was in for that bizarre encounter with Oliver McCall which saw him regain the title in Las Vegas in February. Lewis's trainer, Emanuel Steward, promises that Lewis will be at least 12lb lighter than the 251lb he scaled against McCall. But there has to be improvement in his mental sharpness, although to be fair McCall's antics would have confused and bewildered anyone.

Lewis is potentially the best heavyweight in the business, and after last weekend's fiasco we know that he could certainly have beaten Tyson. Holyfield is another matter, but if Lewis continues winning then he will become the champion's only viable opponent. There is a real danger otherwise that he will go down as one of boxing's great "might have beens", a man, who through no fault of his own, missed fighting every opponent who could have earned him real championship status.

He is worth a better epitaph than that, and an impressive win over Akinwande would be an important step forward. At 31, time is against him and a loss to the lanky challenger would leave him too far down the field to recover. He should take a close points decision in a fight competitive enough to keep both men marketable, in a division short of genuine talent.

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