reports from Atlantic City
Not a blow will be struck, but the contest that began immediately after Lennox Lewis stopped Tommy Morrison in the sixth round here late on Saturday will be among the most important of his career.
No sooner had Lewis completed an impressive effort at the Convention Centre that restored him as a major force in the heavyweight division, when his American backers announced that legal proceedings will be taken against the World Council unless he is confirmed as the mandatory challenger for Frank Bruno's championship. "There is paper [an agreement] on this and we are asking the WBC to announce a period of 45 days in which the fight can be agreed or go to purse offers," Dan Duva, of Main Events, said.
If the WBC stand by the No 1 status it granted Mike Tyson automatically upon his release from prison, Main Events and Lewis's principal associate, the British businessman Panos Eliades, will seek satisfaction in a London court. "Unquestionably, Lennox has got right on his side and we intend pushing it all the way," Duva added.
Trouble is that the idea of Bruno defending against Lewis does not conform with Don King's grand plan for putting Tyson back on top of the heavyweight division through control of titles held out by the WBC, the World Association and the International Federation. It was only by signing up with King's partner, the London promoter Frank Warren, that Bruno got a chance to challenge for the title that a King fighter, Oliver McCall, took sensationally from Lewis last year.
Thinking realistically, Seth Abraham who presides over Time-Warner, parent company of Home Box Office - the cable network that has a big investment in Lewis - does not think an attempt to force Bruno into accepting Lewis's challenge will get far off the ground. "Because of our association with Lennox we'll assist him in trying to get the fight, but I don't see the WBC pushing Don [King] into risking their title," he said.
A well-known fact in boxing is that the WBC's president, Jose Sulaiman, is friendly with King and has the power to make up rules as he goes along. During Tyson's absence, Sulaiman thought of a rule that enabled him to place the former undisputed champion above Lewis in contention. It is what Lewis and his associates are about to start opposing.
Some of the best fights in boxing are staged outside the ring. However, an impression gained in the early hours of yesterday morning is that Abraham would prefer Lewis to face the winner of next month's contest in Las Vegas between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield. "Lennox raised his profile in the United States tonight," Abraham said, "but a fight between him and Bruno won't mean any more over here than when they met for the title in Cardiff two years ago. But Lennox against Bowe or Holyfield early next year would come up to the biggest we have televised."
All this resulted from the most impressive performance Lewis has given in the professional ring, including the second-round knockout of Donovan "Razor" Ruddock in October 1992 that led to him receiving the WBC belt by decree.
If Morrison was a big disappointment, boxing with the utmost caution when he was expected to mount ferocious attacks from the opening bell, Lewis never let him into the contest. Despite the American's reputation as a big hitter who can do terrible damage with his left hook, Lewis did not give a hint of the apprehension evident in two fights since he was punched out in two rounds by McCall.
Lewis may never be the heavyweight his trainer, Emanuel Steward, imagines outclassing anyone in the division, but he was far too big, quick and strong for Morrison, who was so comprehensively battered that he returned to his quarters with one eye completely closed and complaining of impaired vision in the other. "He was just too good for me," Morrison said. "Lewis is one hell of a big guy and I couldn't get past those long arms of his. When my right eye began to shut it was a hopeless task. I might as well have been fighting with a patch over it. I thought I'd been through everything in the ring, but boxing half- blind was something new. All credit to Lewis though, that jab never seemed to be out of my face and he didn't show any of the anxiety I expected."
A long-standing criticism of Lewis was that he failed to capitalise on the advantage of an exceptional reach, pawing with his jab instead of sending it with a full weight of shoulder. Improvement was soon evident, Morrison's features reddening from the force of Lewis's left leads and the quick, short hooks that followed them.
Gallant efforts to penetrate Lewis's guard (there was never an opening remotely like that which enabled McCall to crash in a decisively chilling right to the jaw) only brought Morrison punishment and the realisation of being utterly outfought. The American could be given only a share of one round, and from the fifth to a merciful intervention by the referee, Mills Lane, he was down three times. None of those blows flattened Morrison, but they had such a demoralising effect that his task became inevitably hopeless.
Even allowing for Morrison's technical and strategic shortcomings, Lewis fought well enough to suggest he has made considerable progress during nine months under the influence of Steward. Occasionally, he still looked amateurish in application, and a more accomplished fighter than Morrison might have taken advantage of an ungainly lunge that brought his head down to little more than a foot from the canvas.
Nevertheless, Lewis justified some of the claims advanced by his trainer. He looked better balanced, less hesitant under pressure and in complete control of himself. On setting out for the ring, Lewis suggested to Steward the possibility of greeting one of Morrison's rushes with a short left hook to the head. It was the punch that brought the first knockdown midway through the second round. "That showed how well Lennox is learning to work things out for himself," Steward said.
Before leaving for a party, Lewis insisted that there is a lot more to come from him. "You haven't seen the best of me," he said. Now he must wait to discover who next will be coming out of the opposite corner. The confident prediction here is that it will not be Frank Bruno.
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