A Sudden Leap to The Top

Oliver McCall's knockout of Lennox Lewis regained control of the heavies for Don King
October 02, 1994

It was a night when the most ominous cackle in boxing carried all the way from a northern suburb of London to a cell block in Indiana and sent a shiver down many a spine on both sides of the Atlantic. Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh. The signature crowing of Don King—even more than the gusher of self-congratulation and mangled quotation it punctuated—let the other leading connivers in the world's most-manipulable sport know exactly what they can expect now that King is back in economic control of the heavyweight division.

There can be little doubt that restoration of King's sovereignty was the immediate and overwhelming implication of the blasting righthand punch with which Oliver McCall scattered the senses of Lennox Lewis after barely half a minute of the second round at Wembley Arena last Saturday night. When the previously unbeaten champion (25-0) was driven violently onto his back, he sprawled to his right and then rose so uncertainly at the count of six that his legs fluttered like saplings in a breeze, and he responded to the referee's inquiries about his condition by lurching against the official. The stopping of the fight followed as naturally as the awareness that far more than ownership of a WBC title was about to change. The coup de gr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢ce was also a coup d'ètat.

McCall, a 29-year-old from the South Side of Chicago, entered the ring as a 5-1 underdog because of his 24-5 record and the belief that his ambition was incurably blunted by having worked too long as a sparring partner; in a stroke he regained power for King, a patron who had been without a stake in the heavyweight championship since James Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in Tokyo 4½ years ago.

Tyson remains imprisoned in the Indiana Youth Center on a rape conviction. But with his release due around May 1995, he is the key to the greatest bonanza professional sports has ever known—a blitzkrieg exploitation of the growing pay-per-view television market that might gross $100 million in a single night. And, in the fevered, gloating aftermath of McCall's sudden destruction of Lewis, King declared with aggressive certainty that he is the key to Tyson. "There is no more equivocation about who is going to fight Tyson," he said. "We now know who is going to fight him. Everybody was jockeying for position, but you don't have to worry anymore about where Tyson is going to fight if he is fighting."

At that moment it was difficult to relate the noisy scene in a corner of the arena restaurant, where McCall, wearing the garish green-and-gold championship belt over his sweat clothes, had difficulty making himself heard above the voices of every booster and bucket carrier in his huge entourage, to the presumably quieter one in that house of correction in mid-America. When King spoke of Tyson and of his own resolve to be master of ceremonies at the convict's comeback, he briefly abandoned the knockabout huckster's persona he likes to present to the public and reverted to the ghetto hardness that brought him up from the Cleveland numbers rackets to richer fields of plunder. His voice, which seconds before had been trilling and fluting at 300 words a minute through the familiar extravagances of his imagination, slowed and dropped an octave or two as he enunciated plans that must have sounded like a knell in the ears of his rivals for promotional supremacy among the heavyweights.

McCall would, King said, be ready to fight Bruce Seldon or Peter McNeeley or Frans Botha, "any one of them top guys." Since the principal distinction of those three men is that they are all affiliated with King, the point he was making could not have been plainer: The WBC title will be kept in the family until brother Mike emerges from the slammer. Seldon was stopped in nine rounds by McCall in 1991, and neither Botha nor McNeeley is close to a contender's status. But that last consideration is unlikely to faze King, whose ability to vault his fighters over more conspicuously qualified heavyweights in the rankings of boxing's three major sanctioning bodies has evoked awe lately even among veteran students of his winning ways with a dollar. There was a time when King had to rely heavily on the complaisance of the WBC, whose president, Josè Sulaimàn, has long been regarded as his lapdog. These days, however, King seems to be given an equally easy ride by the WBA and the IBF. All three organizations cooperated fully in the swift elevation of McCall—he was un-ranked at the end of '92 but No. 1 several months before the Lewis bout—and now have a clutch of King's clients at the forefront of their rankings.

With McCall spared a mandatory defense until next September and with two of McCall's toughest possible unincarcerated opponents, Tony Tucker and Michael Moorer, discussing a fight for Moorer's WBA title in April (provided Moorer, who is also the IBF champ, duly vandalizes the historic remains of George Foreman on Nov. 5), life for King at present is almost a rose without a thorn. Almost, but not quite. He is, in fact, pricked by a rather substantial anxiety over an indictment for tax fraud involving Lloyd's of London. Those who wish King ill, and they are not thin on the ground, drool over the possibility that he may be going to prison as Tyson is coming out. But, as law enforcement agencies and boxing's power brokers can testify, King is a hard man to lock up or lock out, and those embarrassed and alarmed by last week's coup in England dare not assume that a court will come to their rescue.

Apart from the sad figure of Lewis—and the British public, which, dismissing the fact that Lewis fought for Canada as an amateur, had readily acclaimed him their first heavyweight champion of the 20th century—the most shell-shocked victims of the explosive happenings at Wembley had to be Riddick Bowe and his manager, Rock Newman. It seems only yesterday that Bowe, having beaten Evander Holyfield in November 1992, was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Then, rather than fight Lewis, Bowe dropped the WBC belt in a garbage bin, and Holyfield did much the same to Bowe by winning their rematch a year later. Now both Bowe and Lewis are so far out in the cold that their careers are in danger of succumbing to hypothermia. Their match, which was scheduled for March, has been rendered meaningless.

At least Bowe, who has one big-money option on the table, against Moorer, can say he's an American who was once recognized as the true champion, the man who beat the man who beat the man. However, Lewis, in spite of having battered Bowe when they met in the Olympics in 1988, has always been seen as an upstart who gained his crown by decree.

In the midst of all this panicky positioning among the heavyweights, there is a tendency to forget how improbable McCall's achievement was, how much credit he deserves for transcending the limitations he revealed during nearly nine years as a professional fighter. Despite McCall's never having been knocked off his feet in his 29 pro fights and having actually put Tyson down during one of about 300 rounds of sparring they shared, there was a widespread suspicion that in serious company McCall would be preoccupied with survival. However, four months ago Emanuel Steward, one of boxing's most-respected coaches, moved in alongside McCall's regular trainer, Greg Page, and the response was dramatic.

McCall's earlier reputation as an idler and delinquent was deserved. A father of six, he admits he took up boxing because he was too lazy to get a steady job, and in 1988 he was jailed for 60 days and given five years' probation after trying to supplement his ring earnings with a little burglary. But his behavior over four months of dedicated training for the Lewis fight is proof of the cleansing power of opportunity. Not only did McCall sweat himself into a state of hard and shining fitness, but under Steward's tutelage, he began to throw recognizable hooks, which gave his attack a new dimension.

Above all, he developed an almost maniacal commitment to winning. By the time he reached the Wembley ring, weighing 231 pounds against Lewis's 238 (the heaviest Lewis had ever scaled), McCall had worked himself into such a wild-eyed frenzy that it looked as if his head might explode. With the muscles of his clenched jaw sticking out like rivets, he paced around the ring like a man possessed as Page spoke urgently at his ear.

Lewis's appearance made a contrast with McCall's. What his face suggested was not so much calm as a kind of passive detachment, as if not all of his spirit had turned up. Such impressions can, of course, come from the spectator's imagination, but there was nothing imaginary about the problems that arose for Lewis in the first round. Though he won it with a couple of decent jabs, he did nothing to discourage McCall from storming him.

Throughout the accumulation of his perfect record, Lewis's use of his impressive physical resources in the ring—his 6'5" height and 83-inch reach, his athletic strength and exceptional reflexes—had remained stubbornly amateurish. Some admirers pointed out that Muhammad Ali's style made him the eternal, if divine, amateur. But the hopeful comparison did not help Lewis in that extraordinary second round, which began with Steward counseling McCall to relax. Lewis said later that his disaster was precipitated by efforts to load up with his own right, which was reckoned the heaviest punch in the division. All that ringside observers saw was Lewis's tentative attempt to throw two punches, a left and a right whose soft arcs were never completed as McCall stepped inside with a left hook to the jaw. That hook was real enough, but its main function was to give McCall the rhythmic shoulder movement that helped ensure that the driving right that followed was nothing less than the punch of a lifetime.

There is no doubt that in ending the fight after only one knockdown and 31 seconds of the second round, Lupe Garcia, who was refereeing his 12th title fight but first in the heavyweight division, was breaking with tradition. Had he been on hand to apply the same standards, Larry Holmes would certainly never have come back from the twilight zone to beat Earnie Shavers or Renaldo Snipes, and a lot of other celebrated recoveries would not have occurred. Yet, remembering Lewis's teetering vulnerability, it is impossible to regret Garcia's intervention.

The loser talked afterward about a flash knockdown. There was definitely a hint of lightning about it, and of a thunderclap. And, as Don King might say, it split the boxing firmament asunder.

PHOTOJOHN GICHIGI/ALLSPORTAs Garcia restrained Lewis, McCall felt unrestrained joy. PHOTOSEAN DEMPSEY/PRESS ASSOC.McCall spoiled Lewis's unbeaten record with one ferocious right. PHOTORUSSELL BOYCE/REUTER[See caption above.] PHOTOTONY TRIOLO/HBOMcCall's stunning victory brought King back into the foreground of the heavyweight picture.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)