Heavyweight boxing hasn't been much of a showcase for mental
health lately, with contestants suffering all manner of
breakdowns in the ring. One former champion burst out crying in
the middle of a title rematch. Another bit part of an ear off
his opponent. One guy froze so badly all he could do was clutch
his foe in an awkward embrace. Another, though ahead on points
in two fights, was disqualified from both bouts for repeated and
unprovoked low blows.
It was as if, just by buying a ticket to see a heavyweight
fight, you were getting a day pass to a psychiatric clinic.
Erratic behavior had become so central to the division's image
that bouts were now being promoted as opportunities to watch
some sort of madness unfold before you. Certainly that was the
promoters' and consumers' expectation for last Saturday's fight
between Lennox Lewis and Andrew Golota in Atlantic City. As the
two fighters had been interested parties in four of the five
aforementioned episodes of ring lunacy, it was natural to wonder
what insanity they could produce in a fight with each other.
There was even a newspaper ad that billed the bout as a chance
for England's Lewis to defend his WBC crown "and the family
jewels" against Golota, a native of Warsaw now living in
Chicago, whom everybody was calling the Foul Pole. On such lofty
premises are multimillion-dollar events built.
But nothing crazy happened. Instead, in a late effort to restore
some gloss to his career, Lewis gave just the kind of
performance that, if it didn't legitimize his sport, nudged it
back toward normalcy. He was in the ring just one minute and 35
seconds and threw only 36 punches, but in that brief showing he
proved he was worthy of a heavyweight championship and that the
division still had life in it.
Lewis's swarming knockout of challenger Golota was so swift and
conclusive that it was impossible not to be encouraged by his
emergence as a force in the sport. A two-time champion, Lewis
was nonetheless considered a fringe player, mostly because he
had never engaged any of the marquee fighters of the day. But
his headlong rush across the ring to destroy Golota signaled
that even at age 32 he wasn't going to let time run out on him.
After such a show of power--he floored Golota twice before
referee Joe Cortez called him off--it was reasonable to consider
Lewis among the elite, a contender for a unified title. There
was already talk about matching him with the winner of the Nov.
8 fight between the other two titleholders, Evander Holyfield
(WBA) and Michael Moorer (IBF). For once, it seemed like an
Lewis has long been an intriguing prospect, a 6'5", 244-pound
all-around athlete with as powerful a right hand as there's been
in boxing. The problem was, he never advanced beyond prospect.
His handlers often preferred the easy money and the easy
opponents, and he was never matched against Mike Tyson, Riddick
Bowe or the other top fighters. Thus he never seemed like a bona
fide heavyweight champion.
Not until Emanuel Steward was hired on as trainer in 1995 did
the Lewis camp see the light. Steward had worked the corner of
the only man to beat Lewis--Oliver McCall, who later dissolved
in tears during their rematch. The new trainer explained to
Lewis what a dud he had been as a performer. In two title fights
in the U.S., Lewis couldn't even sell out hotel ballrooms. The
fights were stinkers, with McCall and Henry Akinwande (the
hugging man) quitting on him.
When Lewis's management asked Steward to prepare him for another
easy bout, Steward refused, saying he had no interest in
training "the European heavyweight champion." Lewis had to fight
someone tough, someone with a reputation, someone who would test
That someone appeared to be Golota, another huge (6'4" and 244
pounds) and athletic boxer, who twice was beating Bowe when he
started hitting him below the belt (instigating a memorable riot
in Madison Square Garden the first time). On those fights was
Golota's name made. Before low-blowing Bowe, Golota had shown he
was among the most skilled boxers in the division and a fighter
with marketable talent.
Unfortunately, his DQs in the Bowe fights only hinted at his
ring unpredictability. He'd butted one boxer, and in the heat of
battle he bit another (on the shoulder, well before Tyson was
measuring Holyfield's ears for dinner). It was much easier to
market Golota's instability than his talent, and press
conferences hyping the fight invariably resorted to the
presentation of some protective cup or other outlandish
defensive gear. At one of last week's media events promoters
even trotted out a knight in armor, supposedly the only foe
comfortable jousting with a man like Golota. There was much talk
of Golota's need for counseling and a lot of photo shoots of his
special heavy bag, with shorts painted on it so that he could
practice hitting above the belt.
Poor Golota, who had to suffer through explanations of his past
behavior at every stop, still couldn't guarantee he'd never
repeat it. "I am not a robot," he said, and some were
guaranteeing he would foul again. Steward was certain that, in a
tough spot, Golota would come unhinged. "I don't think he has
the heart," Steward said.
It turned out he didn't have the nerves. Golota said after the
fight that the "pressure, too much pressure," made him "too
nervous." He certainly seemed tentative coming out of his
corner--"He froze," said Lou Duva, his trainer--and was
unprepared for the bombs-away approach of Lewis.
Lewis forced his foe into a neutral corner and in a series of
eight punches, beginning with a tremendous overhand right, drove
Golota to the canvas. Golota sprang back up, grimacing as if
fighting for air, and immediately lurched across the ring toward
Lewis until the referee stopped him and gave him a very generous
eight count. Then Lewis maneuvered Golota into another corner
and pounded him down to the canvas again, with Golota going into
a crouch and then crumpling to the floor.
As it turned out, it wasn't the last time Golota would go down,
even though the fight was stopped after the second knockdown.
According to his personal physician, Scott Katzman, Golota was
sitting in his dressing room afterward when he suddenly got up
to tell a joke. "I guess I better find a new line of work," he
said. Then he collapsed and had what Katzman diagnosed as
seizures. Paramedics were called, and Golota was rushed on a
stretcher to the Atlantic City Medical Center, from where he was
released Sunday in stable condition.
Lewis, meanwhile, was in much better condition, having gained
some respect against a feared opponent and having secured a
brighter future for himself--and for boxing--than even he could
have predicted. Maybe the heavyweight division hasn't gone nuts