Triumph Of Timidity Lennox Lewis finally took undisputed possession of the heavyweight crown by all-too-carefully outfighting aging Evander Holyfield

November 22, 1999

Inasmuch as the result provoked no congressional inquiries, you
might say it was a great night for boxing. Nobody died in the
ring, the fix wasn't in, the performers were good sportsmen, and
there was no obvious malfeasance at ringside, where the scoring
is often so perverse that not even incompetence is a
sufficiently plausible explanation. And, yes, the sport has, at
long last, an undisputed heavyweight champion.

But it's important to observe that at this point we no longer
have any expectations when it comes to boxing. If last
Saturday's rematch between Evander Holyfield and Lennox
Lewis--required not because their fight last March was
particularly compelling but because it resulted in a most
curious draw--is the best the game has to offer, well, that just
proves that boxing remains exempt from the customary demands of
the consuming public, if not the law. It was an uninspiring
fight for the most part, and the best that can be said of
Lewis's victory by a unanimous decision is...finally.

The outcome seemed as much a matter of payback as of
performance. Lewis may not have won the fight in everyone's
mind--certainly the press people at ringside were divided--but
the carryover from the first bout, which he dominated without
proper reward, probably came into play with the judges.
Considering how he was jobbed in March, nobody complained this
time, not even Holyfield.

It was nice to see honest efforts by the principals, and it's
safe to say the bout will not be the focus of a federal probe,
but is that all we ask of boxing these days? When fighters make
$15 million apiece to unify one of the most distinguished prizes
in sports, should the only fireworks be those ignited after the
decision is announced--actual fireworks, it turned out, not the
metaphorical kind? Or shouldn't we insist on something more
galvanizing than 12 rounds of cautious boxing?

There was one superb round, the seventh, when Lewis and
Holyfield opened fire on each other and produced a
(metaphorical) bomb or two. It was a thrilling three minutes,
with Lewis uncorking a few head-snapping uppercuts and
Holyfield, ever the warrior, answering with lunging right hands.
It was the one round in which the largely tactical campaign
Lewis conducted gave way to fighting. At the end of it the crowd
erupted in applause.

That, however, was as stirring as the bout got. Even Lewis's
trainer, Emanuel Steward, seemed disappointed that the fight
didn't produce more rounds like the seventh. Steward is at once
awed by Lewis's abilities and frustrated by his refusal to fully
deploy them. "It was not," Steward said afterward, "a
superimpressive fight."

Lewis is 6'5", weighs 242 pounds, has tremendous power in his
right hand and knows how to box. A specimen like that is bound
to produce outsized expectations, and he'll probably never do
enough to satisfy either his fans or his critics. Nonetheless,
he definitely could do more than he does.

In the first bout with Holyfield--the most important fight of
Lewis's 10-year career because the sorry politics of boxing kept
him out of more big matches--he was understandably cowed by
Holyfield's reputation as a fierce counterpuncher, somebody
who's especially dangerous when hurt. So Lewis's tentative
approach, jabbing and boxing and not taking the risks necessary
to put the outmanned Holyfield out of his misery (which most
observers felt he could have done at will), was at least
defensible.

This time, though, Lewis should have been emboldened by that
first meeting to storm through Holyfield, who, at 37, was facing
not just a bigger man (by 25 pounds) but also a younger one (by
three years). Indeed, Lewis promised just such a strategy; he
told Steward in their opening session after the first Holyfield
fight, "Evander will fight a better fight; he'll be different.
I'll have to train harder, but I will knock him out."

As the rematch drew close, Lewis was still insisting he'd throw
caution to the wind. "Maybe I was a bit cautious," he said. "I
will be less so this time." Then, during the prefight hype, he
hedged his bet: "I'm not going to try to knock him out in the
first, second or third rounds. I'm going to build up to it."

He built up to it, all right, but never lowered the hammer.
Through most of the fight he relied on his tremendous jab, so
that the action resembled one of those cartoon brawls in which
the bigger guy holds the smaller guy at arm's length as the
smaller guy vainly windmills away. More often than not, when
Holyfield plowed in, Lewis gathered him in a clinch rather than
push him off and suffer Holyfield's short counterpunches.

Holyfield and his camp hoped to lure Lewis into a wide-open
attack, so that Holyfield could find a way to burrow inside. It
was, considering the fighters' styles and sizes, his only
chance. Explaining his lackluster performance in his first
meeting with Lewis, Holyfield said, "Everybody knows, when the
fighter pursues me, comes straight ahead, it's easy for me. But
when he's defensive and not aggressive, then I get lured into a
lazy posture. Lewis, he don't take chances." Even Holyfield's
lawyer, Jim Thomas, tried to help set the trap, saying before
the fight, "Holyfield has more desire to be a fighter than
Lewis." Holyfield was also better prepared this time--he is,
after all, the master of the rematch. (He avenged losses to
Riddick Bowe and Michael Moorer the second time 'round.) So give
Lewis some credit for not indulging in crowd-pleasing
recklessness.

But respect for Lewis's prudence won't gain him popularity. Even
the 6,000 British fans who traveled to Las Vegas to support
their countryman were mostly silent during the fight, only
occasionally erupting in authentic British gibberish from their
cheap seats. Lewis was loudly cheered at the end, as it's been a
while since a Brit has held a heavyweight title, much less those
of the WBA, the WBC, the IBO and the recently indicted IBF,
which predictably announced that it was withholding its belt due
to a dispute over Lewis's sanctioning fee. Yet other Brits have
been cheered more loudly in defeat; Frank Bruno's disastrous
title matches seemed more appreciated than Lewis's much more
successful ones. Nor is acclaim very likely to come to Lewis in
the U.S.

Lewis seemed to sense that his victory was not complete. Most of
the questions from reporters immediately afterward were
respectful, which was appropriate since he hadn't bitten off
anybody's ear or otherwise caused a riot. Soon, though, he was
having to listen to complaints of failure to excite. "In some
moments," he said, not quite exasperated but clearly concerned,
"I did show aggression." Asked why he didn't show a little more
and just knock Holyfield out, he said, "Well, why didn't he
knock me out?"

That is the new, undisputed--or, as promoter Don King anointed
him, "unmitigated"--heavyweight champion of the world. He's
hardly an unworthy one: Please keep in mind that in his last two
fights he has dispatched the man who overcame every other top
heavyweight of this generation. That's not nothing. Still, Lewis
seems to be a guy who, above all, doesn't want to get knocked
out. He's not a coward, or else he wouldn't have achieved what
he has, and he has fought bravely when he has had to. He's just
too particular, too fastidious to give into any unnecessary
abandon.

This is why, even in defeat, Holyfield is the more popular
fighter. "It's obvious that the winners in life are the ones who
take chances," Holyfield said before the fight. "Some people
don't have the fortitude." Holyfield, who began as a light
heavyweight and built himself into a heavyweight champion, has
always battled poor odds in size and pedigree. But he shrugged
them off--willing to do whatever dirty and dangerous work must
be done, often subjecting himself to terrible beatings. "I don't
have what you call a convenient-type job," he says. It may be
that Lewis, for all his gifts, prefers a convenient-type job.

This may prove exasperating to some. Yet isn't it even more
frustrating that, for all the shame he's brought to the sport,
Mike Tyson remains boxing's most mesmerizing presence? It's not
that he's so fearsome anymore--Holyfield beat him twice and Lewis
(whom Tyson has skillfully avoided) would certainly outpoint him.
It's not that he's beloved; he's probably more despised than any
other athlete in this century. It's that Tyson understands the
public's appetite for shattering spectacle. Risk must be faced,
odds overcome; somebody needs to get knocked clear out of his
senses. If Lewis doesn't figure out very soon that boxing needs
to be dangerous and at times horrifying, he might be defending
his new titles in front of increasingly smaller audiences, for
less money, for minimal distinction. And where will boxing, all
wholesome and pure, be then?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO Adjusting the Horizontal Hold Referee Mitch Halpern cuts in on Evander Holyfield (bottom) and Lennox Lewis to keep them from going over the ropes in the fifth round of their heavyweight championship bout (page 60). [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO Primal fear Although Lewis had vowed to knock Holyfield out, he seemed reluctant to unleash the beast within. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO The reach As he did in their first meeting, Lewis used his stiff jab to keep the shorter Holyfield at arm's length for most of the fight.

IF LEWIS DOESN'T FIGURE OUT THAT BOXING NEEDS TO BE DANGEROUS,
HE MIGHT BE DEFENDING HIS NEW TITLES TO INCREASINGLY SMALLER
AUDIENCES.

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)