Bad Hair Day David Tua's 'do and his power were undone by the withering jabs of Lennox Lewis, who retained his heavyweight titles by decision. So why doesn't the champ get more respect?

November 20, 2000

Lennox Lewis, who likes to brag about his "arsenal," courted
disfavor once more by keeping the heavy artillery under wraps. He
didn't court defeat, because his rifle jab was more than
sufficient to discourage David Tua in their title fight last
Saturday night in Las Vegas. But whenever heavyweights battle--and
Lewis knows this by now--cannons are the weapons most popular with
fans.

So Lewis heard boos again, even though he continued one of the
most distinguished reigns in recent history. His decision over
Tua, who was wildly hyped for his Samoan ferocity (or maybe just
his Samoan jabber), was so lopsided that even critics of the
London-based champion must accept the talent gulf between Lewis
and his challengers. Tua's lunging left hook marked him as the
most dangerous contender out there, but he did not win a round
past the fourth on any of the judges' scorecards.

This is the best the division can do? But the real question--and
it has haunted him from the beginning--is, Is this the best Lennox
Lewis can do?

The poor guy is so talented, yet so expressionless in the ring,
that he's doomed to a legacy of perceived underachievement. He
beat Tua in nearly every round, didn't suffer one moment of
anxiety, and the only thing people want to know is, Why didn't he
knock the guy out? "Why," somebody asked in the postfight press
conference, "didn't you use your big right hand?"

The answer is that a thrown right hand increases the thrower's
exposure to a left hook, which is about all Tua had to offer.
Much wiser to keep Tua, who suffered an enormous 15-inch reach
disadvantage, at a distance with the left jab and keep the right
hand up in defense. "I didn't want to take a chance," said Lewis.

Unfortunately, this is how most people characterize Lewis's
approach to boxing--a cautious and deliberate attack that produces
lopsided decisions...and boos. Lewis seemed to be searching for
another kind of reputation with recent spectacular knockouts of
Michael Grant and Frans Botha. A few more bouts like that and his
career might be remembered with more passion. "I'd be up there"
with the best of them, he said early last week. Instead, in one
of his few pay-per-view fights, he showcased his abilities in a
methodical and largely uninspiring manner.

Whether Lewis could have lit the fuse is a matter of speculation.
Tua, however vertically challenged he was in a Lewis matchup (he
is at least seven inches shorter than the 6'5" champion), is not
an easy mark, not for anybody. In 39 fights he has never been
knocked down. His physique is more or less that of a bowling ball
with a fright wig, and his low center of gravity resists
toppling. Plus, as he likes to say, "this coconut hasn't been
dented yet." That's Samoan for "I've got a pretty good chin."

Lewis had earlier dismissed his opponent as merely
Tua-dimensional, saying, "You have to bring more than power and
a hairdo to beat me." Lewis, by contrast, brings that arsenal.
Yet on Saturday night he didn't uncork much more than his jab.
"I didn't want to let him get that hook off," he said after his
11th title defense and his 38th victory in 40 fights.

If fans were disappointed in Lewis for waging a dull fight, they
should be even more disappointed in Tua, who promised he would
brave all of Lewis's weapons to get in close and deliver
fan-friendly hooks, the kind of crunching blows that remind
people that, hey, this is kind of a dangerous sport, isn't it.
But Tua, who admittedly ate a lot of jabs, didn't display that
sort of recklessness. He fought without urgency, allowing Lewis
to set the distance between them (about one nautical mile) and
occasionally lunging forward with a useless hook.

This strategy might have been judicious in the early rounds, but
later, behind as Tua was, it became boo-worthy itself. The
Samoan, no matter how much his corner urged him on, fought the
12th round as if he were ahead on points. Nobody expected him to
outclass Lewis, but for $3.5 million he was counted on to court
more danger than he seemed willing to.

His promoter, Dan Goossen, tried to excuse Tua's poor effort,
saying that the fighter had suffered a rib injury in training two
months earlier and that Lewis had aggravated it with a body blow
in the second round. Goossen's comments drew boos (mostly from
the British press), a little incredulity (Two months ago? And
wasn't Tua's best round actually the third?) and a sharp rebuke
from the champion's trainer, Emanuel Steward: "I had a boxer
named Tommy Hearns who fought Marvin Hagler with a hand broke in
two and wouldn't use it as an excuse, told me don't say anything
about the hand [because] it would detract from Hagler's victory.
Let's leave this injury alone and talk about the fight."

But what was there to say, except that Lewis was a lot better
than Tua? Lewis's drawing power did not grow with this fight and
probably won't with any of his next bouts. Through no fault of
his own the holder of the IBF and WBC titles (the WBA version is
held by Evander Holyfield, whom Lewis once defeated and once
dominated in a highly questionable draw) is going to be plunged
into a series of meaningless and relatively unprofitable
defenses. After making $8 million for this fight, Lewis will have
to take a big cut to fight somebody like Kirk Johnson on HBO,
probably in Canada. Legends are hard to make that way (although
it will help if Lewis knocks the guy out).

The one fight that could make Lewis rich (well, richer; he has
already earned tens of millions) and heroic is a Mike Tyson bout,
but that remains problematic, to say the least. Although Tyson
acquitted himself ably in his recent fight with Andrew Golota,
the broadcasting rights to a showdown with Lewis are still a
matter of squabbling: Tyson boxes for Showtime, Lewis for HBO,
and it might be hard to negotiate a truce between the cable
rivals.

Lewis, to his credit, is willing to wait out the senseless
politics. Although he's 35, ordinarily an advanced age for a
heavyweight champion, he is confident enough to predict an even
longer reign. No take-the-money-and-run for him. "I'm in this
for the long run," he says, "a couple of more years."

That is encouraging to hear. A cautious man might opt for a safer
line of work. But somebody who's determined to show the world his
arsenal might want to stick around. A guy like that deserves at
least another look.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK Tua Little Resistance Heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis lands a left to the head of David Tua during the seventh round of his one-sided decision over the challenger (page 48). [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Leftovers Lewis held back his right and used his superior reach to keep Tua from doing any damage with his dangerous left hook.

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)