Lewis still somehow fighting for respect

U.S. fans are skeptical of heavyweight champ, who's gearing for Grant


April 27, 2000|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Lennox Lewis speaks in a soft British accent, has an appealing smile, and sports shoulder-length dreadlocks that jiggle slightly with head movement -- all marketable qualities on the pop music circuit.

But as a pro boxer, it's not music to quite everyone's ears to hear that the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Lewis (35-1-1, 27 KOs) is defending his International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council heavyweight titles against 6-7, 250-pound Michael Grant (31-0, 22 KOs) on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

The matchup, billed as "TWO BIG," claims the fighters' combined size (13 feet, 500 pounds) is the largest in championship bout history. Promoted by Main Events-Panix of U.S., Lewis reportedly will earn $10 million to Grant's $3.5 million in Lewis' third appearance at Madison Square Garden since a 10-round victory over Ray Mercer in 1996.

But America's fight fans haven't quite bought into Lewis, despite a 12-round decision over Evander Holyfield on Nov. 13 in Las Vegas that made him England's first heavyweight champ since Bob Fitzsimmons in the 1800s.

Lewis is the antithesis to the heavyweight division's bad boys, whose antics spawn morbid curiosity in patrons with an appetite for destruction.

The 34-year-old sips tea, plays chess and contributes more to charity than most British sports celebrities. He played Bob Marley songs in the background during a recent workout at the Garden, not hard rock or rap. He spends his downtime basking in Jamaica's Montego Bay.

Yet fighters such as Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, draw crowds for their viciousness in fights.

Don Turner, Grant's trainer, is 0-3 against Lewis with Henry Akinwande and Holyfield.

"Lewis has done everything he's been asked to do except be exciting," Turner said.

"Lennox Lewis is a good fighter in his own right, capable of knocking your brains out, but he's not Mike Tyson. He's not Evander," Turner said. "But he's a two-time [professional] champion and an [Olympic] champ, and you don't get that because you can't fight.

"But Lennox is a typical English or European fighter. He doesn't gamble. He seldom leans in. People don't want to see him fight that way, which I think is unjust, because he wins."

To witness Tyson's two-round demolition of unheralded Julius Francis in January, Lewis' countrymen filled the 21,000-seat Manchester Evening News Arena -- England's largest indoor sports venue. The fight sold out in two days.

But where an angry Tyson bites, or punches with vicious intent, Lewis jabs, feints, and throws a right hand -- his best punch -- on occasion.

"I don't get angry if a guy hits me in there. I just come back punching," Lewis said. "I just roll with the punches."

Fight fans, however, are not as likely to roll with Lewis unless he knocks out Grant. Lewis' manager, Frank Maloney, told reporters at yesterday's news conference that "Michael Grant won't last three rounds." Emmanuel Steward, Lewis' trainer, said it might go five.

"I think what Lennox needs to do is establish himself as a real strong, dominant [fighter] in the heavyweight division," Steward said, "and that is by a series of impressive knockouts regardless of who the competition is so that the public can take notice."

Steward has "seen a more determined Lennox Lewis" in training, but he has grown weary of "calling out" a fighter who battled a past-his-prime Holyfield to a controversial 12-round draw at Madison Square Garden in March 1999.

"Lennox has great talent that has yet to be seen in the ring, but I'm tired of saying that. I'm just as anxious to see it as everyone," said Steward.

In five months, Lewis has gone from being the young warrior against the smaller, 37-year-old Holyfield, to being the more experienced fighter going against a man who weighs the same, is two inches taller and eight years younger.

Lewis retained his WBC title in his last fight with Holyfield, and won the IBF and World Boxing Association titles. But a New York judge ruled Lewis breached a contract by fighting Grant instead of the WBA's No. 1 contender, John Ruiz.

Lewis deemed Ruiz unworthy after Ruiz was KO'd in one round by David Tua. Lewis was ordered to relinquish his WBA crown -- a decision his camp is appealing. Lewis must fight Tua, the IBF's No. 1 contender, by the fall or forfeit that crown as well.

Lewis called the WBA's move, which calls for Holyfield to fight Ruiz for its vacant crown in June, "the fuel I need" toward a sensational bout Saturday night. Lewis calls Grant, ranked No. 5 by the WBA, and No. 2 by the IBF, "the best of a young crop of fighters because he's fought the most reputable opponents."

Lewis plans to fight South African Francois Botha in England on July 15, then possibly Tua.

"Holyfield took nothing out of Lennox Lewis. He's still a well-preserved fighter who can dominate for the next three or four years," Steward said.

Still, the fans want more from him. A 60-year-old English woman was among about 6,000 Britons who flew more than 20 hours to Las Vegas for Lewis' win over Holyfield.

"Lennox is well-loved in our country, but in the ring, he needs to be meaner," she said. "Maybe he needs something bad to happen to put some evil into him. Then he can be more like Mike Tyson."

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