With focus on present, Lewis eyes the past

Fighting Rahman in Africa has champ recalling Ali


April 20, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Boxing's heavyweight champion of the world, Lennox Lewis, is seeking more than a victory in his fight against Baltimore's Hasim Rahman.

At the mountaintop of his sport, the British fighter appears to want to make the bout tomorrow night (Eastern time) a historic fight for the ages.

That much is clear from his allusions to the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974, when Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman during a title fight in what was then Zaire and presently the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Of choosing to fight on the African continent, the champion says: "It's something that I've always wanted to do. My hero, Muhammad Ali, did the same thing, and I want to follow in his footsteps."

And at every opportunity, Lewis invokes the name of another legend, Nelson Mandela. He said he will dedicate his victory to the former South African president.

"I want to spread a little Madiba magic," he said, referring to Mandela's nickname.

Yet his stay in Africa so far has been anything but magical.

He landed in South Africa last week, just 11 days before the fight, amid criticism that he had arrived too late to adjust to Johannesburg's altitude. At 5,748 feet - higher than Denver - Johannesburg is known for its thin air that can pose problems for even the most in-shape athletes. Rahman arrived two weeks earlier than Lewis to adjust.

And when Lewis stepped on the scales this week during an unofficial weigh-in, it appeared that the champ had grown a little soft around the middle. Fully clothed, Lewis came in at 268 - about 20 pounds heavier than he was before his previous fight in November.

The extra pounds seemed to confirm rumors that Lewis, 35, has not taken Rahman, 28, seriously as a challenger.

At his training camp in Henderson, Nev. (altitude 1,940 feet), Lewis felt comfortable enough to take a break to act in a movie.

Since arriving in South Africa, Lewis' schedule has been packed with as many public appearances as training. He has held several public sparring practices. He made a stop at a memorial service for the 43 soccer fans killed during a stampede at a Johannesburg stadium last week. He also took a tour of the black township of Soweto.

His team then got entangled in a lot of bickering with the fight's promoter, Rodney Berman. In a local paper, Berman called the champion's team "arrogant" for showing up more than an hour late to news conferences and public appearances. The media, meanwhile, knocked the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation champion for surrounding himself with a pack of humorless bodyguards.

But it's not clear if any of these distractions will really matter when Lewis steps into the ring. On Tuesday, the Lewis team canceled all of its engagements for this week to concentrate on training. But Lewis has made quick work of some of the best prospects put in front of him.

Appearing relaxed and confident at a news conference on Tuesday, Lewis was not rattled by the doubts swirling around him.

"Usually before a fight I come one week before. This fight, I came two weeks before. That's to get acclimatized. I've been at this game a long time, so I know what I need to do," said Lewis.

Born in Stratford, England, Lewis achieved fame as an amateur boxer after moving to Canada in his teens. He represented Canada in the Olympics in 1984 and in 1988, where he won a gold medal. In 1989, Lewis turned pro and won 20 straight fights before losing to Oliver McCall in 1994.

Lewis' climb to undisputed heavyweight champion suffered another setback in 1999 during a controversial fight with World Boxing Association/IBF heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Judges scored the bout a draw, although most observers say it was a clear victory for Lewis.

Later that year, Lewis defeated Holyfield in 12 rounds. He then defended his crown three times. He is 35-1 with 27 knockouts.

But the fame and respect that has been enjoyed by his hero, Ali, has eluded him. Lewis has struggled to win the hearts of American boxing fans.

Lewis' business manager, Adrian Ogun, says that although Americans would not naturally take to a British heavyweight champion, the Lewis team is working to reach across the Atlantic.

"He has embraced American culture," says Ogun. "Boxing is looking for someone to be a role model. Americans have had enough with the bad boy image of boxing."

And certainly Lewis has the credentials to fill the role. He is gentle, polite and a well-spoken fighter. His constant travel companion is his "mum," Violet Blake, who cooks all his meals.

"She's a great inspiration to me," Lewis says. "She prays for me."

And if her prayers are answered, Lewis will remain world champion once again tomorrow.

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