ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- The question "Who is Phil Jackson?" may be more difficult to answer than why he is fighting for the heavyweight title at Convention Hall tonight against World Boxing Council champion Lennox Lewis of England.
"We chose Jackson as a suitable opponent because of his brawling style," said Lewis' manager, Frank Maloney. "We think he will make Lennox look quite impressive."
Las Vegas oddsmakers, who have established the unbeaten Lewis as a 16-1 favorite, share Maloney's viewpoint.
Rather than being influenced by the challenger's 30-1 record, including 27 knockouts over mostly obscure opponents, they remember his one glaring defeat -- an embarrassing fourth-round knockout by Razor Ruddock in June 1992, the same Canadian who lasted only two rounds against Lewis in a title match four months later.
Lewis' trainer, Pepe Correa, made sport this week of showing the media a photo of Jackson, appearing in no great distress, being counted out. In boxing parlance, it is called "taking a knee." More candidly, it is called quitting.
Surprisingly, Jackson, 29, and his management team, do not dispute this perception. They agree that the Miami native was not ready for a prime-time fight two years ago.
"Anyone can choke on a given night," Jackson said. "I didn't train properly for Ruddock, and had no defense. There was no sense taking a real beating. I knew I'd have another day."
Said co-manager Jan Neiman, a Florida attorney, "I liken Phil's situation to my first court trial. No matter how well you do in law school, you're not prepared to truly represent your client that first time. I was overwhelmed by the experience, but I knew I'd be much better the next time.
"It was the same for Phil that night against Ruddock. He was looking out at the crowd instead of the fighter in front of him."
His trainer, Pat Burns, a police sergeant, says Jackson profited from his lone setback.
"Put a lot of fighters in that same situation, and they become bums or an opponent," said Burns. "But Phil came back from that fight with a whole new attitude. He busted his butt, and he's won his last five fights. He's done more growing up this past year than he did in his first six years as a pro."
Jackson did not get involved in boxing until he was 22, looking for an alternative lifestyle to the mean streets of Overtown, a ghetto remembered for its 1980 riot.
"You don't forget those things," said Jackson. "I really believe people weren't expressing anger as much as looking for an excuse to riot. But the curfews kept me off the street most nights."
Jackson, 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds, looks more like a defensive lineman than a boxer, but that is no coincidence.
"Football was my game as a kid," he said. "I was a real terror, playing defensive end at Miami Beach High. I'd bash the quarterback, and the officials would throw me out of the game. My coach would put me in a jersey with a new number, and I'd be right back out there, just running wild."
Jackson is more responsible today, a condition necessitated by being father to nine children, six of his own and three whom he adopted.
"He's a legitimate role model," said Burns. "We send him to all the schools in the tough neighborhoods to preach to kids about staying drug-free and out of trouble. But what he preaches he practices in his own life."
But no one, including Burns, knows what to expect when Jackson is threatened by Lewis, who despite disappointing title defenses against Tony Tucker and fellow Briton Frank Bruno, possesses one of the best right hands in the business.
"We've prepared Phil as much mentally as physically," said Burns. "We've got him concentrating on attacking Lewis' body. He's a lot more prepared than when he fought Ruddock. It's strictly how bad he wants to be a champion."
Who: Lennox Lewis (24-0, 20 KOs), London, vs. Phil Jackson (30-1, 27 KOs), Miami
What: 12 rounds, for Lewis' World Boxing Council heavyweight title
Where: Atlantic City (N.J.) Convention Center
When: Tonight, estimated start 11 p.m.
TV: HBO, first fight, 10 p.m.
Tickets: $25 to $250