Lewis' reputation put on the ropes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maybe it's the British accent. Lennox Lewis speaks the king's English like a librarian, his soft-spoken manner so uncharacteristic of his violent profession that it's easy to wonder if he's really tough enough to be considered a great heavyweight fighter.

Maybe it's the record. Lewis wants to be considered one of the greatest champions in boxing history, but he lost the World Boxing Council title to a guy (Oliver McCall) who broke down crying during their title rematch and then got knocked on his large wallet by Baltimore long shot Hasim Rahman in South Africa to cede the heavyweight crown again last April.

Maybe it's the hype. Trainer Emanuel Steward said the other day that Lewis has more boxing talent than Muhammad Ali - an exaggeration that would make even Don King blush, and one that leaves Lewis looking smaller by such a ludicrous comparison.

This is the reality: Lennox Lewis may be the best heavyweight boxer of his generation, but that might say as much about his generation - and the current state of the heavyweight division - as it does about his skills and his currently tarnished reputation.

The oddsmakers claim with some conviction that Lewis will regain the WBC and International Boxing Federation heavyweight belts when he meets Rahman again on Saturday night in Las Vegas, but the manner in which he lost the title and spawned "The Rock" has put his legacy on the line.

Lewis went down hard in the fifth round, the victim of a stunning right hand that his camp still dismisses as a lucky punch. Now, he must prove Rahman didn't also knock the fight out of him.

"In that fight, you could tell I was a bit lackadaisical when that punch came by," Lewis said. "He got me with a great punch. I don't believe that will happen again. We are speaking about two different fighters. He hasn't been to two Olympics. He hasn't had the kind of pedigree that I had. He shouldn't be compared to me."

Except that boxing is about the belts and - at least for the moment - the ones that count belong to Rahman, the self-proclaimed ordinary guy who wants to be the people's champion.

Lewis finds himself at a crossroads. If he wins on Saturday night, he regains control of the heavyweight division and sets up a long-awaited, big-money showdown with Mike Tyson. If he loses, he's a diminished 36-year-old heavyweight who lost twice in a row to guy who was largely unknown outside of Baltimore until he made a ton of hay with that now-famous haymaker near Johannesburg, South Africa.

The former champion and his handlers have done a good job of appearing unconcerned, but what else are they supposed to do?

"Traditionally, when a fighter who is not as balanced or talented scores an upset, in about 90 percent of the cases, the guy loses the rematch," said Steward. "The more talented fighter comes back. I always refer back to when Ali lost the fight to [Leon] Spinks and Floyd Patterson losing to [Ingemar] Johansson. Lewis is the more talented fighter. I think, with more focus and intensity, he shall have a great victory."

Of course, that begs the question, if Lewis is truly a great heavyweight, why did he have so much trouble getting up for the first Rahman fight?

This is, after all, the same guy who dedicated the first fight to former South African President Nelson Mandela, but spent valuable training time taking part in the filming of the feature film Oceans Eleven. This is the guy who clearly underestimated Rahman and showed up in Johannesburg for the first fight late and overweight.

Lewis, to his credit, did not make a lot of excuses afterward, but Steward didn't hesitate to make them for him.

"We just accept this as part of boxing, particularly heavyweight boxing," Steward said during a recent conference call. "Here's a guy who was winning every round and just got hit at a time when he was bouncing off the ropes, with his legs twisted up in a bad position. He saw it coming and tried to get his hands up, his body was in such a bad position that the punch came right at the split second where it was most effective.

"We just have to deal with it, forget it happened. We are just fortunate enough that we were able to get a rematch. We are trying to get the title back."

Forgive the boxing world for not bubbling over with enthusiasm. Lewis has had a much easier time winning fights than he has had winning fans outside his native England or his adopted homeland of Canada, perhaps because he is such a soft-spoken, erudite guy in such a trash-talking, over-the-top sport.

Most boxers revel in the high life while they're on top of the hill. Lewis has spent much of his career living with his mother, Violet, his pet poodle and his obsession with privacy.

His quiet manner and less-than-macho pursuits have not only created a personality at odds with the hype-driven nature of his sport, but have also spawned rumors about his personal life that he has found difficult to dispel.

There has been speculation in the British tabloids - and in boxing circles - that Lewis is gay, something he steadfastly denies. It was a tasteless reference to that by Rahman that led to the scuffle between the two during a recent ESPN interview.

Lewis addressed those rumors in a lengthy profile of him last year in London's Daily Telegraph." ... Nobody ever says it to my face," he told the Daily Telegraph. "You know, I was upset about being called gay. I was really upset about that. What? Was there a fly-on-the-wall camera team in my bedroom. How could anyone know what I do in my own home?

"I am definitely, definitely not gay and never have been. I love women. It's a weird thing. I know people say, yeah man, Lennox is gay. But how do you combat that? I'm never seen in public with a girl because I care about them. I want to protect their privacy."

If he is knocked out again Saturday night, he might not have to worry about his privacy anymore. In the wake of the court fight that forced Rahman to give him an immediate rematch, it seems unlikely that Lewis would get another title shot while he is still young enough to take full advantage of it.

Steward is confident that the fallout from the first fight will provide more than enough motivation to get Lewis through the second.

"I think just being humiliated, in particular seeing that KO on tape over and over, it's enough to irritate him and I don't have to do anything," Steward said. "He realizes that he has put himself in a position that, if he loses this fight, he retires. So, this is it for him [if he loses]. All of his accomplishment will be pretty much squashed down. The Holyfield fights, the [Andrew] Golota and [David] Tua fights, all of those will be forgotten. He'll just be remembered for the fights with this man."

Sun staff writer Lem Satterfield contributed to this article.

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