Lennox Lewis and the decline and fall of boxing

The heavyweight champ is no better than respectable, but in boxing's inflated record books, he'll look like Muhammad Ali.

Published November 22, 2001 8:58PM (EST)

Like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, Lennox Lewis, when he looks good, looks very, very good, and when he looks bad, he's horrid. Last Saturday night he was splendid, fighting just about the best fight of his career in stopping Hasim Rachman at 1 minute 29 seconds of the fourth round to win back the heavyweight championship for, I think, the third time. I don't know if that means that he won the undisputed heavyweight title for the third time or a piece of the title held by some organization that claims authority in boxing. I don't even know how to check on this.

When I was a kid and boxing in gyms and following boxing on TV and in the papers, nobody thought to say something like "undisputed heavyweight title" any more than they would have thought to put "acoustic" in front of guitar or "natural" in front of grass. You didn't say "disputed" precisely because no one disputed. For more than half a century there was only one place you needed to check for official records and rankings: The Ring magazine, which had numbered among its readers over the years such literary heavyweights as A.J. Liebling, Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus. The Ring no longer has any clout: It isn't at any newsstand I frequent or any bookstore magazine rack of the kind that carries baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, racing and even wrestling publications. The Ring lost its importance, along with its integrity, in 1974 when it was hired by ABC to rank fighters for its "Tournament of Champions" and was found -- surprise! -- to have overrated a couple of dozen fighters managed by Don King. After that, as Bert Sugar was heard to quip, "If The Ring is the bible of boxing, we need a New Testament."

Alas, we now live in a secular age. With the downfall of the Ring there has been no central authority in boxing for nearly a quarter of a century, and into that vacuum swept the "Alphabet" boxing groups (World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council, etc.) and their new partners, TV networks whose news departments did stories on corruption in boxing while their sports departments did business with Don King. Once, there was a job slot for a heavyweight champ, light heavyweight champ (between 160-175 pounds), middleweight champ (147-160), welterweight champ (135-147) and so on. In the era of TV titles you had three champs for each division, or at least as many champs as a TV network could find to sell advertising for. And then, the scene exploded, with "super lightweight" and "junior middleweight" and "cruiserweight" titles being added, splitting weight categories so fine that a fighter could win three different weight titles in one year if he switched from eating tuna packed in water for lunch to tuna packed in oil.

So we had this amazing phenomenon where the number of youngsters willing to try a career in boxing dwindled radically while the number of champions grew in leaps. In other sports, the number of participants grew, while in boxing, it shrank as the population grew. It isn't that men are smaller, slower or slower-witted today than in Jack Dempsey's or Joe Louis' or Sugar Ray Robinson's time, it's that the number of competitors has shrunk drastically, which, since quality is honed by competition, practically guarantees that the boxing champions today aren't going to be as good as those of 30, 40 or 70 years ago. It's not that the money isn't there (big fights like last week's Lewis-Rahman match probably generate more revenue in one night than a year's worth of big fights did half a century ago) -- it's that the money doesn't go to support an industry but to a handful of popular fighters and a couple of promoters. Or, in Lewis' case, not so much a popular fighter as the only one in his division who doesn't, well, suck.

Lennox Lewis is a solid, respectable, workman-like fighter with all the tools except a great heavyweight's chin, but with enough smothering defensive technique to generally hide that fact. (Lewis is quite right when he says that Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali were also knocked down and sometimes beaten by second-raters they later came back to dominate. What he neglects to mention is that Louis and Ali weren't knocked out by second-raters, as Lewis has been.)

In modern boxing, champs don't make their money by fighting the best, but by not fighting them. Champs and TV networks and promoters cling to their titles so tenaciously that the public seldom if ever gets to see the fights it really wants, the ones that would put boxing back on the front pages. We didn't get to see a Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns rematch until both were well past their peaks. What ever happened to the Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad rematch? And why didn't Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe, who had a grudge to settle from the Seoul Olympics, ever fight? Now they're promising us Lewis and Mike Tyson, but both men are so far past their peak that you know all you're going to see is an evening of tugging and pulling and clinching and puffing when it does come.

Meanwhile, Lennox Lewis will go into the record book as a three-time heavyweight champion, same as Muhammad Ali, and on paper, in the record book, that will look exactly like Ali's achievement. But then, the record book itself may not be around much longer.

For the second big fight in a row, Bert Sugar correctly prophesized the ending: Lewis by a knockout. In fact, Sugar was the only prognosticator I saw who did, though several picked Lewis by decision. By the way, if you tune in to watch the replay of the fight this coming Saturday, stick around to hear the post-fight commentary and hear this gem from Larry Merchant: "Just as we said immediately before the fight, there were two commonsense outcomes on this fight -- one had Rock Newman repeating his knockout, the other one had Lewis winning a dull defensive decision. But we all know boxing has this un-commonsense aspect to it. And we saw what we saw."

Yes, indeed, we saw what we saw. We also heard what we heard. First of all, Rock Newman -- and that's who Merchant identifies, as clearly as anything that was said during the broadcast -- is not a fighter but Riddick Bowe's former manager. Yes, I assume he meant Rachman (which is pronounced "Rockmahn"), but he says "Rock Newman," clear as day. Is HBO not paying Larry Merchant enough to make him want to learn the names of the fighters in a heavyweight championship fight? Second, even without the Rock Newman gaff, Merchant's saynothing comments are an embarrassment. Isn't it time that HBO injected some fresh blood into this tired nightclub act?

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

MORE FROM Allen Barra

Related Topics ------------------------------------------