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Thursday, April 26, 2001
Updated: September 13, 6:40 PM ET
The Bittersweet Science

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

"It's axiomatic in boxing, Dog. It's the punch you don't see that hurts you."

Hasim Rahman
Even though Lennox Lewis, right, saw Hasim Rahman's punch coming, it still rocked the heavyweight division.
"You talking about Lennox Lewis losing to, to ... what's dude's name, R-Dub?"

"Rock-mon. Hasim Rahman. Whether you care what his name is depends on how you feel about boxing."

"Aw, you know I'm down, I like to see me some well-thrown hands."

"Well, then know this: The one you don't see is the one that gets you. Before heavyweight boxing faded, a knockout punch was assumed to have landed due to skill. Behind a feint. Off brilliant hand speed. By punching power. Or an inspired combination, like Ali's double left hook, sandwiched around a right hand feint, then followed by a right that rocked Cleveland Williams to sleep via KO 35 years ago. Big Cat never saw the second hook. So sweet it almost made you want to cry. Ali learned the four-move three-punch combo from watching Sugar Ray Robinson.

"This is how far the fight game has fallen, Dog. This is where we're at right now. The other night in the Carnival City Casino near Brakpan, South Africa -- remind me to tell you my South African casino story one day -- British heavyweight Lennox Lewis was hurt, separated from his senses, by a punch he did see!

"Rock-mon threw a right at Lewis after having lost the first four lackluster rounds. Lewis, despite a size advantage over almost everyone he fights, can fight in a lackluster manner. Doesn't really want any. Doesn't feed off it, does not capture the public -- revulsion, ire, whatever, it ends up as fascination. Lewis did what damage he had to do to win, which, though humane, doesn't make spectacular champions. He'd been a champ, but an unspectacular one.

  Boxing, above all the other, if you will, lesser sports, subscribes to the Great Man theory to maintain interest as an entertainment. Boxing won't be abolished as long as there are bullies and fights to overcome them after school. But nobody cares at the moment.  
 

"The play was in front of Lewis, Dog. He saw it all the way. He saw Rahman load up and fire the right hand. Lewis, tiring in the high altitude, gave with the punch, turning his face away to the right, to slip it, or if necessary absorb the punch. If it had hit him then, he'd have shaken it off. But the punch was thrown so slowly that it seemed there had been a feint, and then a second punch. Lewis had slipped the punch before the punch got there. So, then he was turned away to the east when the punch finally arrived, and thus never saw it. It landed flush on his unprepared chin. It was like somebody broke that single light bulb in the basement of your brownstone, Dog. All went dark.

"This is the state of heavyweight boxing as we now know it. The new champion is an earnest journeyman from Baltimore City, who does everything slightly above average but nothing particularly well, except for continuing to show up. I'm happy for him, his people, everybody except for the other people who are going to take his money. I hope he gets a couple of more paydays for the pain he endured.

"In baseball, you boot a ground ball, it ain't likely to black your eye, shatter your cheekbone, deviate your septum. Could happen, but not likely. In boxing, that is the general idea. It is the art of self-defense -- the definition is its salvation -- which is best exhibited by attempting to break the face of your opponent, or at least quiver his liver, thus discouraging him from continuing hostilities."

Me and Dog called up Emanuel Steward, an old acquaintance who happens to be the best boxing trainer around. Trained Lewis (at the time gathering moss as a contender) to the title, though Emanuel accomplished this with his lip curling in disdain. "He really isn't doing everything he could be doing," Steward complained after Lewis did just enough to beat Evander Holyfield the first time they fought, and was rewarded for that by being robbed into a draw.

Emanuel said, "It's probably good for boxing. Maybe not so good for me, or Lennox, but maybe for boxing."

"Really, Man'yul?" That's what the boys at Kronk always called him. "Man'yul."

Lennox Lewis
Lennox Lewis was definitely floored by Saturday night's turn of events.
"Let's hope so. Maybe we can get some fights made now. Seemed like everybody was ducking each other. Rahman got ... I won't say lucky. Rahman has skill. Some skill. Lennox was in good enough shape. Just got caught. Rahman? Well, he's ... he's ... game. He's ... gonna be there. It's good for boxing."

If Steward's subtleties are lost on you, know this: Don't bet the house on Rahman in a rematch with Lewis.

Boxing, above all the other, if you will, lesser sports, subscribes to the Great Man theory to maintain interest as an entertainment. Boxing won't be abolished as long as there are bullies and fights to overcome them after school. But nobody cares at the moment. No one captures the fire of the public imagination, except of course, the brooding and pathological and as-quiet-as-it's-kept intelligent Iron Mike Tyson. To think that Tyson would have knocked out Lewis with just that punch presupposes a similar lack of concern on Lewis's part coming into the fight.

"Plus, Tyson don't punch that slow," Dog said.

"We'll soon see. Tyson fights on June 2 at MCI Center in D.C. against as vague an opponent as Rahman was. Tyson is still the story in heavyweight boxing, other than that it's a bunch of Tuas -- David, Rahman, Lewis, Who? Nothing there to excite the public, unless you count Larry Holmes as part of the public, with him looking to book fights and cash in on what market is left. All the old heads have to do is stand up before the current crop and their bodies will remember enough to make a fight of it. What might've been the real (& captivating) world heavyweight boxing champion is probably playing for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL, or the Toronto Raptors of the NBA.

Mike Tyson
There's only one man left in the heavyweight division who can capture the public's imagination.
"For heavyweight boxing to return to the public interest, the Great Man will have to surface. He can be wickedly great, or portrayed that way. He can spout poetry, or religion, or be seen as representative of a cause.

"Nobody in Germany gave Max Schmeling much of a sendoff in 1936 when he came over to fight Joe Louis the first time. The fight was ignored in what had become Nazi Germany, a country that then considered itself the very height of man and civilization. After Schmeling detected a flaw in Louis's form -- Joe dropped the left -- and stopped Joe, interest in boxing even in "civilized" Germany spiked. Now, if somebody had dropped Hitler with a right hand a long time ago, back when he first started insulting people, then maybe people would have felt better about the whole thing and the whole bloody mess of World War II could've been avoided. But maybe not. Maybe it just would've been another bully who came up that nobody ever took care of and let him go too far.

"Schmeling didn't have anything to do with all this Nazi business -- except that, inadvertently or not, he ended up representing it. When Louis and Schmeling fought their rematch, the world watched, and the world was changed. It became more than two men fighting. So people who weren't black Americans rooted for Joe, and rooted with dead earnestness. Before that moment, seeing a black American as a national hero was just not done, no matter what the realities actually were. Society changed then. Joe Louis did that, and boxing was his milieu, so boxing did it, too.

"That's boxing's little secret, its eternal life. All sports have the capability of transcending the boundaries of their field dimensions. Only in boxing is this transcendence distilled to its simplest essence. Two men -- one against the other, no help, no weapons, with only their wits and their bare hands available to defend themselves, or a way of life -- the Conflict, in such a small square of light, surrounded by such tumult, the tribal hum of all humanity! ..."

"ZZZZZZzzz ...."

"Wake up, Dog! Well ... I bet you if one guy became a heavyweight contender right now, you'd care! Even if he can't box! You and everybody else in New York, you'd all drop everything and be at his next fight! Guaranteed! Rahman vs. this guy! In fact, if Don King gets wind of it before the Page 2 Crew edits it, it just might happen!"

"Yeah?" asked a yawning Dog. "Rahman versus who?"

"Charlie Ward!"

Road Dog, he woke up then.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."