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Friday, June 20, 2003
Life, death and Lennox Lewis' legacy

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

As Lennox Lewis filled up the doorway on his way into Romey's Green Room, I thought, in the casually immortal words of Ali, that George Foreman isn't as dumb as he looks. Or sounds.

George, Ali's "Mummy" and testimonial icon behind a glorified waffle iron called the George Foreman Lean, Mean, Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine, has made $150 mil as a brand pitchman. You'd think George would buy himself a piece of Puerto Vallarta or Jackson Hole and be done with us all.

But no. George feels he's got to make a boxing comeback. He feels he can do something big with that particular brand, as well. Even at age 55. Which either (a) makes us know George is unhappy at home; (b) says George has watched tapes of his go-rounds as a boxing color commentator, and wants to do us a favor and stop; (c) means George feels a void in the heavyweight division. And in this final option, he would not be alone.

Of course, George's feelings about this matter are conditional, as are ours. If Lennox Lewis punches out Vitali Klitschko in a certain way at the Staples Center on Saturday night, George will not make any more comeback vows.

Foreman wants no part of Lewis. Let us make no bones about that.

But, on the other hand, George says, if the long odds do come in, which they have a tendency to do from time to time, and if Vitali Klitschko breaks off a lucky punch and KOs Lewis, George stands ready to make it look like he's defending our honor by making another comeback.

If I were you, I wouldn't hold my breath.

But, in fact, if it did happen, a line would form behind George that would include everybody from Jared, the former fat guy pitching the Subway brand, to Ben Affleck, with J-Lo attached to the promotion; to Justin Timberlake, to Norman Mailer, to Slapsie Maxie Kellerman, the reincarnation of Joe Liebling, Don Dunphy and the ultimate boxing press agent, Irving Rudd, all in one very hyperactive and very boxing-prone guy.

This is not to mention the Chris Byrds and Mike Tysons, hip-hop's own version of the brooding, somehow disappointing Incredible Hulk. Also on queue would be Laila Ali, Lou Ferrigno, even Ang Lee's animated Hulk, which could use the critical shot in the arm. He's getting even worse press than Lennox Lewis! (Don't laugh -- a vintage copy of DC Comics issue of "Muhammad Ali vs. Superman," circa 1975-1976, would fetch a pretty penny on eBay right now.) Even Vitali's own brother, the disgraced Wladimir, would sprint up the ringside three-step Stairway to Hell to fight Vitali, who, it should be noted, is 6-8, and an eighth of a metric ton.

Yet no one is lining up to fight Lennox Lewis. Or to see him fight.

Who wants to stand in and eat power jabs and heavy crossing rights from a solid, 6-5, 250-pounder who is a great front-runner? Nobody sane, that I know of.

Who wants to watch a guy lay back on his heels and casually, boringly fire off one-one-twos and take blows not by avoiding or absorbing them but by draping himself like a dropclotch over his foe? Nobody sane, that I know of.

George wants no parts of Lennox Lewis. Neither does Mike Tyson. They are respectively 100 years old, and the size of Emanuel Lewis, compared to Lewis. So you can see why, and begin to glimpse the root of Lennox's problem. He has no Opponent, no Guy, nobody to make him great.

Now, if this were the George Foreman of 1974, or the Mike Tyson of 1988, then maybe this would be an entirely different story. Lewis would then have the makings of an opponent that would make him great. Or perhaps dead.

Figuratively, I mean.

Death, the literal kind, is always near boxing.

Deep down, that's why we keep showing up.

When it comes to Death, we like to look, but not touch.

Lewis is a true heavyweight champ, but not a great one, because it is the quality of the opponent who makes a champion great. That, or the champ's killer instinct. This may just be my take on it. It may be as simple as boxing inspiring the most generational loyalty among its fans. Nobody's guy is as good as your guy was. In Canada, the Carribbean, Britainnia, Lennox Lewis is the Truth. In the States, he's the heavyweight champ of afterthought.

Oh yeah. Him.

Wladimir Klitschko, properly hyped, might have changed all that.

So I say to Lewis, "Too bad about Wladimir," as his crew and that of the ESPN show "Rome Is Burning" mill around us in the green room. Lewis knows what I mean. Wladimir was going to be his Last Big Payday, maybe even be The Guy for him. The Guy is the fighter who makes you and your rep. Like for Dempsey, Tunney was The Guy. For Tunney, Dempsey was The Guy. For Joe Louis, Max Schmeling was The Guy. For Marciano, Ezzard Charles and Arnold Cream, better known as Jersey Joe Walcott, were The Guys. Ali had four Guys, a world record for the heavyweight division -- Liston, Frazier, Norton and Foreman. For Tyson, all those sprawling KO victims were The Guy. For George Foreman, once upon a time, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton were The Guys -- that is, until Leon Dreimann, the CEO of Salton, the appliance manufacturer that brought George to the other grilling floor. Now, he's definitely The Guy. The Guy is the one who makes your fortune for you, who blows you up, puts you down in the annals of history forever.

Lennox Lewis has no Guy. Not yet. May never. That's why I said, too bad.

The thing about Lennox Lewis is, he's smart, he knows this without all the back story. He just nodded, accepting my condolences without questioning them. He nodded when I said Wlad looked like a rank amateur against South African Corrie Sanders, a shot ex-contender who beat him up on the strength of being professional, and a lefty. Poor Wladimir didn't even know how to square off against him, or even how to hold his hands. Pitiful. Sanders came in looking like a man going to a hanging. His own. He brightened when he saw he could hit Wladimir in the grille whenever he wanted, and toppled the Ukranian Pine Box. No one has seen Corrie since.

Lennox Lewis just shook his head and smiled, a bit ruefully. He is a good man to have a chat with. For a boxer, he's Alistair Cooke.

But who wants to see Alistair Cooke fight?

I ask him about Vitali. "He has tremendous hooks, a tremendous right hand, a powerful, piston-like jab," says Lewis. For just a second, I think Lewis is serious ... but he's joking, speaking sarcastically. He got me. This impresses me as much as his boxing. Now, understand, I mean the attitude of his boxing. He has the skills and dimensions of a great champion. He is by far the biggest of the true heayweight champions we have had to this point. His hands are skilled at the trade, quick -- or quick enough, as quick as we've seen for his size, 30 pounds over Ali, who was about 215 in his absolute prime.

Lewis will get up after being knocked down. It may take him until the next fight, as it did against Hasim Rahman, but he has done it. But he has never faced a great physical and mental challenge. He's always been the favorite. Yet he's fought basically all comers. They've all been too small for him, except for the poor stiffs like Michael Grant. That guy's a sweetheart of a doorman, but he is no fighter. Lewis gets no points for stopping him. By the time they got around to it, Tyson's quickness was shot, and his heart wasn't really in any of it; he was a sitting duck for Lewis, and not only that, a very small sitting duck. It took heart and skill for Lewis to come back in there and stop Rahman, who had a certain amount of feral power going for him, but just not in same league with the prime of Frazier, Liston, Foreman. Oliver McCall, a decent heavyweight, doesn't have the same mental ring. Holyfield is one of the toughest blown-up light-heavys that ever lived. Chris Byrd doesn't hit hard enough. On it goes, a litany of flawed possibilities.

So I tell Romey a joke that I once heard came from Joe Louis, even though he probably didn't mean it as a joke alone. Once, the young Ali mentioned to Joe, "Oh, didn't you have that Bum-of-the-Month club?" Joe answered, showing his teeth but not really smiling, "Yeah ... I did ... and you would have been one of them bums." So now I tell the same semi-joke to Romey, about Lennox Lewis, figuring if Ali had to take it from Joe, and did so with a smile -- well, not exactly a smile, but in a good humor -- surely Lennox could too. But it's the kind of thing that might offend Lennox, because he is smart, for a boxer, but he doesn't yet understand. They aren't bums until you finish them. A true heavyweight with two hands can do you.

Lewis should remember that about Klitschko and everybody else, fight up to his abilities (and our lust); beyond them; he must bring a certain fighting attitude to the proceedings which he just doesn't have. One can't invent this; it's more to it than pre-fight braggadocio.

That's not all there was to Ali's mien. It's a look and an approach one has once in the ring when down to the fact of business. It's Ali talking to Ernie Terrell, asking, "What's my name?" while ripping him up; it's Liston, wasting no time with Patterson; it's Ali, responding to the Argentine Oscar Bonavena's taunting of him: "Clay? Clay? Why you no go ahrrrmy? You cheecken. Peep, peep, peep." Ali just looked at him deadpan, asked if he'd cut his hair, then turned to the camera and said, "Please, ladies and gentleman, get to your thee-a-ters. I never had a man I wanted to whup so bad!" It's the look on Leonard's face, that killer look, when it dawned on him that he had to get Hearns out of there or else have his eye cut to pieces.

It's Lennox's attitude that vexes the people with him here; they could get over the rest, the pounding of Tyson hip-hop icon, who for many was their Ali; the being foreign-born; the not having the Guy. If Lennox would attend to the fact of business, know blood instinctively not intellectually for what it is, he would get the peoples' attention. They would be drawn to him like moths to the flame. No matter what you think with your conscious mind, it's not whether he is polite that impresses you about Lewis -- you meet polite and nondescript people every day of the week. It's how well he stitches a tight seam of punches across a guy's head and body with his fists until the guy drops. All that humane stuff, pulling off, not wanting to attack, making a seeming sweetheart like Emanuel Steward revert to the delinquent miscreant and thug of the streets he once was, cursing you, dissing you, so you will go ahead and do what you're supposed to do, get Tyson's little ass out of there instead of messing around until you "f--- around in here and get caught!"

So that's it, really. The true champion beats the field until the day he gets beat. But the great champion doesn't mess around at the moment of truth.

Oh for the days of Boxiana ... although I must add, be careful of what you wish for. This is a totally different landscape. It used to be you fought all the time, for pay and fame, but never for Screw-You-I-Ain't-Fighting-Nobody-No-More money. You know, them millions, as Ali called them, as in "get them millions," his charge to Don King, the kind of money Buster Douglas got for fighting Evander Holyfield, after doing the pre-hip-hop generation a favor and KOing Tyson. Buster got paid, was not the same fighter.

Frankly, why should he be? Go into a death match, kicking ass and getting your ass kicked, by pros at it, for somebody else's amusement? You can get sick and addicted to it, because you are such a master at it, like Sugar Ray Robinson, who fought, officially, over 200 times, and ended up paying the price, killing one guy, knocking out what seemed like several hundred others, then slowly succumbing to the numbing repetition of it himself. And he was the best, and I mean best by far, just as Shakespeare was the best author in England, and Twain was the best here (that difference explains our Lennoxlessness, too).

It's a tough hustle. Believe it.

Watered-down though it is, and probably should be, boxing is still life and death, the Scales encapsulated in three violent minutes. So we can't resist.

That's what makes it so inescapably us. Which is why I've read it, from Pierce Egan's original coining of the odd term, "Boxiana," the state of the boxing world, or the world as it is related to boxing, to Joe Liebling's "The Sweet Science. " And why I have written this. It seems odd that in "Serenity," 15 years old now, the lighter weight champions have now passed on from the scene, but the heavyweight names still endure.

Because if a heavyweight can land just one punch, one flush shot ...

Lennox Lewis has proven that theory, only on the wrong end.

What does he care? Exactly.

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," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."