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With Tyson Involved, Focus Rarely on Fight

Analysis: Championship bout against Lewis draws heavy interest for all the wrong reasons.

June 08, 2002|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In any fight, a victory by the underdog is called an upset.

When Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson meet tonight for the heavyweight title here at the Pyramid, it will be an upset if it turns out to be a fight, not a farce.

The buzz in this town is deafening. Beale Street looks like New Orleans' French Quarter during Mardi Gras. The parties, events and celebrity sightings around town are of Super Bowl proportions.

There are media people here from all over the world. Several British writers, in South Korea covering soccer's World Cup, are flying here for 12 hours to cover the fight, then will be hopping back on a plane to return to Asia.

Memphis-Shelby County Airport is expecting up to triple its normal amount of air traffic. The pay-per-view buys have exceeded half a million, with the biggest selling period still ahead.

But many of these people are not lured by the prospect of a sporting event. They are tuning in or showing up to see a freak show.

They want to see the crash, not the auto race. They will watch for the same reason people watch Jerry Springer, to be eyewitnesses to the outrageous.

Will Tyson bite Lewis on the ear, as he bit Evander Holyfield's in their 1997 title match? Will Tyson try to break Lewis' arm, as he did with Francois Botha in a 1999 fight? Will Tyson bite Lewis on the thigh, as he did in a brawl at a New York news conference in January? Or will Tyson come up with some new illegal tactic, something out of ultimate fighting, something out of the World Wrestling Federation, something out of a street fight?

Many in America, and the rest of the world, are willing to pay to find out. Which says as much about the viewing audience as about Tyson.

Logically, World Boxing Council-International Boxing Federation heavyweight champion Lewis (39-2-1, 30 knockouts) figures to win. In the years when most fighters' skills begin to decline, Lewis, 36, has improved dramatically. In the last three years, he has refined his jab, increased his variety of effective punches and his mobility, and improved his ring mastery. Most important, his confidence has grown considerably.

The confidence change began, in fact, in a fight that ended in a draw. Most ringside observers, with the exception of two out-of-touch judges, believed Lewis had beaten Holyfield in their first fight in March of 1999.

So even though Lewis didn't get the decision, he did get the confidence that he could beat one of the top heavyweights of his era.

Lewis showed that confidence in the rematch, beating Holyfield, and he has shown it ever since, with the exception of his first fight against Hasim Rahman in April 2001. Lewis was overconfident, didn't train and wound up on his back, a loser.

He showed it was a fluke, however, when he got in shape for the rematch and knocked out Rahman in the fourth round in November.

Lewis' other loss was the result of one devastating punch thrown by Oliver McCall in 1994, but Lewis also avenged that defeat by winning the rematch.

Although it appears Lewis is not far removed from his prime, the 35-year-old Tyson (49-3, two no-contests, 43 knockouts) is 13 years past his peak.

Those who have reduced the odds to less than 2-1 in favor of Lewis are thinking of the young Tyson, the Tyson who arrived in the ring in no-nonsense fashion with nothing more than black trunks, black shoes and a white towel slung over his shoulder before dispensing with opponents in a no-nonsense manner. Only four of his first 16 opponents lasted beyond the first round. At 20, he was the youngest heavyweight champion.

But that was a long time ago. Tyson's last impressive performance against an impressive opponent was a 90-second knockout of Michael Spinks. That was in 1988. And some would argue Spinks was nothing more than a blown-up cruiserweight.

Tyson beat Razor Ruddock, a decent heavyweight, twice in 1991. But since then, the biggest name Tyson has fought is Holyfield, who beat him twice.

Tyson has been through imprisonment, three years for rape, three months for road rage.

He has been through promoters, been through trainers, made and lost enough money to last several lifetimes.

But, as far as boxing is concerned, he has fought only 22 rounds in the last six years.

Gone is the confidence that enabled Tyson to bully his way through so many opponents. Gone are the head movement and mobility that allowed him to move inside and demolish fighters.

At 6-feet-5, Lewis has 5 1/2 inches on Tyson. At 249 1/4 pounds, Lewis outweighs Tyson by 15 pounds. With an 84-inch reach, Lewis has a six-inch advantage.

If Lewis has his jab working, he should be able to hold Tyson at bay, use his reach advantage to expose himself to minimum damage and can perhaps win by knockout when a desperate Tyson lets down his guard. Lewis becomes conservative in big fights and figures to be that way tonight.

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