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Randy Harvey

This Division Is Light on Actual Contenders

June 21, 2003|Randy Harvey

If Vitali (rhymes with Italy) Klitschko wins the heavyweight championship from Lennox Lewis tonight at Staples Center, George Foreman says he's returning to the ring. Or at least that's what he told the New York Post this week.

When I spoke to Foreman the day the story appeared, he seemed less sure of his plans.

"Don't let my wife know we're even talking about this," he said. "She'd kill me."

Larry Merchant, Foreman's HBO broadcasting colleague, speculates that the two-time heavyweight champion is more interested in publicity so he can sell more of his fat-reducing grills than he is in winning the title for a third time. But the fact that some are taking seriously a man who will turn 55 on his next birthday says all you need to know about the state of heavyweight boxing.

Foreman said he wouldn't fight Lewis or Mike Tyson. You can, presumably, add Mrs. Foreman to that list.

Otherwise, he's ready to take on all legitimate contenders. He won't find many, certainly no more than the five men he fought in one night in 1975.

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Lewis has done all he can on behalf of the underachieving heavyweight division.

He had been scheduled to meet the unheralded Kirk Johnson tonight in a nontitle fight. When Johnson withdrew two weeks ago because of an injury, Lewis could have canceled.

Instead, he enhanced the show's marquee value by agreeing to meet Klitschko in a title fight. Although he might be only marginally more accomplished than Johnson, Klitschko is considered a legitimate contender by the World Boxing Council.

Lewis then added suspense by weighing in Thursday at 256 1/2 pounds, the heaviest he has been for a fight in his 15-year professional career. That makes him a prime candidate for becoming 1) Foreman's next grill customer and 2) an upset victim.

This will not be the first time Lewis has gone into the ring with more paunch than punch. After both of his losses, to Oliver McCall in 1994 and Hasim Rahman in 2001, he acknowledged that he had trained less than religiously. He spent more time sparring with Klitschko's kid brother, Wladimir, for the filming of "Ocean's Eleven" than he did for the fight against Rahman.

Until Lewis stepped onto the scales Thursday, it was widely assumed that his trainer, Emanuel Steward, was correct when he predicted Klitschko would last no longer than five rounds.

Klitschko is not even considered the best of Los Angeles' -- via Ukraine -- Klitschko brothers. Wladimir, who, like Lewis, has an Olympic gold medal, was also expected to follow his path to the heavyweight title. But no one knows what to expect now from Wladimir, who was knocked out in the second round in March by a South African journeyman, Corrie Sanders.

Vitali charged into the ring afterward and confronted Sanders, vowing to avenge his brother's defeat. That didn't show much class, which was good for his reputation as a fighter. His heart has been questioned since he refused to answer the bell for the 10th round in his only loss, to Chris Byrd in 2000.

Still, he doesn't impress promoter Dino Duva.

"HBO has been trying for a long time to build up the Klitschko name," said Duva, who believes his fighter, Johnson, would have provided a worthier opponent for Lewis.

"They've manufactured these guys. They need to create appeal for Lennox Lewis' opponents. They're trying to do that for this fight, even though it's not even the right Klitschko. I don't blame HBO. Promoting their fights, that's what they're supposed to do."

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Here's a name HBO wouldn't have to manufacture: Roy Jones Jr.

Another sign of the decline of the heavyweight division is that the most talked about Lewis fight among the boxing crowd gathered in Los Angeles this week was not the one against Klitschko but the one that could occur in the next year or so against Jones.

Jones is a light-heavyweight. Lewis, based on the most recent visit to the scales, is a very heavyweight. Lewis probably would enter the ring about 60 pounds heavier than Jones. He also would have a six-inch height advantage over the 5-foot-11 Jones and an 18-inch reach advantage.

Yet, Jones has been emboldened by his victory over World Boxing Assn. heavyweight champion John Ruiz and is searching for bigger, more lucrative game.

Tyson has been mentioned as a possible opponent, but, considering the bizarre sequence of events that kept him off the Staples Center card, promoters are leery of him. Lewis would show up, probably even in shape.

Steward said he would be concerned about a fight against Jones because of his speed and athleticism, more so than he is against the lumbering, 6-7 1/2, 248-pound Klitschko.

"Roy could win against Lennox in a 12-round decision," Foreman agreed.

Foreman said he is not concerned about the future of the heavyweight division because someone always comes along.

I asked him if he expects anyone to come along soon.

"I don't see anyone yet," he said.

Later, I asked Merchant the same question.

"Sure," he said. "I've seen a hundred good, young heavyweights out there. They're all playing linebacker."

Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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