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BOXING STEVE SPRINGER

Tyson Fixation Losing Hold on Heavyweight Division

June 23, 2003|STEVE SPRINGER

In New York, Mike Tyson was arrested for assault Saturday and the reaction was a collective yawn.

At Staples Center, Vitali Klitschko raised his arms in celebration of a victory he was convinced he had won over heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis and the reaction was cheers.

Saturday was a good day for the heavyweight division.

And that means a good day for boxing because, despite big names such as Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins and Marco Antonio Barrera in the lower divisions, the sport is only as strong as its heaviest division.

Now perhaps, that division has finally overcome its obsession with Tyson, the two-time former champion who has not been a world-class fighter in more than a decade and no longer wishes to fight at all. He has even stopped talking to his handlers.

Although he can no longer dominate in the ring, Tyson had dominated the headlines. And as long as that was the case, the heavyweight division was frozen in time.

Now, there is new excitement, new possibilities, new blood. Had it not been for the blood streaming down the face of Klitschko from a deep cut on his left eyelid, a cut sustained in the third round, there might well have been a new heavyweight titleholder Saturday as well. Klitschko was ahead on all three scorecards when the fight was stopped because of the cut after the sixth round.

Vitali's brother, Wladimir, five years younger at 26, was thought to be even more skilled than Vitali until Wladimir suffered his first loss several months ago to journeyman Corrie Sanders. But just as Wladimir's loss tainted Vitali's status, Vitali's strong showing may spark interest in Wladimir.

Vitali entered the ring against Lewis as a 5-1 underdog because of Vitali's perceived lack of mobility and quickness, his one-dimensional attack, consisting of a powerful right hand and not much else, and questions about his courage and determination.

Those questions arose after Klitschko quit while on his stool at the end of the ninth round of a fight in April 2000 against Chris Byrd because of a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. Klitschko was ahead on all three scorecards when that fight, his only previous loss, ended.

Klitschko silenced those who doubted his toughness Saturday night when he took the best Lewis could give and fought on through a bloody haze, protesting vigorously when the fight was halted.

Whether Klitschko has the skill to ultimately unseat a champion remains to be seen, but he certainly proved Saturday that he was worthy of the title shot.

Lewis -- showing little regard for Klitschko -- and Emanuel Steward, Lewis' trainer, both maintain Lewis would have inevitably knocked out Klitschko.

"When I saw those two uppercuts by Lennox in the sixth round," Steward said, "I knew he was on his way."

Shaken by a Klitschko right hand in the second round and slumped in exhaustion on his stool when the fight was stopped, Lewis had a long way to come back.

Much was made of the fact Lewis came in at 256 1/2 pounds, a career high. Was he just out of shape, rusty after a yearlong layoff and overconfident against a lightly regarded opponent? Or, at 37, did he get old in the ring overnight?

Retirement seems like an attractive option. At Lewis' age, having won an Olympic gold medal, spent 15 years in the ring as a professional, won the heavyweight title three times and achieved recognition as the dominant heavyweight of his era, he appears to have no more mountains to conquer and perhaps a deep valley into which he could fall should he fight Klitschko again.

"I'm going to talk to Emanuel," said Lewis when the possibility of retirement was raised, "look at the tape and decide from there."

Even before the blood had dried on Klitschko's face, there was talk of a December rematch. Originally, a Lewis-Klitschko fight had been penciled in for pay-per-view at year's end. When Lewis' previous opponent for Saturday night, Kirk Johnson, had to drop out because of a partially torn chest muscle, Lewis agreed to fight Klitschko on HBO, free to cable subscribers, figuring that there were richer matches to be had for pay-per-view later in the year, perhaps a fight against Roy Jones.

Now, if that original Lewis-Klitschko pay-per-view date in December happens after all, it could be extremely lucrative.

Klitschko obviously wants it. When he asked Lewis for a rematch while the two were still in the ring after Saturday's fight and Lewis said he'd be willing, Klitschko hit Lewis on the arm to point him in the direction of a cameraman and told him, "Say it to the camera."

Staples Center has already put in its bid.

"As of right now," arena spokesman Michael Roth said, "we are working to free up a date in December to do a rematch if the promoter agrees to a reasonable site fee. If Lennox Lewis wants to win back L.A., we are committed to making a rematch a reality."

Before Saturday's fight, much of the excitement was about the possibility of Lewis-Jones, skirting Klitschko altogether as if he were only a nuisance.

Few thought Lewis-Jones would be competitive. Lewis would outweigh Jones by 50 pounds, tower over him and certainly be in shape to face him. The public had become used to heavyweight freak shows with Tyson, and this figured to be the next best thing.

Now, freak shows are not necessary. There are two intriguing heavyweights in the Klitschko brothers. There also are International Boxing Federation champion Byrd, on hand Saturday night to challenge Lewis; Jones, who would be a good match for Byrd; and Lewis, if he decides to keep fighting.

Tyson? Who needs him?

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