After much concern and consternation, we've got a heavyweight title fight out here in Los Angeles. And it's probably the biggest heavyweight fight since Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton battled each other in the early seventies at the Fabulous Forum. Lennox Lewis will be taking on Vitaly Klitschko for his WBC belt, and no, it's not exactly a historic match-up, but LA should consider itself lucky to have it.
Because as of two weeks ago they were one torn pectoral muscle away from having Kirk Johnson taking on Lewis in a fight that would have held as much interest in this fight as a WNBA game featuring the LA Sparks- that's womens basketball for those of you who don't know or care, which is plenty. Lewis, taking on this hulking Ukrainian has at least the interest level of a Clipper game.
The problem with Johnson is not that he's a bad guy or anything, but that he was the proverbial beige spot on a beige wall. He's from Nova Scotia, Canada, which means to folks in Southern California that he might as well been from Mars- or maybe not, since a martian fighting for the title would be a pretty big story. He doesn't't really have an out-going personality and in terms of his merits being a prizefighter, well, he will forever be the guy that lost by DQ to John Ruiz last July. The same Ruiz that got spanked by a blown-up super middleweight in Roy Jones in March. Johnson has decent skills but his courage and resolve have been questioned by more than one boxing insider. The joke is that it's no coincidence that the left pectoral muscle is close to his heart. Ouch.
It looked like this whole show was in jeopardy as the promoters and HBO scrambled around for a new opponent. They huddled all weekend in Atlantic City, New Jersey where Arturo Gatti took care of Micky Ward once again. Emanuel Steward who was in town to do the color commentary for HBO, came in with Lewis, to sit down and map our their contingency plans. It was clear that Steward and Lewis wanted to perform on June 21st. The bottom line was that the world hadn't seen the heavyweight champion since his demolition of Mike Tyson on June 8th of 2002. More than a year had passed and other names in boxing like Jones and Oscar De La Hoya had taken the shine and luster off of his performance with their own actions. In fact both Jones and De La Hoya had each fought twice while Lewis sat idle.
Not that it wasn't a lucrative time for the champ, he basically sold off his IBF belt to Don King for a million bucks and a Range Rover- a title he was going to vacate anyway.
But since he had put in a full camp in the last two months, it would have been a shame to let it go to waste, especially at his age(37), when he doesn't have many more left in him.
Heavyweights from all around the world offered their services. And why not? Even with less than two weeks notice, Lewis has always been viewed as more vulnerable than invincible and it would represent a pretty good payday regardless of the results. But the most obvious substitute was there all along, Vitaly Klitschko, who was slated to face Cedric Boswell on the undercard at the STAPLES Center.
Last minute negotiations were held, a few extra bucks were thrown around and voila, we got ourselves a heavyweight title fight.
And Klitschko, who is right around a 4-1 underdog, is 'live' as they say. At nearly 6'8, he's not only bigger than Lewis, but he's much younger(31) and he can punch- always an Achilles heel for Lewis. While his brother's chin is very questionable after Wladimir's knockout loss to Corrie Sanders in March, Vitaly's has been untested. But his resolve can be questioned, as he quit on his stool with a shoulder injury in 2000 against Chris Byrd, while he was far ahead on the scorecards. When the going gets tough, will Vitaly get going? Or get out of there?
And you just wonder if two weeks is ample time to get ready for Klitschko? Yes, I realize he was already in training for a fight on that same card but the mental focus and preparation that are needed for a Lewis and Boswell can't even be compared. Boswell, was thought to be a showcase tune-up before he faced Lewis in December. Now, he gets two weeks to prepare for this litmus test. And ask any veteran trainer, you don't have the same mental outlook or even physical preparation for a tune-up fight as you do a championship test. With just two weeks to go, Klitschko's has had to shift gears on his preparation.
Also, while fighting under the safe umbrella of Universum in Germany, he was fighting a cast of 'has-beens' and 'never-were's' that came in as the proverbial 'opponent' and knew it. Now, he's fighting the games best big man. Does beating the likes of Larry Donald, Vaughn Bean, Ross Purrity, Orlin Norris and Timo Hoffman, prepare you for this kind of test?
Also, this fight with Lewis will be only his second in the United States, the first being his first round stoppage of Ricardo Kennedy in 1998. Lewis, who claims more flags than the United Nations( seriously, what is he, Canadian, Jamaican, British or he is a Rasta-Canadian-Brit?) has for all intents and purposes been an American fighter, save for the occasional fight in South Africa or London, England. Lewis, has the home-field familiarity and advantage.
But that isn't to say that he doesn't have a chance. Klitschko, along with his physical attributes does have an extensive amateur background. Lewis, isn't getting any younger and it's been more than a calender year since we saw him. Fighters can get old in the middle of fights getting off the stool for a new round. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Lewis could have gone over the hill in the past 12 months during inactivity. And remember this, anyone that gets knocked out by the likes of Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, is always going to be vulnerable to anyone he faces. Remember, Shannon Briggs came pretty close to taking the crown from Lewis back a few years ago, too.
If these guys can do it, why doesn't Klitschko have a shot. Either way, it beats seeing Lewis-Johnson.
You don't say that too often in this game, since the fans always get the short end of the stick somehow, but you can say that clearly in this case.
Originally, Lewis-Johnson was supposed to be a pay-per-view event. When the higher-ups at HBO came to their senses and realized that Lewis-Johnson was about as appealing to boxing fans as a pay-per-view event as the Dixie Chicks to the right wing, the show was moved to HBO's Championship Boxing. Then with the late cancellation of Johnson, Klitschko was moved in late. Two weeks, it was decided, was not nearly enough time to market a pay-per-view event.
So in the end, what would have cost boxing fans $49.95, will be part of their regular HBO package.
To say ticket sales were lagging for Lewis-Johnson would have been like saying that the Titanic suffered a small leak on it's side. Reportedly, less than 1,500 seats were sold in the 20,000 seat STAPLES Center. Interest has picked up with Klitschko being slated to replace Johnson, but don't expect anything near a full house on Saturday.
But my question is this, why isn't there a prominent Latin presence on this show? After all, LA is a huge Latin market and has supported boxing well in the past. Nowadays, having shows without Latin fighters is a highly questionable move.
For the record, the undercard will feature the likes of Philip N'dou, William Abelyan, Samuel Peter, Laila Ali and Lucia Rijker.