Saturday, November 17, 2001

LAS VEGAS This is a town going through some tough economic times.

How tough? A cab driver told me that a barmaid working at a luxurious Vegas hotel recently didn’t have the fare for a ride home after work. So she offered him an “alternative” form of payment.

The city in the desert has two of the biggest events of the year in town the Comdex computer and electronics convention, and a heavyweight title fight.

Normally, both events would not be scheduled at the same time, because the town couldn’t handle the demand for hotels, transportation, everything. Comdex usually draws about 250,000 people, and a heavyweight title fight like tonight’s Hasim Rahman-Lennox Lewis bout at Mandalay Bay draws not only the crowd to see the fight but thousands of high rollers to casinos all over town who just want to be part of the action.

But they are both going on at the same time, and there is plenty of everything to go around here including uncertainty about who will win the fight.

There really shouldn’t be much question. Lennox Lewis has held a version of the heavyweight championship on and off since 1993. He had 82 amateur fights and won the Olympic gold medal by knocking out Riddick Bowe in 1988. He has compiled an impressive pro record of 38-2-1, beating Evander Holyfield once for the record but twice in the eyes of most observers.

He has been in 15 heavyweight title fights many of them lackluster wins but also some impressive destructions of opponents. He knocked out Andrew Golota in one round in 1997. He walked through Michael Grant and Frans Botha each in two rounds last year.

Comparatively, Rahman is a novice. Although he has had nearly as many professional fights as Lewis with a 35-2 record, he doesn’t have nearly as much experience in big fights. His stunning fifth-round knockout of Lewis in South Africa in April was Rahman’s first heavyweight championship fight.

“I’m a pugilist specialist,” Lewis said when describing the difference in experience between himself and Rahman.

That’s one of the reasons why there is so much indecisiveness about predicting a winner of tonight’s fight and why the money in the sports books keeps dropping, from 4-1 in favor of Lewis to 3-1 and falling.

Lewis is a pugilist specialist. Rahman is a fighter.

The image of Rahman flooring Lewis with that devastating right hand in the fifth round is difficult to shake, and difficult for Lewis to escape. In every hotel room at Mandalay Bay, there is a television channel showing nothing but the promotion for Rahman-Lewis II, which means that about every two minutes, that knockout punch is being shown. If that’s not enough, there are large-screen monitors all over the casino replaying it.

Lewis has complained to hotel officials about having to watch the punch everywhere he has been. “It’s the most played punch in history,” said his trainer, Emanuel Steward.

Not that Lewis needs any reminding. He’ll never forget it. One of the maxims of boxing is that once a fighter has knocked out another fighter convincingly, he holds a distinct mental advantage over that opponent. The recipient’s invincibility has been stripped away. It is a punch that often resonates long after it was landed.

Lewis has done little to convince anyone that the punch still haunts him. Under normal circumstances Lewis hardly inspires confidence. His pre-fight interviews are often boring, and his version of boasting wouldn’t even qualify as trash-talking at a chess match a contest that Lewis seems more suited for, and, according to Steward, something he seems to enjoy more than fighting.

It’s not a case of a quiet confidence or letting his actions do the talking for him. The 6-foot-5, 246-pound former champion has always suffered from a lack of self- confidence, and it took years for Steward to build up Lewis to the level that he began acting, at least a little bit, like he was the baddest man on the planet.

Rahman undid all of that work with one punch in April, and Steward has indicated that despite his efforts to build Lewis back up primarily by convincing Lewis that Rahman landed a million-to-one lucky punch it hasn’t worked. Steward has admitted that he himself isn’t sure how his fighter will do tonight.

“It’s the most frustrating and perplexing stage of my life with my fighter,” Steward said. “I know what he is capable of doing, but I don’t know what he is going to do. You never can tell what is going on in Lennox’s mind. He is a puzzle to all of us.”

Lennox is a puzzle to Lennox. When asked if he could pick one fight to define his career one fight he could show to someone years from now to say this is how great he was Lewis was stumped. He couldn’t do it.

With all of that experience, Lewis doesn’t even have enough of a sense of his boxing identify to define his own greatness. Often, he defines his lack of greatness. He is a “pugilist specialist,” whatever that means.

Rahman has no problem picking his defining fight so far. It’s the one Lewis can’t escape wherever he goes.

Rahman is a fighter, and he wins tonight by an eighth-round knockout. Then Lennox Lewis will have a fight to define his career.

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