- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2002

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It was a day of dueling schoolchildren yesterday between the Lennox Lewis and 911 Mike Tyson camps.

At Lewis' news conference at Sam's Town casino in nearby Tunica, Miss., Lewis brought in a group of students from Oakhaven Elementary School in Memphis. Members of the school's chess team now called the Oakhaven Elementary School Lennox Lewis Chess Team and Lewis sat on the stage after answering questions from reporters and played chess.

If that doesn't sell tickets, I don't know what will.

At the same time, just a few miles away at Fitzgeralds Casino and Hotel, 911 Mike was answering questions from a group of children from Tunica Elementary School who were invited at the request of casino owner Donald Barton.

You've got to wonder about the mentality of elementary school officials who would agree to a field trip to see 911 Mike.

It was another remarkably strange day leading up to Saturday night's heavyweight title fight at the Pyramid Arena in Memphis. Lewis conducted himself as a perfect gentleman, as he almost always does, and he is to be commended for being a role model for these schoolchildren.

But you would like to see a little more passion from the heavyweight champion of the world. Here he is, about to enter the biggest fight of his career against the most brutal opponent he will ever face, and he plays chess? All that does is raise more questions about whether or not Lewis has the mental toughness to deal with 911 Mike and all of the frightening baggage he will bring into the ring. Even Lewis' trainer, Emanuel Steward, has criticized him for having too much of a chess player personality, and acting like it when he fights.

Lewis lost to the kid, but according to one member of his camp, he tanked the match. Let's hope he doesn't do that Saturday night.

"I am a pugilist specialist," Lewis said. "I am very focused and very positive."

Yesterday, there was no talk from Steward about Lewis' chess player personality. "Lennox had every reason to get out of this fight after what happened in January (when 911 Mike attacked Lewis on stage at their New York news conference)," Steward said. "But Lennox Lewis himself chose to take this fight. He wants to knock Mike Tyson out.

"Lennox is fighting better than ever," Steward said, which means that Steward must have committed perjury when he testified last year to force Hasim Rahman to fight Lewis in a rematch that Lewis was "beginning to slip a little bit. We'll probably see a little more of the decline in the coming years."

If Lewis goes into the ring Saturday night with a chess player's mentality, we'll probably see a little more of the recline, as in Lewis being stretched out on the canvas.

Then we have 911 Mike, who chose not to speak to reporters Tuesday, instead letting his flunky, co-trainer Stacey McKinley, do the trash-talking for him. And McKinley talked trash, cursing numerous times in what was the kind of embarrassing display you would expect from anyone closely associated with 911 Mike.

That was what the world got from 911 Mike on Tuesday. Yet yesterday, he met with these Tunica schoolchildren in a session that apparently went very well, even taking questions from the kids. Jamal Cornes even asked 911 Mike why he bit Evander Holyfield's ear in their 1997 rematch. 911 Mike laughed and answered, "That was a long time ago."

But, save for a handful of local media, no one got to witness this. At this point, it might help the promotion if more people could see a glimpse of 911 Mike in a brief spell of decency, rather than the profanity-laced tirades we have gotten so far. And believe me, this promotion needs help, because it is not shaping up as the megafight that everyone pronounced it would be.

The pay-per-view will probably rank among the top money-makers of all time. But ticket sales are not going well for the event. Plenty of tickets are still available, and people are offering their tickets below face value in the daily newspaper.

As far as the international spotlight, so far not one single event has actually taken place in Memphis. Both the 911 Mike workout Tuesday and Lewis' news conference yesterday were in casinos in Tunica, Miss., about 30 miles away. And Tunica is in the middle of nowhere. It was once called "America's Ethiopia" by Jesse Jackson because it is so poor. The casinos monuments to desperation, surrounded by cotton fields may have changed that, but if they think people are going to flock to Tunica because of one brief moment in the spotlight, they are delusional. You really have to have a bad gambling jones if you come to Tunica.

Jose Sulaiman, chairman of the World Boxing Council, thanked Memphis for having the "courage to bring a fight that had a lot of opposition all across the United States." Washington Mayor Anthony Williams might want to drop Memphis a thank you note as well.

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