Work in Sports
Hitting It Big
Heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis silenced his critics and gave his reputation a much needed boost by mercilessly chopping Michael Grant down to size
By Richard Hoffer
Issue date: May 8, 2000
So much was made of the size of the fighters, you'd have thought the bout was being promoted by the Department of Weights and Measures. They were this heavy, combined. This tall, laid end to end. So wide, side by side. They were, according to the New York City billboards, TWO BIG.
There was also a suspicion that, despite all that mass and muscle, they were Two Good to be True. The champion, 6'5", 247-pound Lennox Lewis, has often been reluctant to demonstrate his might. The challenger, undefeated (30-0-1) yet unschooled Michael Grant, 6'7" and 250 pounds, could turn out to be nothing but a converted power forward. Size matters but probably not in heavyweight boxing. Or else Primo Carnera would have arenas named after him (and Joe Louis wouldn't).
Certainly it restored Lewis's reputation. The gifted but mysterious Brit's high-profile bouts had all ended in some kind of disappointment, though never of his own making. At 34 he gave the impression that time was running out on him. He was the undisputed champion, sure, but even his backers were ready to pull the plug on his presumed destiny. "I can no longer brag about this great talent," said his trainer, Emanuel Steward, "if it doesn't come out in this fight."
It came out, again and again. Lewis, now 36-1-1, dropped the 27-year-old Grant three times in the first round and then, with a crunching uppercut late in the second round, stopped him for good. The domination was shocking. Grant, who looked tight coming into the ring, is a skilled if unproven contender, and he appeared to get stoned right back to his early amateur days. After Lewis clipped him with an overhand right to the back of the head early in the bout, Grant dropped all pretense of being a boxer; he suddenly had no ability and, as was soon evident, no business being in the ring any longer.
Lewis said afterward, in his disturbingly reasonable way, that "Michael Grant's style was appropriate to showcasing my talent." The same can't be said of the style of Evander Holyfield, who defused Lewis's power en route to a controversial draw in their first title bout and a 12-round loss in their second. In any case, Grant's game plan, to box the big man, dissolved in a spontaneous show of bravado, and Lewis had himself a punching bag. The third knockdown, on a picture-perfect left-right combination, couldn't have been easier if Grant had been positioned on a tee.
Lewis, however reasonable after the fight, was nevertheless mindful that he was on his way to making a little history. "There's always been a question about my heart," he said softly. Well, not his heart so much as his head. "This might have some impact on my reputation."
Steward felt Lewis was charting a future as well. "Nobody will beat him," the trainer said. More than that, Lewis exploded the notion that he can't or won't punch to dramatic effect. "He enjoys the knockouts," Steward said. "Deep down, he's very egotistical. He actually enjoys creating that kind of excitement."
Certainly Grant didn't bring anything to the table. His excuse was that Lewis, by dropping his hands, duped him into rushing in. "I thought I could knock his block off," Grant said. "I guess I had my selfish reasons." He paused. "Lennox Lewis is champion for a reason." It was a one-man show, and nobody was complaining.
On the basis of this concussive presentation--you'll be seeing plenty of the knockout, Lewis holding Grant's head down with his left arm while almost rising off his own feet to deliver a savage right uppercut--Lewis's next bout will earn him considerably more than the $10 million he got for this one. This fight was the kind of thing, no matter how big or small the opponent, that people pay to see. It has made Lewis a star, and whoever wants to get into the ring with him will get a pretty good payday too.
Until now Lewis has been a difficult and largely unpromotable fighter. In that respect this bout was no different from the rest. It wasn't just Lewis, though. Either nobody was taking Grant seriously or everybody had given up on heavyweight boxing altogether, because the event was virtually buzz-free. Not even in New York, at the supposed mecca, could these two guys create any prefight commotion. The promoters plugged tirelessly, but nobody could produce a storyline more dramatic than...two really big kids in the same ring, same time.
One problem is that the heavyweight title historically belongs to the baddest man on the planet, and neither Lewis nor Grant is, according to our recent tastes, particularly bad. Lewis is discreet to a fault (his handlers sometimes surprise him by bursting into his bedroom, where he's sitting in the dark, just thinking), and his flamboyance is limited to his penchant for chess. Grant, who looks bookish in his tiny eyeglasses, actually is bookish. He was reading something on Mark Twain right up to fight time. Worse, he likes to noodle on the piano. Maybe some jazz, but mostly gospel tunes. He is an actual choirboy.
In addition there was the problem of Grant's boxing pedigree. Lewis has few fans on this side of the Atlantic, but at least he had the regard of enthusiasts who had seen him in seven title fights. He is cautious, yes, but extraordinarily able. Grant, on the other hand, has the look of a contender who's been well-handled, steered into this $4 million jackpot by promoters and broadcasters. Fight folk are always skeptical of athletes turned boxers. Grant was an all-sports whiz who played football and basketball during his juco and college career and had an invite from the Kansas City Royals. He turned pro only in 1994, at age 21. He may be ambitious, and he may be a fast learner, but going into the Lewis fight, he had a resume that was pretty thin.
In particular there was that troubling bout last year with Andrew Golota, in which Grant's flaws (he holds his hands low, for one thing) were nearly fatal. Knocked down and losing, he showed guts by finally stopping Golota, but...he had been knocked down and had been losing.
Supposedly his most glaring flaw had been overcome in training; Don Turner added a round every time his protege dropped his mitts too low. This news didn't reassure the public, and it didn't frighten Lewis. He noted that Turner, who had been in the opposing corner for his fights against Henry Akinwande and Holyfield, was not the guy to figure him out. "This man's a three-time loser," said Lewis, laughing. "To me, it's three strikes and you're out."
Turner deflected this criticism by saying, "I've got a different guy this time." Then it occurred to him to find a precedent for redemption. He observed that Ray Arcel was known as the Undertaker, so often did he retrieve bodies from under Joe Louis's feet, until he finally got the best of the great man with Ezzard Charles--on about his 45th try. Maybe that's what Turner has to look forward to.
Oddly, except for Turner, the only person to give Grant hope was Steward, Lewis's guy. Was he trying to sell tickets, or what? The week of the fight Steward was saying that Turner's talk (which Steward had always characterized as high-strung babble) "has got me afraid. In Michael Grant he's got the perfect package."
Steward, behind Lewis for the two Holyfield fights, said he never had a worry going into those bouts. Holyfield would fight only to survive. But Grant might force the action and produce a risky slugfest. Looking back, you wonder if Steward hadn't been licking his chops when he issued the warning, "You never know which Michael Grant is going to show up. Then again, you don't know which Lennox Lewis will show up either."
Lewis certainly seemed the more confident fighter, as he ought to have been. He shrugged off the WBA's decision to rescind its title because Lewis was not fighting the top-ranked, but even less qualified, John Ruiz ("Johnny Louise," Lewis kept saying). And Lewis rightfully mocked Holyfield for seizing the opportunity to fight an elimination bout and regain one of the three crowns at the back door.
Then Grant tried to assert his personality, saying he might not fight because the gloves Lewis was insisting upon would not fit his enormous hands. Lewis challenged him at a press conference to measure one of those hands against his own. Surprisingly, Grant did as he was told, and the two pressed palms. "The same," said Lewis, disgustedly.
Later in the press conference, the normally reasonable Grant went into a strange and quavering riff about "truth" and "shining a light on all of you." It was emotional, but not in a particularly good way. "Michael sounded a bit upset there," said Lewis, laughing, as if to say, This might be easier than I thought.
Indeed it was. Lewis was confident he'd have a short night's work if Grant rushed him. The champion recognized, as Steward had, that Grant, for all his size, could not cope with Lewis's counterpunching nor with his power. Lewis and Steward knew that, no matter what the boxers' combined weight, it didn't add up to a close fight. Lewis was just Two Good.
You wonder if Steward had been licking his chops when he warned, "You never know which Michael Grant will show up."
Issue date: May 8, 2000