Heavyweight Boxing hasn't been much of a showcase for mental health lately, with contestants suffering all manner of breakdowns in the ring. One former champion burst out crying in the middle of a title rematch. Another bit part of an ear off his opponent. One guy froze so badly all he could do was clutch his foe in an awkward embrace. Another, though ahead on points in two fights, was disqualified from both bouts for repeated and unprovoked low blows.
It was as if, just by buying a ticket to see a heavyweight fight, you were getting a day pass to a psychiatric clinic. Erratic behavior had become so central to the division's image that bouts were now being promoted as opportunities to watch some sort of madness unfold before you. Certainly that was the promoters' and consumers' expectation for last Saturday's fight between Lennox Lewis and Andrew Golota in Atlantic City. As the two fighters had been interested parties in four of the five aforementioned episodes of ring lunacy, it was natural to wonder what insanity they could produce in a fight with each other.
There was even a newspaper ad that billed the bout as a chance for England's Lewis to defend his WBC crown "and the family jewels" against Golota, a native of Warsaw now living in Chicago, whom everybody was calling the Foul Pole. On such lofty premises are multimillion-dollar events built.
But nothing crazy happened. Instead, in a late effort to restore some gloss to his career, Lewis gave just the kind of performance that, if it didn't legitimize his sport, nudged it back toward normalcy. He was in the ring just one minute and 35 seconds and threw only 36 punches, but in that brief showing he proved he was worthy of a heavyweight championship and that the division still had life in it.
Lewis's swarming knockout of challenger Golota was so swift and conclusive that it was impossible not to be encouraged by his emergence as a force in the sport. A two-time champion, Lewis was nonetheless considered a fringe player, mostly because he had never engaged any of the marquee fighters of the day. But his headlong rush across the ring to destroy Golota signaled that even at age 32 he wasn't going to let time run out on him.
After such a show of power—he floored Golota twice before referee Joe Cortez called him off—it was reasonable to consider Lewis among the elite, a contender for a unified title. There was already talk about matching him with the winner of the Nov. 8 fight between the other two titleholders, Evander Holyfield (WBA) and Michael Moorer (IBF). For once, it seemed like an exciting idea.
Lewis has long been an intriguing prospect, a 6'5", 244-pound all-around athlete with as powerful a right hand as there's been in boxing. The problem was, he never advanced beyond prospect. His handlers often preferred the easy money and the easy opponents, and he was never matched against Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe or the other top fighters. Thus he never seemed like a bona fide heavyweight champion.
Not until Emanuel Steward was hired on as trainer in 1995 did the Lewis camp see the light. Steward had worked the corner of the only man to beat Lewis—Oliver McCall, who later dissolved in tears during their rematch. The new trainer explained to Lewis what a dud he had been as a performer. In two title fights in the U.S., Lewis couldn't even sell out hotel ballrooms. The fights were stinkers, with McCall and Henry Akinwande (the hugging man) quitting on him.
When Lewis's management asked Steward to prepare him for another easy bout, Steward refused, saying he had no interest in training "the European heavyweight champion." Lewis had to fight someone tough, someone with a reputation, someone who would test him.
That someone appeared to be Golota, another huge (6'4" and 244 pounds) and athletic boxer, who twice was beating Bowe when he started hitting him below the belt (instigating a memorable riot in Madison Square Garden the first time). On those fights was Golota's name made. Before low-blowing Bowe, Golota had shown he was among the most skilled boxers in the division and a fighter with marketable talent.