He built up to it, all right, but never lowered the hammer. Through most of the fight he relied on his tremendous jab, so that the action resembled one of those cartoon brawls in which the bigger guy holds the smaller guy at arm's length as the smaller guy vainly windmills away. More often than not, when Holyfield plowed in, Lewis gathered him in a clinch rather than push him off and suffer Holyfield's short counterpunches.
Holyfield and his camp hoped to lure Lewis into a wide-open attack, so that Holyfield could find a way to burrow inside. It was, considering the fighters' styles and sizes, his only chance. Explaining his lackluster performance in his first meeting with Lewis, Holyfield said, "Everybody knows, when the fighter pursues me, comes straight ahead, it's easy for me. But when he's defensive and not aggressive, then I get lured into a lazy posture. Lewis, he don't take chances." Even Holyfield's lawyer, Jim Thomas, tried to help set the trap, saying before the fight, "Holyfield has more desire to be a fighter than Lewis." Holyfield was also better prepared this time—he is, after all, the master of the rematch. (He avenged losses to Riddick Bowe and Michael Moorer the second time 'round.) So give Lewis some credit for not indulging in crowd-pleasing recklessness.
But respect for Lewis's prudence won't gain him popularity. Even the 6,000 British fans who traveled to Las Vegas to support their countryman were mostly silent during the fight, only occasionally erupting in authentic British gibberish from their cheap seats. Lewis was loudly cheered at the end, as it's been a while since a Brit has held a heavyweight title, much less those of the WBA, the WBC, the IBO and the recently indicted IBF, which predictably announced that it was withholding its belt due to a dispute over Lewis's sanctioning fee. Yet other Brits have been cheered more loudly in defeat; Frank Bruno's disastrous tide matches seemed more appreciated than Lewis's much more successful ones. Nor is acclaim very likely to come to Lewis in the U.S.
Lewis seemed to sense that his victory was not complete. Most of the questions from reporters immediately afterward were respectful, which was appropriate since he hadn't bitten off anybody's ear or otherwise caused a riot. Soon, though, he was having to listen to complaints of failure to excite. "In some moments," he said, not quite exasperated but clearly concerned, "I did show aggression." Asked why he didn't show a little more and just knock Holyfield out, he said, "Well, why didn't he knock me out?"
That is the new, undisputed—or, as promoter Don King anointed him, "unmitigated"—heavyweight champion of the world. He's hardly an unworthy one: Please keep in mind that in his last two fights he has dispatched the man who overcame every other top heavyweight of this generation. That's not nothing. Still, Lewis seems to be a guy who, above all, doesn't want to get knocked out. He's not a coward, or else he wouldn't have achieved what he has, and he has fought bravely when he has had to. He's just too particular, too fastidious to give into any unnecessary abandon.
This is why, even in defeat, Holyfield is the more popular fighter. "It's obvious that the winners in life are the ones who take chances," Holyfield said before the fight. "Some people don't have the fortitude." Holyfield, who began as a light heavyweight and built himself into a heavyweight champion, has always battled poor odds in size and pedigree. But he shrugged them off—willing to do whatever dirty and dangerous work must be done, often subjecting himself to terrible beatings. "I don't have what you call a convenient-type job," he says. It may be that Lewis, for all his gifts, prefers a convenient-type job.
This may prove exasperating to some. Yet isn't it even more frustrating that, for all the shame he's brought to the sport, Mike Tyson remains boxing's most mesmerizing presence? It's not that he's so fearsome anymore—Holyfield beat him twice and Lewis (whom Tyson has skillfully avoided) would certainly outpoint him. It's not that he's beloved; he's probably more despised than any other athlete in this century. It's that Tyson understands the public's appetite for shattering spectacle. Risk must be faced, odds overcome; somebody needs to get knocked clear out of his senses. If Lewis doesn't figure out very soon that boxing needs to be dangerous and at times horrifying, he might be defending his new titles in front of increasingly smaller audiences, for less money, for minimal distinction. And where will boxing, all wholesome and pure, be then?