Inasmuch as the result provoked no congressional inquiries, you might say it was a great night for boxing. Nobody died in the ring, the fix wasn't in, the performers were good sportsmen, and there was no obvious malfeasance at ringside, where the scoring is often so perverse that not even incompetence is a sufficiently plausible explanation. And, yes, the sport has, at long last, an undisputed heavyweight champion.
But it's important to observe that at this point we no longer have any expectations when it comes to boxing. If last Saturday's rematch between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis—required not because their fight last March was particularly compelling but because it resulted in a most curious draw—is the best the game has to offer, well, that just proves that boxing remains exempt from the customary demands of the consuming public, if not the law. It was an uninspiring fight for the most part, and the best that can be said of Lewis's victory by a unanimous decision is...finally.
The outcome seemed as much a matter of payback as of performance. Lewis may not have won the fight in everyone's mind—certainly the press people at ringside were divided—but the carryover from the first bout, which he dominated without proper reward, probably came into play with the judges. Considering how he was jobbed in March, nobody complained this time, not even Holyfield.
It was nice to see honest efforts by the principals, and it's safe to say the bout will not be the focus of a federal probe, but is that all we ask of boxing these days? When fighters make $15 million apiece to unify one of the most distinguished prizes in sports, should the only fireworks be those ignited after the decision is announced—actual fireworks, it turned out, not the metaphorical kind? Or shouldn't we insist on something more galvanizing than 12 rounds of cautious boxing?
There was one superb round, the seventh, when Lewis and Holyfield opened fire on each other and produced a (metaphorical) bomb or two. It was a thrilling three minutes, with Lewis uncorking a few head-snapping uppercuts and Holyfield, ever the warrior, answering with lunging right hands. It was the one round in which the largely tactical campaign Lewis conducted gave way to fighting. At the end of it the crowd erupted in applause.
That, however, was as stirring as the bout got. Even Lewis's trainer, Emanuel Steward, seemed disappointed that the fight didn't produce more rounds like the seventh. Steward is at once awed by Lewis's abilities and frustrated by his refusal to fully deploy them. "It was not," Steward said afterward, "a superimpressive fight."
Lewis is 6'5", weighs 242 pounds, has tremendous power in his right hand and knows how to box. A specimen like that is bound to produce outsized expectations, and he'll probably never do enough to satisfy either his fans or his critics. Nonetheless, he definitely could do more than he does.
In the first bout with Holyfield—the most important fight of Lewis's 10-year career because the sorry politics of boxing kept him out of more big matches—he was understandably cowed by Holyfield's reputation as a fierce counterpuncher, somebody who's especially dangerous when hurt. So Lewis's tentative approach, jabbing and boxing and not taking the risks necessary to put the out-manned Holyfield out of his misery (which most observers felt he could have done at will), was at least defensible.
This time, though, Lewis should have been emboldened by that first meeting to storm through Holyfield, who, at 37, was facing not just a bigger man (by 25 pounds) but also a younger one (by three years). Indeed, Lewis promised just such a strategy; he told Steward in their opening session after the first Holyfield fight, "Evander will fight a better fight; he'll be different. I'll have to train harder, but I will knock him out."
As the rematch drew close, Lewis was still insisting he'd throw caution to the wind. "Maybe I was a bit cautious," he said. "I will be less so this time." Then, during the prefight hype, he hedged his bet: "I'm not going to try to knock him out in the first, second or third rounds. I'm going to build up to it."