Two years ago Lennox Lewis thought so little of Vitali Klitschko that he claimed he could have the 6'8", 248-pound Ukrainian for breakfast and his kid brother, Wladimir, for lunch. The WBC heavyweight champ was no less contemptuous of Vitali before their title bout last Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Lewis mocked Klitschko for having failed to answer the bell for the 10th round in an October 2000 WBO title defense against Chris Byrd because of a torn left rotator cuff. "I don't think Vitali has the heart of a champion,"
Lewis said. "If that was me, they'd have to carry me out on a stretcher."
On Saturday, however, in a thundering slugfest that was halted (prematurely, some would say) because of a deep gash over Klitschko's left eye, Lewis, looking soft and sluggish, was fortunate to escape with a sixth-round TKO. When he was announced as the winner, drawing boos from the 15,939 in attendance, he was behind 58-56 on all three judges' cards.
From the opening bell Klitschko, 31, a former kickboxing champion with an awkwardly upright style, landed left jab after left jab, nudging Lewis back just far enough that he couldn't counter, then keeping the champ off balance with rights. With 47 seconds left in the second round, Klitschko shot a big, looping right over Lewis's low left hand, and the champ was shaken. Lewis held on, and at the bell he walked unsteadily to his corner.
Suddenly Lewis looked very old. Three months shy of 38, he had weighed in at a fleshy 256� pounds, three more than he had been in any of his previous 43 fights and seven more than in his last match, an eighth-round KO of Mike Tyson last June in Memphis. Lewis had never been plumper than he was in 2001 when he slouched into a ring in Johannesburg for a bout with Hasim Rahman. By the second round of that fight Lewis was breathing in great, heaving gulps; by the fifth he was flat on the canvas.
Unlike in that fight, Lewis revived himself on Saturday, opening the cut over Klitschko's eye in the third round. While the challenger held his ground, the winded champ peppered the wound with straight rights and uppercuts, causing rills of blood to stream down Klitschko's cheek. By the end of the sixth the eyelid resembled a filleted lobster. When ring doctor Paul Wallace stopped the fight, Klitschko leapt off his stool in dismay, screaming, "No, no, no!"
Wallace says he stopped the bout when it was clear that Klitschko's vision was obscured: "If he had to move his head to see me, there was no way he could defend his way against a punch." As the fans booed, the blood-flecked Klitschko urged them on, parading around, arms raised triumphantly.
The champ was unmoved. "If the fight went on, I would have knocked him out," said Lewis, some $10 million richer. "There's no way he could have finished. He was just deteriorated anyway." Left unanswered was whether Lewis would have put the challenger away before collapsing from exhaustion.
"I showed everybody I can fight Lennox Lewis," said Klitschko, who demanded, and deserves, a rematch. "I showed everybody I have heart."