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Sport Misses Chance to Reclaim Respect and Its Former Glory

Next, the rematch.

But will it really happen?

Will anybody care?

Has the moment again passed for boxing?

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The sport had its stage and its audience Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. With Mike Tyson behind bars, boxing finally had a chance to put the emphasis back where it belongs. No ear-biting, no concern about assaults and parole violations and plea bargains.

Two bona fide champions were going to battle for the undisputed heavyweight championship before some of the most celebrated of New York’s glitterati--John F. Kennedy Jr., Donald Trump, Spike Lee--among a sellout crowd of 21,284. A worldwide press corps was on hand and the pay-per-view buys were estimated at more than a million.

Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis weighed in on the scales where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had stood 28 years earlier, before their first fight.

Holyfield and Lewis would battle in the same ring in which Frazier and Ali had staged their titanic struggle. There was even a link in terms of the third man in the ring. Saturday night it was Arthur Mercante Jr. A generation ago, the referee for Ali-Frazier I was Arthur Mercante Sr.

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But there, the comparisons end. Holyfield and Lewis fought to the now infamous draw in a boring bout that Lewis clearly won on the scorecards of nearly all in attendance and anybody else who watched it objectively.

It was a bad fight--no knockdowns, no dramatic exchanges, neither man ever in serious trouble.

Most memorable, other than the bad decision, was that Holyfield failed to produce on his bold prediction of a third-round knockout.

When the most memorable thing is something that didn’t happen, you’re talking about a forgettable night.

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Perhaps Holyfield’s problem was a sore back. That is the claim of Lou Duva, who formerly worked with Holyfield, but is now in Lewis’ camp.

“I know Evander,” Duva said. “I could see him in pain.”

All that said, however, a victory for Lewis would have at least made it a landmark evening for the heavyweight division. Lewis came of age in that ring Saturday night, answering all his critics by showing heart, character, and solid boxing strategy.

He did his job. If only the judges had done theirs.

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“They can show the fight 10 times and 10 times Lennox will win it,” Duva said. “It’s a shame. They had a chance to show boxing is back and they come up with this.”

Said Charley Steiner of ESPN at a postfight gathering, “Boxing shot itself in the foot again. And it is running out of feet.”

Ah, but promoter Don King never seems to run out of feats--potential matches he can sell the public as spectacular boxing attractions not to be missed. As Holyfield’s promoter, King is already working on Holyfield-Lewis II.

Although all three sanctioning organizations--the International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Assn., and World Boxing Council--have ordered the rematch within six months, there are problems to be solved.

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Who gets the pay-per-view rights? Lewis has a contract with TVKO, which showed Saturday’s bout. King has a contract with rival Showtime, which gave him a one-time exemption for Saturday’s bout. It’s doubtful even King could talk his way into another exemption.

Then there is the purse money. Holyfield got $20 million for his lackluster effort Saturday, Lewis $10 million. Lewis will now demand equal pay. But the sour taste left by Saturday’s fight probably means that the pay-per-view audience next time will be no bigger, possibly smaller.

So how do you pay these guys? Several HBO officials were talking Saturday night about another $30-million purse. Each fighter would be guaranteed $10 million, the winner getting the remaining $10 million.

They’ll probably work something out, because with Tyson out of the picture, there isn’t anybody in the heavyweight division for Holyfield and Lewis as marketable as each other.

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Of course, Holyfield could decide to retire at 36, and hope that the public forgets Saturday night.

It was another bad night for boxing and another good night for King.

Some things never change.


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