Heavies hanging by their Johnson

Apr 29, 2003 6:03 AM

Do I need a winner that bad that I can pick Oscar de la Hoya over Yory Boy Campas? How about the United States against Iraq?

I’m going to take the easier way out. I’m going to predict that the heavyweight division, to put it mildly, sucks. The future is not now. Hell, neither is the present. Which, in a strange way, makes the division all the more unpredictable.

Think of it. Corrie Sanders of South Africa knocks out Dr. Wladimir Klitschko. Then Hasim Rahman, a 3-1 underdog after he weighed in at an ungainly 259½ pounds, proved that winning isn’t everything when he drew with David Tua, who us "experts" had believed was on a roll.

The "roll" was around Tua’s waist, just as it was around Rahman’s. But the point is, in this division there is no such thing as form. A middleweight like Roy Jones Jr. can go up and beat a so-called "heavyweight champion" like John Ruiz.

There may be more coming.

The odds are that you won’t buy Lennox Lewis vs. Kirk Johnson, with or without another sanity-defying Mike Tyson performance. The odds will be that Lewis will successfully defend his heavyweight title again.

So you might not really miss anything by keeping the $50 in your pocket.

On the other hand, there’s always the chance of the upset. And that’s why I’ll be purchasing the pay-per-view telecast from Los Angeles on June 21.

My belief is not based on any great faith in Johnson, who showed an alarming lack of wherewithal against the ordinary Ruiz last July.

I was there also when Johnson was held to a draw against Albert (Ice) Cole, an oversized former cruiserweight champion.

In both cases, Johnson was penalized heavily for low blows. When you’re in his shape, I guess, it sometimes is tough to lift your arms above the opponent’s belt.

Johnson was pudgy again when he knocked out Lou Savarese earlier this year, which according to Lennox Lewis makes a man deserving of a challenge (after all, Tyson got a shot at the champion after he too stopped Big Lou).

But Johnson can fight a bit. He was not about to get knocked out by Ruiz, as is commonly believed. He can take a shot and recuperate.

He can also punch a bit, as seen when he came off the ropes with a single left hook that ended Oleg Maskaev’s stint as a contender.

Sometimes, he doesn’t fight (I was there and thought Larry Donald, without throwing a right hand, still beat him in Coney Island). Sometimes, he gives the impression that he doesn’t like to fight.

But this isn’t about Johnson. It’s about the champion, who has proven he can lose to anyone. At his age and with his lack of activity, he may have reached the point of no return.

Lennox Lewis is not one of the all-time greats. He would have been a handful, though, for all that were. That includes Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. But great? Never mind his losses to Oliver McCall ”” a dangerous opponent even now at the age of 38 ”” and Rahman. We know Lewis doesn’t have the greatest chin in the world; reaching it is another thing. But let us not forget that Lewis was in early trouble against Frank Bruno and late trouble against a faded Tony Tucker.

His size and intelligence make him formidable even now. His instinct is to stay away from trouble. He must know his chin is not reliable.

But you could see his vulnerability in his last fight, that slaughter of Mike Tyson last June. Even in the midst of a dominating performance, Lewis looked to me like an old man.

In the fourth and fifth rounds, for example, while everything was going his way, he was puffing. He usually fights with his mouth open, but he seemed to be gasping for air. Moreover, his legs looked shaky. And Tyson was doing nothing except taking punches.

It’ll be more than a year when Lewis fights again. During much of that time, my British friends have been telling me, he has been partying. Ganja, booze, lying on beaches. Lennox, bless him, lives like a hedonist.

Which means he is not a hungry fighter. He’s 37 ”” 38 in September ”” and the only reason he’s still around, after he has accomplished everything he set out to do, is to pick up some quick and easy money. He’ll keep going until somebody beats him, then maybe try a high-paying rematch, and wait for his induction into the hall of fame (oh, yes, he’s been plenty good enough for that).

Whether Johnson is hungry enough to go after him is the question. But with everyone remembering how he flopped against the less-than-ordinary Ruiz, the odds will be higher than they should be. Johnson could be good value.

You don’t have to be a big banger to topple Lewis. Johnson hits hard enough for that. Plus, he has the kind of hand speed that makes it likely that he will be able to reach Lewis’s tinny tin chin.

It’s possible.