Klitschko sends retirement message to Lewis

Jul 1, 2003 4:42 AM

The pick was Lennox Lewis in six rounds and it is amazing how wrong the winning ticket can be.

Were it not for Dr. Paul Wallace, the ringside physician who determined that Vitali Klitschko couldn’t see out of a damaged left eye, there is no telling what might have happened had the heavyweight championship fight gone into the seventh round and beyond.

From the way Lewis wobbled back to his corner and slumped on his stool, from the way he almost fell while walking back to his dressing room, it was clear that the champion was in bad shape.

Of course, we knew that when he weighed in two days before at a career high 256½. Once again, Lennox Lewis had not taken the heavyweight championship seriously. It cost him against such journeymen as Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman.

It might have cost him again in Los Angeles. We’ll never know. As bad as Lewis was, unable to block punches against a stiff, slow opponent, he couldn’t make Klitschko look like a world-beater. The big Ukrainian is not as powerful as he looks because he doesn’t get his 248 pounds behind his punches. He throws with his arms, not his body. There is no snap, no crackle and thus less pop.

With the help of Lewis, Klitschko did manage to exorcise some family demons. He was dubbed a quitter ”” Quitchko, Chicken Kiev ”” when he sat on his stool after nine rounds while ahead of Chris Byrd, officially at least, in 2000. He said the pain in his left shoulder, which would undergo surgery a few days later, blinded him.

Even Lewis questioned that. He said Klitschko "did not have the heart to be a champion." But with blood streaming down his face, running into his throat from an almost as nasty cut in his mouth, Klitschko refused to quit against Lewis.

The other family demon was the DNA in the chin. Younger brother Wladimir, who many in this country believed was the better of the two doctoral giants, had folded in two rounds against Corrie Sanders, a semiretired South African, last March. Vitali himself had been knocked cold in a kick-boxing contest by Pele Reid, another in the long horizontal line of British heavyweights. He had been stopped twice in the amateurs by Oleg Maskaev.

But he took Lewis’s shots and kept firing back. It took until the fourth round for the champion to remember he had an uppercut, and in the sixth he landed a couple of big ones on Klitschko. He won the last round that was to be scored on all cards.

No, the fight wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

There is no sense in arguing the doctor’s decision. There can be no question as to his integrity. He acted in the best interests of Klitschko. But what must be debated is what is to happen next.

In the best of all possible worlds ”” which means there wouldn’t even be something like boxing ”” Lewis would see the writing on the wall and retire. He has all the money he’ll ever need to lay out on the beaches in Jamaica and Florida or even Bora Bora. He has been a distinguished fighter, going back to his Olympic gold medal in 1988.

He deserves to rest. Even in his one-sided victory over Mike Tyson 54 weeks earlier, he was puffing for air early and, with everything going his way, his legs were collapsing. It’s just that Tyson collapsed first.

He was puffing against Klitschko after 30 seconds. This wasn’t just lack of conditioning. He has become an old man in the ring. It happens. He’ll turn 38 in September. He is not going to get younger. He was lucky his last two fights, in Memphis and Los Angeles, were at sea level. Put him in elevation, even 2,500 feet in Las Vegas, and he could be in serious trouble against Minnie Mouse.

His mother, Violet, wants to see him retire. So would assistant trainer Harold Knight. But he won’t quit. He has too many people around him, starting with head trainer Emanuel Steward, who like big paydays, who will rationalize that it was the last-minute switch of opponents, the lack of preparation for a taller challenger.

Blah blah blah, please sign the check.

What Lewis doesn’t deserve, from the cavalier way he has treated the title, is a major, major bonanza against Roy Jones Jr., a fight in which his lawyer, Judd Burstein, believes can earn the champion $35 million gross.

If Lewis fights on, Klitschko deserves the next shot at him, even if the champion doesn’t make more than $20 million. Lewis should give the Ukrainian whatever time is necessary to heal from the wounds that interrupted an exciting, if not artistic fight.

I had selected Lewis in six rounds on the beliefs that Klitschko’s awkward stance ”” using all his more than 6-foot-7 height and leaning back away from punches ”” plus Lewis’s natural reluctance to go toe to toe would mean a longer fight than many of my colleagues expected. I was wrong. Lewis had little trouble connecting and he went after Klitschko. He was just plain lousy.

But if I was wrong about this fight, I know in my heart of hearts I would have been right on had Kirk Johnson not injured a pectoral muscle in training, giving Klitschko the opportunity in the first place.

Johnson, the guy who looked so bad against John Ruiz, would have knocked Lewis out in three rounds. I will hear no arguments on this matter.