BOXING FALLS FOREVER OUTSIDE THE RING OF TRUTH

It could have been a night to forgive the sins, to embrace boxing once again. Instead, when the decision was announced, you realized why you threw this dumb sport out of your house in the first place.

For those of you who didn’t see the heavyweight title bout Saturday night between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis — which was declared a draw after 12 mostly one-sided rounds — here is how bad that decision was: Imagine if someone had called Mark McGwire’s 70th home run a strikeout. Imagine if someone had told Michael Jordan that his final shot to win last year’s NBA Finals didn’t go in. It was that terrible. It was that wrong.

And it stands. Only in boxing. Three judges scored this championship at New York’s Madison Square Garden, but apparently only one of them watched it. The other two — an American woman and a clearly-not-going-home Brit — must have been a few blocks up Broadway, watching “Cats.”

And so this morning, incredibly, Evander Holyfield still holds his two heavyweight championship belts and Lennox Lewis still holds his one. If British fans never come over to see a fight in America again, who can blame them? A draw? They called it a draw?

“I am ashamed of my sport,” said Emanuel Steward, the ageless trainer, who cajoled Lewis into a perfect boxing machine to beat the favored Holyfield, only to be denied by the judges. “This is just an awful night for boxing.”

And here’s the pity: It could have been a great one. Boxing history is forged on nights when the crown changes hands, from old to young, from champion to challenger. This was one of those nights. All fight long, as the crowd buzzed with disbelief, Lewis kept Holyfield at bay with that long left jab. He flicked it in the smaller Holyfield’s face. He snapped the champion with stinging rights and made him look old.

As the upper deck British fans chanted his name — “Lew-IS! Lewww-IS!” — he followed Steward’s instructions like a well-schooled student, rarely allowing Holyfield inside. Lewis froze Holyfield several times with his right hand, while Holyfield never appeared to damage the Brit. Most of Holyfield’s punches were desperate lunges, a shorter man trying to knock high branches from a tree.

Holyfield, who said God told him he’d win by a third-round knockout, looked like a forsaken man once that round was over. Lewis would land nearly three punches and four jabs for every one Holyfield landed. That’s not just victory, that’s dominance.

As his chances dwindled, Holyfield’s corner men urged him to “take the fight to him” — a sure sign that he was behind on points. Holyfield knew he had been defeated in the final round, when he clenched on his opponent’s frame, even as Lewis raised a fist in victory.

When the bell rang, Holyfield hugged Lewis in a conciliatory pose.

It was all over but the scorin’.

Scoring? Draw your own conclusions

And then came the announcements, first from Eugenia Williams, a judge from New Jersey, where the noxious fumes must do more damage than we thought. Williams scored it 115-113 for Holyfield. She actually gave the fifth round to Evander, despite the fact that he landed 11 punches, all ineffective, while Lewis landed 43.

“I had a job to do, and I did it,” she said.

Yeah. She jobbed somebody all right. When the words “in favor of Holyfield” came, even Holyfield looked stunned.

The second judge, Stanley Christodoulou, from South Africa, scored it 116-113 for Lewis.

Then came the biggest stunner. Larry O’Connell, a British judge, scored it even, 115-115. This is even worse than showing the obvious bias that Williams showed. Even? This was an “even” fight the day a Porsche is “even” with a donkey. One can only figure O’Connell is making plans to live on another continent. His safe days in Britain are over.

“I knew they would never let me go home with three belts,” said a dejected Lewis. “When you’re a Brit, and you come over to the States and outbox the champion, they’re still not going to let you have it. All I can say is the whole world saw it. I believe I am the heavyweight champion.”

Meanwhile, even Holyfield seemed to have trouble lying about the obvious.

“Did you feel you won the fight?” he was asked.

“That’s why there are judges,” he said.

Wrong. There are judges to keep this kind of thing from happening.

King’s fingerprints everywhere

How could this occur? Was someone instructed to keep Holyfield champion? Was there a pro-American bias? Did it have something to do with — as many post-fight observers suggested — Don King’s promoting the event?

Well, certainly King stands to gain from this debacle. If he gets in on the rematch — which Holyfield said he’d “definitely” do and Lewis called
“automatic” — then there’s that many more millions for King.

“They have to fight again!” he declared, already greasing his wheels.

We should have known. King has always been about money. He doesn’t care what you call him. He has been in prison for killing a man and came out insisting he’s a godsend. Do you think he’s bothered by a bogus decision?

But boxing should be. “This is what’s killing us,” Steward moaned. And he’s right. His sport staggered to a knee of respectability Saturday night, only to throw itself out of the ring and into the garbage. That odor you smell is Holyfield-Lewis, and it stinks enough to send us running from boxing forever.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

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