Lennox Lewis is still on his throne of blood. But only just.


Lennox Lewis is still on his throne of blood. But only just. Britain's heavyweight champion was trailing on all three judges' scorecards when gaping wounds to the face of Vitali Klitschko prompted the referee to stop their unfeasibly gory fight before the start of the seventh round. The expected rematch could put Lewis in the sad club of boxing legends who fall for the myth of immortality.

The best heavyweight since Larry Holmes or the young Mike Tyson may not remember what Muhammad Ali said when he was almost two years younger than Lewis is now: "Thirty six is getting to the age. You know it's time to leave, but something tells you you've got to take one more gamble.''

Inside the Lewis camp they say he has no intention of retiring while Klitschko is attracting all the sympathy or with his own reputation diminished. "Show me the money, baby,'' he croons when you ask him if he fancies another go. What that Saturday night's fight at the Staples Center in Los Angeles showed him, though, was that no athlete can escape the thief of time. Especially a prize-fighter who has been trading blows in the professional arena since June 27, 1989.

To haul Shakespeare into a sports report is always to run the risk of ridicule. But there were elements of classic stage drama in the monarch's refusal to acknowledge the truth about his age; the deluge of blood that drenched both fighters and the sense that a great reign is drawing to a close.

If you took a stroll over to Klitschko's corner as they were dismantling the ring you would have seen two abandoned towels soaked in Ukrainian blood, and a litter of swabs and Johnson & Johnson gauzes. Klitschko, who, with his bravery and technical dexterity, surpassed every expectation in the six rounds he was allowed to fight, shed enough claret to keep a Hollywood shoot-em-up movie in juice.

When he emerged from the stitching room to accuse Lewis of causing the damage with a butt (a spurious charge), fine loops of thread ran from one end of his left eyebrow to the other. Across his cheek, a second, jagged line of stitches ran like trenches on a First World War map. "Those were the worst cuts I've seen in a ring,'' observed Duke McKenzie, the former flyweight and now a BBC commentator. "At one point one of his cornermen put his whole thumb in the wound above his eye to try to stop it bleeding.'' McKenzie thought the damage would take nine months to heal. Other experts at ringside wondered whether Klitschko's skin is now doomed to erupt again at the points where Lewis aimed his wildly swinging fists.

The `linear' and `undisputed' champion was in no mood to entertain the theory that Klitschko was the victim of injustice: "I definitely give him some credit for the way he stayed in there with me, but the fact that he says I butted him disappoints me.'' Turning to his 44th opponent in a 14-year pro career, Lewis went on: "Head butt? Take that out of your vocabulary, man. You're crazy. This guy's got 60 stitches in his head. If he wants a rematch I'll give him a rematch. And I'll bust up the other side of his face, too.''

On blood spillages and needlework alone, you may assume that Lewis was in his best gladiatorial form. In reality he looked like a declining champion whose legs are turning to celery.

His trainer, Emanuel Steward, talked about fighters who find that their "legs have gone.'' Steward was thinking out loud about warning signs and the vandalism that age inflicts on our bodies. Hours later, his leading client was to be seen snorting and puffing after a single round and then falling against the ropes and on to his stool out of sheer fatigue. In mitigation Lewis had not fought for a year and was the heaviest of his career (18st 4 1/2 lb). If the rematch happens he is unlikely to come back into the ring in such a parlous condition.

"You always say, `I'll quit when I start to slide,' and then one morning you wake up and realise you've done slid,'' reflected Sugar Ray Robinson. In other sports the fading star can hide in the shadows of gently declining scores. In boxing they end up on their backs like great warriors ready to be entombed. Lewis's other options are to retire or meet the former middleweight, Roy Jones. A 60lb weight differential aside, there is now even less to commend that fight. His admirers can only hope that Lewis extends his career only as far as a rematch with Klitschko and then rides into a British or Jamaican or Canadian sundown.

The soundtrack to his ride out of Los Angeles was booing and resentment. An "underdog thing,'' as Lewis rightly diagnosed — but still not the last noises a departing champion wants to hear. "He won't want to go out like this,'' Steward confided. Klitschko's indignation at the stoppage, meanwhile, was misplaced. Dr. Paul Wallace, the ringside physician, explained it like this: "When I went into the ring a second time, I asked him to look at me. When he did, his upper lid covered his field of vision. He had to move his head to see me. In that condition there was no way he would be able to defend himself or see a punch coming. I had no option.''

Heavyweight boxing is now 12 months on from Tyson's destruction by Lewis in Memphis, and few would contest the assertion that both men reached the end of a line that night. On the banks of the Mississippi, Lewis came as close as he has to attaining the respect of the American public. But the thought of easy pickings in a denuded heavyweight division outweighed the temptation to retire. So now he slides around on that throne of blood, looking ever more vulnerable. The news that Tyson was arrested in the early hours of Saturday after becoming entangled in a brawl scrawled another line in his professional obituary. Originally there was a plan to put Tyson on Saturday's undercard. On the day, he chose to fight in the street instead. It's not all woe. Before 15,939 spectators and millions of TV viewers (this one was not on pay-per-view), Klitschko held out the possibility that he and his brother will freshen the heavyweight division like an ocean breeze.

Another sign of change: Vitali was covered not only in blood but trunks and a robe by Hugo Boss. Not that it was a night of designer violence. Hollywood does ketchup. In boxing the blood's for real. At nearly 38, Lewis is intent on spilling a few more pints before age demands its dues.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003