A sellout crowd at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas gathered to watch Lennox Lewis defend the true heavyweight championship of the world against the man universally regarded as the top challenger, David Tua. They were treated to the best heavyweight fight of the year. Unfortunately, it wasn't the main event. Rising contenders Clifford Etienne and Lawrence Clay-Bey stole the show with a pitch battle that was a mix of strategy, determination, and brutality. And the main event? A sparring session.
Simply put, David Tua has rotted on the vine. After earning a mandatory crack at the title over two years ago, Tua bided his time by feeding on no-chance opponents (five of his last six bouts have been KO1) and all-you-can-eat buffets. The consequences of this play-it-safe strategy were clearly evident after a few rounds of sporadic action when Tua was sucking wind and relying on a one-weapon offense. Lennox Lewis made it look easy, but hey... it was easy.
The book on David Tua was an easy read. "Big left hook. Iron chin. Power late in the fight. Stamina problems." Before the bout began, there was reason to believe that perhaps an appendix had been added. Tua claimed he had been working on an improved right. He weighed a chubby 245, but it was down from 254 in his last tune-up. Besides, Lennox Lewis goes down when you hit him... right?
Tua stormed out of his corner to begin the fight, hoping to earn a little respect while beating the over-under line of 6.5 rounds. He flung two wild left hooks, both of which missed Lewis by a mile. The champion responded by twice measuring Tua with non-retracting jab and following with an overhand right. The first right bounced off Tua's Chia-Hair (tm), but the second one clipped the front of the challenger's face, earning a smile from both men. Those right hands gave Tua pause, and his bull rushes ceased.
Lewis took his time. Tua crossed his arms and moved his head a la Joe Frazier. Lewis hit the part of Tua not moving, twice burying a heavy right hand into Tua's side. After the fight, Tua's team would claim that body shots aggravated an old Tua rib condition. By the sound of these two early shots, Tua may well have sustained a brand new injury right then and there. An easy feel out round for Lewis.
Tua's aggression was more pronounced to begin the second round, and Lewis was all too willing to retreat under the pressure. Lewis pawed with an embarrassing jab and tried to pot shot the incoming Samoan, but he was too tentative to put any steam whatsoever on his punches. Three times, with Tua doing nothing but slowly stepping forward, Lewis backed himself into a corner. Each time he was momentarily trapped and Tua unleashed his hooks upstairs and down. Lewis didn't catch any of these punches particularly flush, but he was handing his opponent an opportunity to catch him. Worse, there was little in the way of offensive response.
With one second left to go in the second round, Tua launched a gigantic left hook at center ring. Lewis leaned straight back, and simultaneous with the bell ringing, Lewis got his bell rung. Tua's hook hit him clean on the side of mouth and sent him back a few steps into the ropes. When Lennox came out for the start of the third round, his right cheek was heavily swollen, as though one side of his mouth was stuffed with unchewed food. Tua's single hook had caused the damage, and Lewis was protecting his face with a high defense on that side. The champion seemed concerned, almost distracted by the swelling.
Indeed, Lewis' retreat in the third round was characterized by an almost fearful body language. Lewis openly ran from Tua when he charged, and several times openly leapt forward with open arms to grab Tua around the neck. The crowd booed. Lewis looked shaken. Tua pressed forward with almost no resistance. His best punches came with a few quick body shots as Lewis tried to hug him like a long lost relative.
The fourth round was much of the same. Tua opened the round with a leaping left hook that caught Lewis and made the champion clown by feigning wobbly legs. But the boos continued, as did Lewis' retreat. Again he was tagged by Tua during blatant attempts to grab and hold. These clinches weren't even from the inside. Twice Lewis had Tua a few feet away, and rather than punch he leapt forward and hugged. It was unbecoming. Lewis gave Tua three straight rounds via a seeming unwillingness to exchange and needed to turn the tide.
Lennox came out with purpose in the fifth round, thrusting his jab with authority for the first time all night. He followed one early jab with a short chopping right hand that careened off Tua's face, and the contact seemed to restore Lewis' faith. After a few more unanswered hard jabs, Lewis dipped and threw a great left hook to the body, which he followed with a right cross and another upstairs hook. A moment later, he launched another downstairs hook, this one landing low. Lewis' punches again stopped Tua in his tracks. After nine minutes of moving forward, Tua now stayed on the outside, and stepped forward very cautiously.
Lewis continued the fifth round by pot shotting Tua with repeated jabs and lead rights. With a minute to go in the round, blood began to pour from Tua's nose and you could see his black mouthpiece each time he strenuously gulped for air. Tua's offense faded away under Lewis' jab, save for one good Tua right hand that landed with enough force to bend Lewis over the top rope.
Lewis's confidence was now fully restored, and he began the sixth with a renewed jab and a new willingness to throw a short right hand at Tua. David's head movement from the early rounds was gone. He simply waited on the outside, looking for the one punch that could turn things around. About a minute into the sixth, Tua slammed Lewis upside the head with his best left hook of the night. Lewis took it with ease. Tua followed with another a few seconds later, but Lewis was still standing. These giant, overcommitted hooks seemed to wind Tua, and Lewis was able to reset and reestablish a distance with the jab.
Lewis's jab wasn't as heavy or consistent as it had been other nights, but by the seventh round, he was using it to completely befuddle Tua. Sometimes Lewis would double jab, pawing with a first attempt and then thrusting the second. Sometimes he held his left hand at his waist and lifted his knuckles into Tua's head. Sometimes he pawed it forward, left it extended, then flicked a hook off the end of it. Like Greg Maddux, Lewis was changing the speed on his pitches in an unspectacular, but highly effective, manner. Tua had no answer. He simply stayed away, allowing Lewis to circle in whatever direction he pleased, to throw whatever punches he felt like, and to control the pace completely. The crowd booed, because Lewis was making it look so easy; it looked like a gym workout.
By the eighth, Tua's eyes were swelling, particularly with a broad mouse that was growing outside his left cheek. This was a clinic on the one-two, with Lewis jabbing with a rangefinder and then following with a right cross. Every now and then, Lewis would lead with the right. Tua offered almost nothing. Three times, Tua countered with a left-right to the body, but that was it. The roaring tiger that Tua was in the opening rounds, was reduced to a lumbering kitten that Lewis was able to play with.
Tua's corner was getting desperate. Trainer Ronnie Shields was trying so hard to light a fire under Tua that his advice got bogged down in inspirational clichés and time-wasting insults. Shields is one of the best trainers in the game, but in the big fight excitement his rap denigrated into a string of rhetorical questions along the lines of "Why the fuck aren't you doing more?" and "Why the fuck are you wasting this opportunity?" Frankly, Tua needed better counsel.
In the ninth, Tua was getting desperate, too. His infrequent hooks were thrown while leaping in. One hook missed so wildly that Tua's whole body turned, and Lewis' counter right inadvertently landed on the middle of Tua's shoulder blade. Lewis upped the ante by unleashing his first three punch combinations of the night. Early in the round, Lewis landed a perfect jab-cross-hook combo and again Tua grinned... but he did not answer. In fact the only significant punch Tua threw the entire round was a single gigantic left hook. Lewis saw it coming a mile away and had plenty of time to overtly block the punch before it was even half way to the target. Lewis was unruffled, and he continued his simple jab, move and pot shot plan.
This pace continued through the tenth and eleventh rounds as well. Scattered boos rang out, although this time they were clearly intended for Tua. Fighting with no urgency, Tua simply followed Lewis around, tasting a variety of jabs, some painful body shots, and plenty of single right hands along the way. Only a couple times did Tua throw a meaningful punch, and each time it was either easily avoided or totally blocked. Lewis was boxing with ease, without even much exertion. It was not exciting, but it wasn't completely boring. Anyone familiar with Tua's power knew that the entire fight could change on just one of these big hooks, and that added a constant tension to the bout. But as the fight progressed, and Tua's activity shrank to extinction, the possibility of a surprise kayo faded.
The final round was met with apathy by the fans, many of whom filed out the exits early. But fans of the sweet science held out hope that Tua would launch one final campaign. Indeed his corner had told him in no uncertain terms how mandatory a knockout was. But when the twelfth began, Tua simply plodded out to center ring and continued to sit idle at the end of Lewis' jab. Lewis' stick opened up a cut under Tua's badly swollen left eye, and blood streaked down the challenger's face. But Tua was not willing to lay it all on the line for the championship of the world. He simply wasted time. With one second left in the fight, he threw one final Hail Mary pass into the endzone. He launched a gigantic overhand right at Lewis, who was standing in a neutral corner. Lewis saw it coming and stepped out of the way. The force of the missed punch sent Tua head-first into the turn buckle, and it looked like he could have broken his neck. But that was it. Fight over. Ho-hum.
In short order, the official scores were announced: 117-111, 119-109, 118-110. A lopsided unanimous decision for Lennox Lewis. Boxing Chronicle scored 117-111 for Lewis, who improves to 38-1-1/29. Tua notches his second loss, dropping his record to 37-2/32.
Lennox Lewis didn't win any new fans tonight. For the casual fan, his performance was boring and uneventful. Even the serious fan, who appreciates the fact that Lewis did what he had to do to win, had to be disappointed in the action level. But the blame here falls squarely on David Tua, not Lennox Lewis. Once Tua tasted Lewis' power, he stayed away. He would later claim that a second round body shot rekindled an old rib injury, but isn't that really the same thing? It was David Tua who failed to press the action... and Lewis should not be faulted to executing a safe plan. Even an injured David Tua is one of the fiercest punchers in the division. With Lewis' right cheek swollen from one flush Tua hook, why should the champion have risked a more confrontational pace?
Lennox Lewis may not have lost any stature, but David Tua sure did. Injury or not, he failed to make any serious attempt to win in the final round. He threw enough punches to prove he was able to, but not enough to show that he cared about winning. Further, Tua's skills have eroded severely in the last several years. Fighting guys like Shane Sutcliffe and Gary Bell have done little to improve Tua's one-dimensional attack. Tua's stamina was minimal; his breathing was labored after only a few rounds. And despite the Tua camp's claims that Tua is comfortable at this tubby 245, it's clear that Tua's speed and mobility are nowhere near the level they were when he fought at a rock solid 225. With his power, he still deserves a spot in the top-ten... but if Tua returns to an easy schedule instead of fighting up the ranks against the other contenders, he should be dropped for more deserving fighters. It's our prediction that he'll take his nearly $3 million purse and balloon to over 300 pounds before returning to the gym for a mid-2001 comeback.
Thank heavens for Clifford Etienne and Lawrence Clay-Bey. In the bout immediately preceding the main event, these two unbeaten heavyweights waged tactical war. At the end, both men were bloodied and bruised, and although there was a winner and loser, neither man's stock lost any value.
Lawrence Clay-Bey's pro career has been hampered by hand problems, eye problems, canceled fights and long layoffs. Known primarily for his quick hands and amateur background, he needed to step up if his name was to be seriously considered among the division's best. This evening he was matched with Clifford Etienne, a puncher whose aggressive style has caught the eye of HBO. The bout began quickly.
Etienne started fast, ripping into the larger Clay-Bey's body. Clay-Bey took Etienne's attack well, sticking his quick jab out to mitigate the damage. But Etienne's ferocious assault took him the early round with ease.
Clay-Bey was nearly stopped in the second round. Retreating to the ropes, Clay-Bey was trapped under a hailstorm of Etienne power punches. Clay-Bey simply covered up his head with his fists, leaned back into the ropes, and took punches. Etienne relished the opportunity to tee-off without return fire. He dug about a dozen devastating body shots to Clay-Bey's sides in this sequence. With Clay-Bey not moving his wrists from his forehead, his body was wide open, and Etienne curled his hooks downstairs up into Clay-Bey's upper ribs. After a buffet of bodywork, Etienne ripped some beautiful uppercuts through Clay-Bey's tight defense. These punches snapped his head straight back and drew gasps from the crowd. Still, there was zero response from Clay-Bey. Referee Jay Nady, who is normally quick to stop any fight in which a guy stops throwing punches, looked on but didn't jump in.
But with ten seconds left in the round, Clay-Bey all of the sudden exploded with a furious combination of his own. Etienne was stunned, and stopped in his tracks. Clay-Bey spun around and hit Etienne with a series of crisp punches. The bell sounded and halted the rally. Blood poured from Etienne's nose.
This pattern repeated in the third round. Clay-Bey, who's advantage always rested in center ring, retreated immediately to the ropes. Call it Chris Byrd disease. Etienne followed him over and began to pound him up and down. Etienne needs a lot of polishing before he's ready for a shot at Lewis, but the way he puts together body shots and uppercuts reminds us of a prime Mike Tyson. Granted, Clay-Bey wasn't returning any fire during these attacks, but the fluidity and power with which Etienne crunched Clay-Bey's sides and then snapped his head was most impressive. After a minute of this beating, Clay-Bey again felt Etienne was ready for an answer, and exploded with a flurry out of nowhere. Fighting Etienne off the ropes, Clay-Bey now stood toe-to-toe with the power puncher, and held his own. But with 45 seconds to go, Clay-Bey returned to the ropes and again allowed Etienne to batter him silly. Clay-Bey took a lot of useless punishment in this round.
Clay-Bey insisted that his rope-a-dope reprise would work, and as soon as the bell for round four sounded, he backed up to a comfortable spot and leaned back on the ropes. Etienne was now cautious, having twice been caught almost punching himself out. He now swung at Clay-Bey's body, but with one shot at a time. So cautious was Etienne that he even backed the fight out to center ring. There, Clay-Bey used his jab and handspeed advantage to outbox Etienne. But Clay-Bey was fighting for respect, and unlike previous outings, his boxing was aggressive and his punches were thrown with seriously malicious intent. Clay-Bey was looking for some respect, and he earned some in this round. Still, he nearly gave away his first solid round by finishing the round again on the ropes and taking shots.
The pace finally slowed in the fifth round, and with good reason. Clay-Bey had taken plenty of flush punches and Etienne was tired of throwing them. Fighting in center ring, the two fought an inside fight that was punctuated with Clay-Bey quickly stepping back to create some distance, then firing a pretty combination off the jab. This strategy was working nicely on Etienne, but Clay-Bey again lazily retreated to the ropes to end the round. Etienne was cautious again, and although Clay-Bey tried yet another surprise flurry, he did so with only mere seconds in the round. Unable to complete his rally, he gave away a round in which he did beautiful work at center ring by being a sitting duck on the ropes.
Same thing in the sixth round. The first and last minute of the round had Clay-Bey on the ropes getting pummeled. In between, he switched southpaw and got the better of some big exchanges in center ring. But Clay-Bey lacked the ability to keep things going at this pace, and soon he was on the ropes again. Etienne was really doing damage in these lapses. In the sixth particularly, Etienne would pause, step to the left or right (Clay-Bey's pinned up hands left his sides wide open) then fire three or four hard punches. As Clay-Bey stayed in the middle of the ropes, Etienne alternated the sides he would work over. Clay-Bey's ability to take this punishment must be credited.
If Clay-Bey was going to camp on the ropes, he might as well punch back. In the seventh round, he did. Twice he timed Etienne coming in with punches and popped him with a right hand. The second one really caught Etienne walking into it, and again the Black Rhino was stunned. Etienne sleptwalk on his heels to a neutral corner, with Clay-Bey punching him as he went back. But there wasn't enough time left in the round, and Etienne was able to survive. With Etienne tiring, Clay-Bey's surprise attacks were having increasingly harmful effects.
Clay-Bey tried this trick again in the eighth, and again Etienne fell for it. Etienne walked into a well-timed right cross counter and was wobbled. Leaning forward, he ate two uppercuts from Clay-Bey and was reeling. But Etienne was not out, and threw back. Clay-Bey was getting the best of the exchange... and then he seemed to give up. Right when Etienne looked ready to be tested, Clay-Bey returned to his comfy seat on the ropes. He stayed there for the final minute of the round. Etienne not only was able to regain his footing, but was able to finish the round out by hitting Clay-Bey, whose rope-a-dope gave away a round he should have won.
Clay-Bey's love of laying on the ropes gave Etienne not only his legs back, but a full second wind. Etienne was back on his toes to begin the ninth, and he was stepping around Clay-Bey with great effectiveness. Leading with a left hook, Etienne was now winning the fight in the center of the ring for the first time. Clay-Bey, weary from the abuse he was taking, had slowed down. This rally cinched a Etienne victory, if he could survive the final round.
An already action packed fight began it's final round with even more exchanges. Clay-Bey knew that he was down on the cards, and he stormed out at Etienne and clocked him with a couple of right hands. But Etienne fought back, and now Clay-Bey went back to the ropes because he was forced back. Etienne ripped into him with the most devastating punches of the night. Old Cliff was destroying Clay-Bey to the body, but it was the uppercuts that again did the big damage. Etienne ripped a double left uppercut that snapped Clay-Bey's head. He then twice threw a beautiful right uppercut-left hook combo that rocked Clay-Bey some more. Clay-Bey's arms began to droop, and Etienne threw furious rights and lefts, almost all of which landed squarely on Clay-Bey's face. After a half dozen unanswered blows, Clay-Bey was practically out on his feet. His hands dropped completely to his sides, and Etienne was still throwing. Incredibly, Jay Nady did not jump in to halt the fight.
And then, once again, Clay-Bey summoned one final rally. Seconds after he looked like he was out cold on his feet, his threw a short left hook that caught Etienne flush on the jaw and sent him back a few steps on his heels. With less than a minute to go in the fight, Clay-Bey had come back from the brink of unconsciousness to stun Etienne. Unfortunately, Clay-Bey didn't seem to realize how hurt Etienne was. Without a follow-up, Etienne was given a chance to recover. He cleared the cobwebs quickly, and in the final seconds dealt out a final flurry of punishment. The bell finally rang to end the most action-packed heavyweight fight of Y2K. Although Etienne would win a wide decision (98-92, 99-91, 97-93 official... 98-93 on the Boxing Chronicle card), the fight was a battle of ever-shifting momentum.
The big winner is probably Clay-Bey, who earned a reputation as a warrior in this fight. Having struggled so long to make a name for himself in the division, he finally earned some notice in his first professional loss. His hands are quick, he can set down on his punches when he needs to, he carries 235 pretty well, and his chin is unquestionably solid. And he seemed to lose this fight on a poor strategy. His rope-a-dope worked a few times, both early and late in the fight... but over the course of the evening, he relied on it too much to kickstart his offense. In the process, he took way too many punches from a guy who was tearing him up on the inside. Clay-Bey looked great in center ring when the fight moved there, but he couldn't keep the action where he wanted it.
As for Clifford Etienne, this fight was an excellent learning experience for him. He learned how to survive, how to pace himself, how to cope with a handspeed disadvantage, and how to win a fight against a guy who isn't a showcase opponent. Etienne may be five to seven fights away from title contention, but he has some serious raw talent. When he gets close and puts his punches together, he's devastating. He has decent head movement for a heavyweight, and has learned how to step around an opponent to find openings. With more conditioning and another year in the gym, he could be a be a serious contender for the heavyweight crown.
In the evening's opening bout, John-John Molina outworked Ben Tackie over ten mostly fast-paced rounds. Although both men weighed in just under the 140 lb. contract weight, Tackie weighed 154 (!) to Molina's 145 at fight time. Once in center ring, Tackie looked a full division larger than Molina.
But Molina was determined as ever, and set the pace in the opening round by outworking Tackie at every turn. While Tackie's big right hand was much heavier, he was being outlanded 5-1, as Molina opened the bout by throwing over 115 punches in the first round. Battering Tackie to the sides and head with his punches, Molina might not have been doing serious damage, but he was peppering Tackie and preventing any return fire.
Simply put, this was a replay of Tackie-Garcia in every way but the ending. In that fight, former junior lightweight champion Roberto Garcia outworked Tackie for 10 full rounds, landing everything but the kitchen sink on him before getting hit with a perfect counter hook in the final round that put him out for the ten count. Molina must have watched that tape, because he executed a similar plan. Tackie's defense is called catching, and as long as Molina threw, Tackie would not answer. Occasionally the action would slow down to a more even exchange, and Tackie picked up a couple of stray rounds because his punches were heavier. But all night long, Molina worked and worked and worked. After building a solid lead, Molina put it into cruise control, got onto his toes, and boxed out the final rounds to a comfortable unanimous decision, 96-94, 97-93, 97-93 (97-93 on our card).
Tackie may have been drained by the struggle to make 140. He's big enough to fight at welterweight, and with a diminishing roster in that division, he would be able to get fights. Certainly he's not going to draw any of the 140 lb. champions into a fight. But overall, this is a serious setback for Tackie. He loses to a 35 year-old guy that no one picked to win, yet he's still too dangerous to be a desirable opponent. Molina, one of the hardest working men in the game, will earn yet another good payday. He deserves every penny.
The only fight of the evening that was lacking was Jesse James Leija's perfunctory decision over Ivan Robinson. The two men put out a consistently action filled ten rounds, but since neither is a knockout puncher, the rather even pace lacked any peaks or valleys to interest the fans. Mighty Ivan has lost a step. His accuracy is down, his once exquisite conditioning is suspect, and he's lost a couple of fights now that he knew he had to win. After the bout, his trainer claimed he would retire. Let's hope so. Leija continues to be one of the most consistent guys out there. He puts his punches together well, he still generates good power (in dropped a weary Robinson in the eighth, a notable accomplishment), and his chin is unquestionably solid. Leija would be the underdog against every lightweight and junior welterweight champion out there (except for Spadafora)... but he'd be competitive and the fight would not lack action. And so his career continues.
David Tua may have choked in his big chance, but this was an entertaining night of boxing. Instead of Butterbean, and some embarrassing women's bout, we got three solid undercard pick 'em bouts. All of them, even the somewhat monotonous Leija-Robinson, were full of action. We'll take this over the usual Top Rank or Don King undercard any day of the week.
Lastly, Lennox Lewis deserves serious consideration for Fighter of the Year. Aside from the Trinidad-Vargas winner, Lennox Lewis may have the distinction wrapped up. You have to go back to prime Mike Tyson to find a heavyweight champion who defended the title three times in one year... and you have to go back even further to find a heavyweight champion who dominated two universally recognized number-one contenders (and contenders who many experts picked to win) in the same year. Lennox Lewis sits firmly atop the heavyweight division. Aside from big-mouthed Mike Tyson, Lewis has cleaned out the top contenders. He may not have sizzled tonight, but he won and won big. And when you're heavyweight champion, isn't that really the goal?