Requiem for prizefighter
Henry Akinwande may have been afraid to take a punch from Lennox Lewis on Saturday, but he displayed courage by attending the post-fight press conference.
Before entering the room, the boxer was lambasted by the promoter and by a spokesman for the television network that broadcast the fight, much to the delight of the crowd. The place was packed with press and boxing people and just about anyone else who wanted to attend.
It was a mean-spirited mob.
Typically, boxers who lose in a controversial or embarrassing fashion don’t go to these press conferences. Usually, the winner will attend and field softball questions like, “Hey champ, who you gonna fight next?”
It was a surprise to see the appearance of Akinwande, who was disqualified for repeatedly clinching Lewis and then refusing to break.
A few days before the fight, I spent about an hour talking with Akinwande in his room at Caesars Tahoe. At 6 foot 7, 237 pounds, he has the look of an athlete. But he didn’t appear to have the disposition of a boxer. He is polite, shy and humble. He didn’t seem to have much love for the sweet science.
At the age of 30, he said he has been too busy to ever get married or even think about starting a family. He grew up Third-World-poor in Nigeria before moving to England for eight years. He has resided in Tallahassee, Fla., for two years.
While he was excited about getting the biggest paycheck of his life – $1 million – Akinwande admitted he was mentally fatigued. He had spent nearly two months working out in Houston, then a week in Carson City before coming to Stateline a few days before the fight.
He described the constant grind of his training ritual, and “all these people telling me what to do every day.”
However, it was more like just a handful of people who worked with Akinwande. His “entourage” consisted of a manager, a trainer and a sparring partner.
Lewis, meanwhile, had dozens of people in his camp. If you took a walk through Caesars last week and heard all the English accents, you might have thought you were in Britain. Lewis even brought his mother along. The champion, who had spent seven weeks at a high-elevation camp in Big Bear, Calif., seems to thrive on the attention he receives.
Akinwande doesn’t seem to care about it. “I just want to get the fight out of the way and go home,” he said.
But after the fight he had one more obligation – the press conference.
Although he had his truculent trainer, Don Turner, sitting by his side, Akinwande was quite alone. His manager, Don King, certainly wasn’t going anywhere near that room.
Akinwande tried to explain his side of the story. “I didn’t think there was that much holding,” he said. “Every time we’d meet, (referee Mills Lane) stopped me from working inside. Then I put (Lewis) down, and the referee doesn’t say anything.”
Akinwande knocked Lewis to his knee in the third round, but the champion quickly bounced back on his feet. Lane, preoccupied with Akinwande’s holding tactics, didn’t see it.
The referee, who watched a replay of the knockdown, made a brief statement at the press conference. Lane admitted missing what he should have ruled a knockdown. Then he said he was sure some members of the press would criticize his decision to stop the fight. This inspired a cheerleader to shout, “No Mills, you did the right thing.” The crowd cheered loudly enough to allow Lane to pretend not to hear questions from reporters. He hurried out the door, then ran when five reporters followed and tried to interview him.
To boxing fans, Lane is beyond reproach. He growls, “Let’s get it on,” and people go nuts.
But when Lane missed the knockdown, it ruined any chance Akinwande had of winning. After the round, Akinwande sat on his stool, breathing heavily with his head down. Thereafter, the holding became more blatant. He had given up.
But Lewis also did his share of holding, he was just craftier at it. Lewis said he intimidated Akinwande with his superior strength in the clinches, which means he was doing some hugging, too. And while Akinwande did not back up upon Lane’s break commands, neither did the more-experienced Lewis.
The lonely Akinwande must have felt he had two opponents in the ring.
He offered up another excuse. “I think it was the altitude,” he said. “I tried to breath and my throat was dry.” The crowd responded with laughter.
But it did appear the altitude had gotten the best of Akinwande. I have never seen a fighter look so winded during a fight. He also seemed disorientated. He hardly acknowledged Lane’s repeated admonishments. And when he was in his corner after the third round, he didn’t acknowledge his trainer, either. Turner finally shouted, “Do you hear me?”
Moreover, Akinwande may have been afraid. He has never been hurt in a fight and no one knows how well he can take a serious punch. Quite candidly, he told me, “I hope I never find out.”
Motivated by the revolting actions of Mike Tyson two weeks earlier, Nevada lawmakers passed a law the day before Saturday’s bout empowering the athletic commission to withhold a fighter’s entire purse. Moment’s before entering the press conference, Akinwande learned the commission had suspended his license and, pending a hearing, is withholding his money.
Akinwande stayed in his seat long after Lewis arrived. Lewis told everyone who he wanted to fight next in between barbs about his opponent’s unwillingness to fight.
I was kneeling about four feet in front of Akinwande and the boxer looked me in the eye for the longest moment. I could see he was trying very hard not to cry.
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