When you come at the king – The night Michael Grant was meant to take over from Lennox Lewis
Lennox Lewis heard talk in 2000 that Michael Grant was boxing’s next great heavyweight. By Thomas Hauser
THE mid-20th century gave birth to a new breed of athlete; men who were big, well-coordinated, and faster than men their size had been before. By the start of the new millennium, athletes had further honed their natural gifts and were even bigger than their predecessors. Two heavyweights personified this trend: Lennox Lewis and Michael Grant. When they met in the ring at Madison Square Garden on April 29, 2000, Lewis was the reigning heavyweight champion. But Grant was seen in some circles as the heir apparent to the throne.
After winning a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, Lewis advanced through the heavyweight ranks and was awarded the WBC heavyweight belt Riddick Bowe didn’t want. Next, he defeated Tony Tucker, Frank Bruno and Phil Jackson. Then, shockingly, he was stopped by Oliver McCall.
The road back for Lennox began with knockout victories over Lionel Butler, Justin Fortune, and Tommy Morrison. Then came a narrow majority decision over Ray Mercer at Madison Square Garden. In 1997, Lewis avenged his loss to McCall and reclaimed a portion of the heavyweight throne. Victories over Henry Akinwande, Andrew Golota, Shannon Briggs, and Zeljko Mavrovic followed. That set the stage for a return to Madison Square Garden and a March 13, 1999, title unification bout against Evander Holyfield. The widespread belief was that Lennox deserved the nod that night. But the judges ruled the contest a draw. Eight months later, Lewis won a unanimous decision over Holyfield in Las Vegas. In his next fight – on April 29, 2000 – he fought at Madison Square Garden for the third and final time.
The opponent was Michael Grant; 27 years old, undefeated in 31 bouts, 6-feet-7-inches tall, 250 pounds. There were questions regarding Grant’s skills. He’d turned pro six years earlier with only 12 amateur bouts to his credit. In many respects, he was still a ‘project’. But boxing insiders marvelled at his strength, coordination, and stamina. Some observers called him the best pure athlete ever to come into boxing.
HBO (which set the agenda for boxing in those days) was high on Grant. The cable giant had televised his five most recent outings during the preceding two years; fights in which Grant knocked out David Izon, Obed Sullivan, Ahmad Abdin, and Andrew Golota in addition to decisioning Lou Savarese.
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On February 8, Grant and Lewis attended a press conference at Madison Square Garden to announce their April 29 battle. There were the usual speeches before the fighters had their say. Don Turner (Grant’s trainer), advisor Craig Hamilton, and attorney Jim Thomas spoke for Team Grant. Promoter Panos Eliades, manager Frank Maloney, and trainer Emanuel Steward advocated for Lewis. In the middle of the speeches, Turner pumped his fists spontaneously into the air. Joy and anticipation were etched on his face.
There was an interesting energy in the air. Most of the boxing media had come to the press conference believing that Lewis would beat Grant. But there was a growing sense that maybe Grant’s time had come; that Holyfield-Lewis had been about boxing’s past, and Lewis-Grant would be about boxing’s future.
Michael Katz, then the dean of American boxing writers, had been skeptical about Grant for most of the fighter’s pro career. Now Katz opined, “One way or the other, one of them won’t be standing at the end. I think Grant will win.”
HBO Sports Vice President Lou DiBella (the network’s point person on boxing) was also at the press conference. On his way out of the Garden, with excitement and some surprise in his voice, DiBella said simply, “I think we’re in for a changing of the guard.”
When the day of reckoning came, Grant awoke in his room at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan at 6:00am. He lay in bed, listening to gospel music for two hours. Then he ordered breakfast from room service. Fruit salad, scrambled egg whites, and ham. At 10 o’clock, Don Turner came to the room and the two men talked for 20 minutes. That was followed by a light snack.
At 12:30, Grant went down to the hotel lobby and sat in a large cushioned chair for an hour surrounded by friends.
“There have been other fights where I was more relaxed than this one,” he acknowledged. “But this is okay. I’m cool with it. I know this is for the heavyweight championship of the world. But I’m focusing on the fight, not the belt.”
For the first time in his pro career, Grant would be the underdog in one of his fights. Lewis had been installed as a 5/2 betting favourite. The prevailing view was that Lennox’s boxing skills gave him an edge. Also, Grant might be stronger, but Lewis was believed to be the harder puncher.Grant’s advantage, such as it was, lay in his stamina. In the past, he’d worn opponents down. And some of Lewis’ past performances had raised doubts regarding Lennox’s stamina. The early rounds were expected to belong to the champion and the late rounds to the challenger. The outcome would hinge on what happened early and, if that wasn’t dispositive, on how early it got late.
The objective in the Lewis camp was that there not be any late rounds. Emanuel Steward’s plan was for Lennox to jump on Michael. But Craig Hamilton had a different view. Standing in the hotel lobby, Hamilton observed, “When you’re in the centre of the ring looking at Michael and the referee is giving final instructions, Michael can look very imposing. Lennox could be forgiven for asking himself at that moment, ‘Do I really want to jump on this guy? Maybe I should just use my superior boxing skills.’”
“It won’t be easy,” Don Turner added. “Lennox has plenty of guts. He’s not that good when he’s backing up; most fighters aren’t. But he’s very good coming forward. Michael has to fight a hungry fight. If Michael lays back, Lennox controls the fight and outboxes him. Michael has to back Lennox up and make it an action fight to win. He has to impose his will. Get off first. Initiate everything. Dictate the rhythm of the fight. If Michael does what he’s capable of doing, he doesn’t have to worry about what Lennox is doing. We know about Lennox. This fight is about Michael.”
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At two o’clock, Grant went for a walk. An hour later, Turner, Hamilton, Thomas, and associate trainer Bobby Miles walked over to Madison Square Garden to arrange for last-minute ticket requests and check out the ring. Meanwhile, Michael returned to the hotel, had a three o’clock snack, took a nap, and spent the rest of the afternoon in his suite with his wife and a few friends. At seven o’clock, he ate his final pre-fight meal. Like every fighter who ever fought for the heavyweight championship of the world, he had dreams.
“I like Lennox,” Michael had said earlier. “I think he’s a gentleman. He’s not an open person; he’s very private. But if we were neighbours, there’d be a connection. We’d be in each other’s homes from time to time.”
Now Grant was focusing on the task ahead. “I know what I have to do when we fight,” he said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for me. When I’m champion, I won’t change. My character won’t change. But when I win the title, my life will.”
At 8:45pm, wearing a dark-blue jogging suit and grey peak cap, Grant arrived at Madison Square Garden with Turner, Thomas and Miles. His assigned dressing room was 24 feet long and 20 feet wide with a scuffed gray linoleum floor and white cinderblock walls. Nine lilac-coloured folding chairs were scattered about. A TV monitor was affixed to the wall by the door.
Grant crossed the room to a blue rubdown table and seated himself in an upright position with his legs dangling over the side. Then he lowered his head in contemplation. “The most nervous I ever was before a fight was before my first amateur fight,” Michael had once said. “I remember being in the locker room, banging the back of my head against my locker, saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’”
He looked nervous now. Very nervous.
An inspector from the New York State Athletic Commission came into the room and handed a pair of latex gloves to each of Grant’s cornermen. A NYSAC physician who had entered with the inspector took Michael’s blood pressure.
At 8:58, Grant lay down on the rubdown table with a half-dozen towels beneath his head and closed his eyes. Two minutes later, another Commission inspector came in and asked for a urine sample. Michael got up, went into the adjacent lavatory, provided a sample, and returned to the rubdown table where, once again, he lay down and closed his eyes. The table was a foot too short. His feet and then some dangled over the end.
The monitor on the wall heralded the start of the evening’s pay-per-view telecast. Several members of Team Grant watched as Wladimir Klitschko knocked out David Bostice in two rounds. Next, Arturo Gatti KO’d Eric Jakubowski; also in two. Michael slept, or pretended to sleep, through it all.
At 9:43, the monitor showed Lennox Lewis arriving at Madison Square Garden. Three minutes later, someone from HBO came into the room and asked if it would be possible to wake Michael for an interview. The answer was “no.”
At 10 o’clock, an hour after Grant lay down and closed his eyes, Turner roused him gently.
At 10:05, New York Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson entered the room and approached Grant. “You came this far,” the NFL star exhorted. “You’re gonna get it done, definitely.”
Paul Ingle versus Junior Jones, the next-to-last fight of the evening, came onto the TV monitor.
Turner began taping Michael’s hands. Fifteen minutes later, he was done and a Commission inspector initialled the wraps.
At 10:30, Grant and Turner left the dressing room and walked to a nearby freight-loading area where Michael jumped rope for three minutes. Four times, the normally agile fighter missed a beat and the rope slid off his shoe against the floor. That was cause for Turner to be concerned about his fighter’s state of mind.
The trainer led Grant back to the dressing room and took him through a series of stretching exercises. The positive energy so abundant at the February 8 kick-off press conference was gone. The room was silent. There was no aura of confidence and no crackle of electricity to signify that this was a fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Grant began loosening up. For the first time since he’d entered the room earlier in the evening, his face transformed into the face of a fighter. His eyes grew more focused, angry and intense.
Then the look receded.
Paul Ingle KO’d Junior Jones in the 11th round.
Grant put on his protective cup and trunks and gloved up. Cutman Joe Souza applied Vaseline to his face.
At 11 o’clock, referee Arthur Mercante Jnr, who would preside over the title fight, came into the room to give the fighter his final pre-fight instructions. Two minutes later, Mercante was gone.
Someone turned on a portable CD player. Gospel music sounded.
Bobby Miles put on a pair of handpads. For the next six minutes, Grant hit the pads as Miles gave instructions.
“Jab, hook to the body… Jab, hook to the body, follow with a right.”
When they were done, Michael began pacing in a circle. Now it was just a matter of time. But something was missing. The room seemed strangely unalive. Miles put the handpads on again and Grant pounded them for another two minutes. It was 11:15pm.
“Three minutes,” a voice from the doorway sounded.
Everyone in the room joined hands in a circle, readying for prayer.
“Be sincere, please,” Michael implored them.
They prayed together. Then Grant turned for a silent moment of his own.
“I always shed a tear before a fight,” Michael had once said. Now he appeared to be shedding many of them. The room still didn’t feel right.
There would be no violent transfer of power that night. Lewis knocked Grant down three times in the first round and ended matters in the second stanza.
Grant never fought for the heavyweight title again. In his next outing, he suffered a broken ankle, occasioning a first-round stoppage at the hands of Jameel McCline. After that, he did what he could to rebuild his career. He worked hard in the gym. He took seven fights for small money, winning all of them. Every step was aimed at getting back on HBO. When he did, it was against Dominick Guinn in a crossroads bout for both men. Guinn won. Grant then reeled off eight more victories in succession before losing a 12-round decision to Tomasz Adamek. He finished his career with a 48-7 (36) ring record.
“The problem,” Bobby Miles said as Grant’s career wound down, “is that Michael doesn’t really like boxing. It’s just not something he likes to do. And he still thinks like an athlete, not a fighter. In most sports, there’s a code of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct. If you’re a fighter, you have to approach each fight like a gladiator in the Roman Colosseum. You have to be mean. You’re fighting for survival. Tyson, Duran, guys like that; they understand. All great fighters do. Ray Leonard might have smiled and said nice things, but in the ring he was a mean son-of-a-b***h. Michael just isn’t mean enough.”
And Craig Hamilton added, “It’s not a question of courage. Every time in his career that Michael has been knocked down, he’s gotten back up. But he lacks confidence, and confidence is crucial to a fighter. What can I say? Michael wasn’t cut out to be a fighter. The fact that he got as far as he did in boxing is testament to what a great athlete he is. He could have accomplished so much more if he’d had the temperament of a fighter. But he doesn’t, and that’s that.”
Meanwhile, Lewis’ knockout of Grant solidified his own standing as the preeminent heavyweight in the world. By the time his ring career ended with a victory over Vitali Klitschko three years later, people in the know understood that Lennox would have been competitive against the best of all time.