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8 Upper

The Fight Stuff

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/30/1998

UNCASVILLE, CONN. --It is the educated guess of the Boxing Digest guy, 15 or so minutes before the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight championship of the world gets underway, that if you quizzed the people here point-blank, maybe one out of 30 would get Zeljko Mavrovic's name right. On press row, he guesses, the figure would be one out of 10.

I've raised the question because I'm not sure I could do it myself, first name and last, without peeking at my program. For the record, it's ZEL-ko mav-RO-vich. To be honest, the precise details of Mavrovic's name don't strike most of us as particularly important. Nor does it seem necessary to know that he's the champion of Europe, a product of Zagreb, Croatia, a 214-pounder with a record of 27-0 (22 by knockout). Basically, he's flotsam. He's the guy who Lennox Lewis has to fight, because Lennox Lewis has to fight somebody.

Outside this 5,000-seat tent in the parking lot of the Mohegan Sun casino, the WBC might be lucky to find someone who knows who Lennox Lewis is, let alone Mavrovic. This is how far gone things are in boxing's heavyweight division. For what it's worth, as we in the sporting press suss it out, Lewis is the actual lineal heavyweight champion of the world. After George Foreman was stripped of his official title for ducking top contenders, he lost to Shannon Briggs. Briggs then lost to Lewis, back in March. So Lewis beat the man who beat the man. On this warm fall night, however, most sports fans would rather count Mark McGwire's home runs than sweat over such proofs.

None of this is Mavrovic's fault. It is not his fault that Don King and Showtime won't let Evander Holyfield fight the HBO-backed Lewis, or that Mike Tyson is busy trying to convince psychiatrists that he's not nuts, or that genial old George--who's in the house tonight, head glimmering--would prefer a freak-show payday against ancient Larry Holmes to fighting anyone for real. It's certainly not Mavrovic's fault that the most promising fight of the night's card has fallen through, with Baltimore's Hasim Rahman bailing out on a match with the hulking David Tua. The champs and the up-and-comers can duck each other; the Croat is doing his duty as the number-one contender. The media money says Lewis will knock him out, early.

As challenger, Mavrovic arrives first, behind a phalanx of gray-hatted police and a Croatian flag, with "Simply the Best" blaring over the PA system. The acoustics in the tent are clattering and murky, the noise deafening. Mavrovic is wearing a low Mohawk (the Travis Bickle jokes rustle along press row) and a white satin robe. His brows are thick, and the whites of his eyes momentarily roll and flash, like those of a maddened horse.

Then, as the din rises to an ear-stinging volume, comes Lewis, following the Union Jack. He's a gigantic man--not simply tall or thick, but made of extra-large parts, from a massive head down to size-16 feet. He looms. Mavrovic, a big guy by any reasonable standard, looks petite and spindle-legged. But even as I'm becoming more sure of the early knockout, a chant comes up from somewhere in the mid-priced seats: ZEL-ko! ZEL-ko! There are knots of Croats here and there, with shirts and hats in the red-and-white checkerboard national colors, and they, at least, adore Mavrovic.

At some point in the second round, we begin to see why. The Lewis camp guessed that Mavrovic showed up lean because he planned to do a lot of running. Instead, the challenger keeps walking up and trying to hit Lewis in the side of the head with a right cross. That Lewis greets him with a heavy jab is neither here nor there. To the delight of the Croats, the smaller man keeps marching in, throwing the right. In the third, he even appears to get Lewis' attention with his aggression, and the chant rises again, broader and more musical: Zeeel-ko-oh! Zeeel-ko-oh!

Still, Lewis is champ for a reason. He staggers Mavrovic to open the fourth, and keeps hitting him. I've never imagined a person could hit so hard. Lewis crunches Mavrovic in the ribs a few times, batters him in the face, snaps his chin back with brutal uppercuts. But the Croats keep chanting. They go legato in the fifth round; in the seventh, with blood dripping onto Mavrovic's trunks, they start syncopating: Zel-KO ZEL-ko! Zel-KO ZEL-ko!

Shortly thereafter, Mavrovic lands his punch. Just like that. And just like that, Lewis is sagging into the ropes, covering up. The Croats are screaming, and the challenger is whacking the champ with both hands. The world tilts. And then Lewis hits back, an absolute bomb, a sickening, crunching straight right that makes him look like the champ again.

But now he's earning it. And between now and the end of the 12th round, the big man is going to have to keep on earning it, pounding and pounding and pounding at this thin-shanked guy who will neither back up nor go down. Despite all the politics and scheming, despite the fight-ducking and ear-biting, despite the obscurity of the occasion, the WBC has itself a real heavyweight championship fight here. Let the record show they owe it to Zeljko Mavrovic.

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