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Just ask the near-capacity Staples Center crowd Saturday. Despite a smattering of support during his entrance and a TKO at the hands of champion Lennox Lewis and referee Lou Moret, it was Vitali Klitschko who raised his arms to a roaring ovation at the conclusion of the fight. Battered and bloodied, but showing the heart of a true warrior, Klitschko was the moral victor in a brawl that was supposed to be a walkover for the reigning heavyweight king.
For Lewis, who raised his belts to a cascade of boos, it was more like the Heavyweight Implosion than Heavyweight Explosion. There was certainly a ticket's worth of explosive action, but Lewis fought with the speed and grace of a tranquilized elephant. Coming into the bout at his heaviest weight to date, 256 pounds, the British bomber took a beating of his own. The first two rounds were all Klitschko, a man who has on many occasions been confused for a cadaver in the ring, and supposedly was the perfect opponent for the slick style of Lewis. Such was not the case. The Ukrainian heavyweight was far from flashy, but aggressively pursued Lewis, connecting steadily and solidly.
Perhaps Lewis thought he was facing Kirk Johnson, the portly Canadian puncher who dropped out two weeks ago due to an injury. Maybe it's the 37 years that are catching up to him. Perhaps it was rust from the layoff of more than a year since he dispatched a decrepit Mike Tyson in Memphis. Or maybe, he thought this was a remake of Ocean's Eleven, when he faced off with the younger Wladimir Klitschko on the silver screen. Whatever the case, Lewis's lackluster performance did little to silence critics and solidify his standing as the greatest heavyweight of his era.
Lewis was able to connect with a third round right cross that opened a gruesome gash over the left eye of Klitschko, but while the door opened, the sluggish champion was not able to step quickly in and take the opportunity to capitalize. Lewis had little of his trademark movement and footwork. He plodded through the fight, and although he won two of the six rounds on all three scorecards, he was unable to avoid the slow yet pointed attack of the determined Klitschko, and was clearly hurt by the barrage of power shots.
And what of the future? The result has once again thrown the heavyweight division into a state of confusion. Lewis's talk of taking on Roy Jones Jr. and ending his career as the undisputed king of the heavyweights is no longer valid. The size, the weight, the last-minute change of opponent will not stand up -- the truth is that Lennox Lewis has been exposed and his legacy is in jeopardy. He is not the fighter he once was, and his weaknesses were visible to the fans cheering for Klitschko. A rematch is the only recourse for the champion if he wants to restore his credibility.
As for Klitschko, the valiant Ukrainian, he may have lost the fight, but he won the respect and admiration of the entire boxing world.
Tim Struby is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine.