• Rewind to 1997

Akinwande antics spoil Tahoe's heavyweight showpiece

Rob Bartlett
October 2, 2013
Henry Akinwande was disqualified in the fifth round for repeated excessive holding © Getty Images

More than 16 years have passed since Henry Akinwande disgracefully failed to fight Lennox Lewis during their WBC heavyweight title bout in Lake Tahoe, concluding one of the most controversial periods in the history of the Nevada State Athletic Commission and the sport of boxing.

On the night of July 12 1997, esteemed referee Mills Lane continuously warned Akinwande for holding against Lewis before finally disqualifying him two minutes and 34 seconds into the fifth round of the fight. It proved to be Lane's second successive disqualification inside the space of two weeks, having refereed Mike Tyson's infamous ear-biting incident on Evander Holyfield only a fortnight earlier.

The outrage of Tyson's antics earmarked a dark period for the sport; in light of Akinwande's performance, the Daily Mail's Jeff Powell described how Tyson's disqualification had already brought a "business down to its knees". In response, the NASC rallied to strengthen its laws 24 hours prior to Akinwande stepping into the ring with Lewis. However, this all-British bout was not the first time Lewis and Lane were cast together on a stage exposed in bad light.

Earlier that year, Lane refereed the fight between Lewis and Oliver McCall for the vacant WBC title. McCall refused to fight in a series of bizarre actions which eventually culminated with him crying in the ring. Lane called an end to proceedings in the fifth round, the same as what he would do four months later in Tahoe. As Powell expertly explained in the aftermath of Tahoe, Lane always seemed to be at the centre of it all.

ESPN boxing expert Steve Bunce was present in 1997 to witness Lewis touch gloves with Akinwande. During a press conference 48 hours before fight night, Akinwande's "petrified" demeanour not only caught Bunce's attention, but seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. This is when Akinwande quipped the immortal line "When a fighter gets hurt, you can see if a fighter has guts or not. I don't want to find out." Not exactly the kind of talk expected from someone who was previously undefeated in 32 professional fights.

"The ring was 18 feet by 18 feet, so it was a tiny ring," Bunce explained. "Which, in theory, meant Lennox didn't have anywhere to go."

As it turns out, Bunce's prediction was correct - Lewis didn't have anywhere to go. Thirty seconds into the fight, Lane issued Akinwande a warning for holding.

At the end of the second round, Lane - who received a standing ovation during his entrance to the ring following his role in Tyson/Holyfield - took Akinwande back to his corner and docked him a point.

Lane shouted to Akinwande's trainer Don Taylor: 'Don, tell him to fight!'

It was here Bunce recollected the referee shouting to Akinwande's trainer Don Taylor: 'Don, tell him to fight!'

Mills Lane warns Henry Akinwande © Getty Images

That warning provided a brief response from Akinwande in the third round, when he surprisingly forced Lewis onto the floor with a right-hander.

Interesting, according to Bunce, as this knockdown was overlooked by Lane. Perhaps Akinwande's persistent holding had become Lane's main focus; in the gruesome aftermath, the referee reportedly stated "Akinwande didn't want to fight at all."

Lane finally brought a stop to the lunacy in the fifth round by disqualifying Akinwande - a verdict unwelcome to ears at the NASC who, according to Bunce, were so outraged with the outcome that they "suspended Akinwande's licence and withheld his £1 million pound purse while he was still in the ring - without a hearing, it was that bad."

Thanks to the rule change in the wake of Tyson's cannibalistic actions, the commission could now withhold an entire purse rather than only ten percent.

Lewis was equally as frustrated in the fallout; a second successive opponent in Nevada had brought shame on his efforts to enhance his profile in the United States.

"This was to be my coming out party," Lewis said after the dance-off. "I was ready to show my skills to the world. Instead, after one opponent who broke down and cried [McCall], I got another who elected to hug me rather than fight."

Bunce, however, believes Lane should have stopped Akinwande earlier: "My gut feeling, and I wrote it at the time, is that he [Lane] should have thrown Akinwande out in the third or fourth round. If Lewis had got cut and the fight had to be stopped, Akinwande could have become champion.

"Lennox could not break him down, so he did something sensible - his trainer, the late Manny [Emanuel] Stewart told him to stop fighting, to stop pulling away. He told him to lean on him."

Following the inquest and hearing, Akinwande eventually regained his purse; an "amazing fact" according to Bunce, for 12 months later Akinwande was due to receive £2.5 million as mandatory challenger to Holyfield for the WBA crown. However, all plans for a fight were abandoned when Akinwande tested positive for Hepatitis B, which kept him out of the ring until 1999.

Lewis went on to establish himself as one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time and is the last undisputed champion of the world. Akinwande, meanwhile, returned to action in 1999 to enjoy a seven-fight winning streak before losing out to, of all fighters, McCall at the Mandalay Bay Casino in 2001.

Akinwande's last fight to date was in July 2008, almost 11 years after the controversy with Lewis, where he lost to Ondrej Pala by unanimous decision in Turkey. His record stands at 50 wins, four losses and one draw - although Akinwande has never officially announced his retirement from the sport.

Lane, a two-time county district court judge, retired from boxing duty after refereeing a fight between Thomas Hearns and Jay Snyder in 1998. He has since enjoyed numerous spells in the limelight, which included him having his own television court show 'Judge Mills Lane'. His famous catchphrase "Let's get it on!" was used along with his voice and image in the cult MTV show Celebrity Deathmatch. Lane also released an autobiography before he suffered a stroke in 2002, which seriously affected his speech.

Lennox Lewis went on to become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world © Getty Images

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