When a Lion Roared
Lennox Lewis was now the undisputed champion of the world and no belts in trashcans or mental disintegrations could impugn his ascension…
Whilst the ring legends of many years past are my fascination, boxers of a modern vintage can still elicit excitement and admiration aplenty. Whereas yesteryear’s heroes had their deeds generally immortalized in the written form, today’s gladiators have their every action scrutinized in a digital format. Access to fighters’ private lives has changed markedly. They are essentially stripped bare for us to make judgements on them as people not as boxers. Whilst the digital age allows us to view virtually every contest fighters appear in, it also sets these brave warriors for huge plummets when their misdemeanors are reported on. It’s not often an outstanding boxer of today or the near past can leave the sport as a champion inside and out of the ring but the stellar career of Lennox Claudius Lewis is such an example.
Born to Jamaican parents in the East End of London, Lennox’s difficult childhood formed his character for later in life. His mother Violet had to rear Lennox and his brother Dennis alone and times were tough for the Lewis family. Lennox was a scrapper as soon as he could toddle. If any other kids tried to take his toys he would immediately fight them. Whilst Violet worked nights as a nurse, her days were spent trying to keep her wayward boys out of trouble. West Ham, the area of London the family grew up in was not for the weak, battles had to be won to ensure other kids didn’t stand over you.
Money was in short supply so Violet made the decision to move alone to Canada via America to find work and a better life for her beloved boys. The boys were left with family in London. The boarding schools Lennox attended further equipped him with bad traits. Rough kids from underprivileged backgrounds soon separated the wheat from the chaff. His size would enable him to rise to the top in these pre-teen days. He was essentially the biggest bully in the playground. No strong parental guidance undoubtedly was the cause. Lennox was separated from his mum for five years before they were reunited again in Kitchener, Ontario where Violet could provide a secure home for him.
Things weren’t smooth sailing to begin with. The new kid on the block had a strange cockney accent and he was constantly teased and ridiculed. Fisticuffs would regularly ensue and Lennox soon transplanted being a playground oppressor in London to one in Kitchener. His constant battles alerted his school principal to the loners’ plight and he suggested Lennox get himself down to the local police boys boxing club. This was to be the turning point in the young boy’s life. He came into contact with Arnie Boehm who was almost like a father-figure to the impressionable Lennox. He would soon spend all his free time at the gym, much to Violet’s displeasure. The discipline of the training soon had an effect on Lennox, the playground disputes stopped and he began making friends at last. His natural sporting prowess saw him excel at basketball and gridiron yet the years fending for himself in London had imbedded a strong sense of being able to rely on his self to get by. Team sports needed other players whilst boxing is a very lonely vocation. Lennox had the perfect missive for such undertaking.
For some three years Lennox cut a swathe through the local boxing landscape going unbeaten. Coach Boehm decided to match him with a boy three years his senior at eighteen who had been earmarked for big things, Donovan Ruddock. It was the first time Lennox had faced someone of the same build and Ruddock manhandled the younger boy to give Lennox his first taste of defeat. The setback nearly deprived us of a great talent as a lot of soul-searching followed his reverse. Their paths would cross much later! Fortunately it fortified his resolve and the young boy re-focussed his energies into carrying on and attempting to qualify for the Olympics that were to be held in Los Angeles.
Lennox had been having trouble finding suitable sparring partners for his tilt at a berth in the boxing team for L.A. so it was decided to travel down to Catskill in New York to spar with another who was having trouble finding boxers game enough to spar with him – Mike Tyson. Tyson had been earmarked for stardom from an early age. A man in a boy’s body, he had murderous intent even in sparring. Their first round together left Lennox in a bewildered state, bloodied and dazed. Offered the chance to call it a day, the youngster refused, telling his trainer he had Mike figured! Four days of sparring followed, enabling Lennox to comprehend how to compete with elite boxers, and make no mistake Tyson was an elite fighter at that time even though he was deemed to still be an amateur. It could be argued he could have been world champion a long time before he dismantled Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion of the world due to his speed, head movement and ferocity.
So it was onto L.A. for the Olympics. He won his first bout before he was unfortunate to come face-to-face with the red-hot favorite, Tyrell Biggs in the second round. Incidentally, Biggs had got the nod to represent the U.S. over Tyson and this slight would cause Biggs some considerable suffering when he fought Iron Mike as a professional. Biggs’ greater experience told and he gained a decision victory over the eighteen-year-old Lewis. It was a testament to Lennox’s strength of character that he could take positives from every reverse he encountered within the squared circle. Like the Ruddock defeat, Lennox would avenge Biggs whilst getting paid to do so.
The conclusion of the 1984 Games saw several interested parties try to procure Lennox’s services if he turned professional but he sensibly turned them down, reasoning that he was still young and his bargaining position would be even stronger if in four years time the 1988 Games in Seoul witnessed Lewis with a golden medal on his broad chest. He won the Commonwealth Super Heavy gold in 1986 and his amateur journey was replete when he faced another Olympic favorite in Riddick Bowe in the Super Heavyweight Final in South Korea. Bowe dominated the first round in such fashion that Lennox had to stop the New Yorker or lose on decision. Though evenly matched physically, Lewis tore through Bowe in the second round causing him to turn away from the fray. The referee mercifully brought an end to Riddick’s plight. Lennox Lewis had conquered the world in the unpaid ranks, now it was time to reap his just rewards.
Being an Olympic boxing champion opens a lot of doors and even more so if your natural weight lies north of two hundred pounds. Not only was Lennox suitably qualified in that regard, he had good looks and a fantastic skill set to make a huge impression on the boxing panorama. Whilst Olympic champions don’t necessarily go on to become World Heavyweight champions, some had gone on to greatness including Ali, Frazier and Foreman, a triumvirate of incredible talent! Many organizations tried to lure Lennox to sign for them as a paid athlete yet only one could prevail. The lucky recipient of his golden signature was a small time promoter in England who had the backing of the Levitt group, which was purportedly a wealthy company but actually anything but! Maloney however was a charismatic individual and he sold Lennox on the idea of returning to his country of birth and winning its first heavyweight title of the world since the freckled freak at the end of the nineteenth century, Bob Fitzsimmons. Whilst representing Canada at the Olympics made Lennox an oddity with the British sporting public, his God-given talent would stem the tide of antipathy, though it wouldn’t be an overnight process.
Lets make something abundantly clear at this point. Lennox is English. He was born in London and lived there till he was twelve years old till he moved to Canada to reunite with his mum. Fortunately he received his formative boxing tuition in Canada. If he’d stayed in London he may well have stayed on his destructive path and been lost to the sport as there is much to waylay the impressionable. It is inconceivable now to think of a nineties and early noughties devoid of a Goliath like Lewis astride it. For Canada we have much to thank!
Lennox’s first hurdle to clear as a professional was the British public’s aversion to him. Britain had endured a catalogue of nearly men throughout the twentieth century in their quest for the blue ribbon of boxing. In fact they had become quite the laughingstock with their cousins over the pond in America! British society has historically loved a gallant loser. It may be a nod to the fact we’ve invented many of the sporting disciplines the world enjoys participating in yet however the world now teaches us how to excel in them. At the time of Lennox’s unveiling as the next British hope there was already a media darling in the formidably sculpted Frank Bruno. Despite coming up short in title shots against Tim Witherspoon and Mike Tyson, his almost gormless manner had endeared him to Britain. It was the savvy Maloney’s task to assuage the public that his protégé was the real deal.
It is customary for uber talents in boxing circles that their matchmakers pitch them against stool pigeons, opponents who would submit all too easily whose records were pretty awful. Lewis was pitted against his first five opponents with a win loss record of 44-81, which wasn’t exactly mine-sweeper territory. Lennox’s baptism into professional boxing saw him overcome Al Malcolm with a second round kayo. His sixth fight on saw him pitted against fighters with healthy winning percentages until his fourteenth contest saw him compete for the prestigious European belt against the rugged Jean-Maurice Chanet. He stopped the Frenchman in six bloody rounds. His next fight was undoubtedly his stiffest test against the unbeaten Gary Mason for the British title in addition to defending his European crown. Though lacking in size to truly be a world-class talent, he had a world ranking of four at the time; Mason was unfortunate to be in the same stable as Bruno as I felt he had more talent. Lewis’ incredible jab kept the obdurate Mason on the back foot, constantly peppering his eyes. The referee had no option but to halt the contest in the seventh stanza, the defeat effectively ending Mason’s career with the damage done to his eyes. Lennox continued his apprenticeship with crushing stoppages over former world champions Mike Weaver and Glenn McCrory and a one-sided beatdown on former foe Tyrell Biggs. Lennox added the Commonwealth title to his European and British belts when he stopped Derek Williams in the third round. For this victory he also won the prestigious Lonsdale Belt with a third victory for the British title.
The Lion, as Lennox was known, had positioned himself in the top rankings of all the governing bodies and his promoters were busy working behind the scenes to try and procure a world title challenge. After finishing off Mike Dixon in four rounds in Atlantic City, the WBC sanctioned the winner of the Holyfield-Bowe title fight must face the winner of Lewis’ next opponent, the dangerous Razor Ruddock. This was the same man who gave Lennox a sobering experience in the amateur ranks and who had given Mike Tyson a great deal of trouble in their two bouts the year previous. It was expected the strongman Ruddock would quite easily dispatch of Lennox, despite the bout being held in Lennox’s home-town. Notwithstanding Ruddock’s confident mien, many years had passed since their last match-up and the Lewis facing him on this night had matured into his body and added a wicked right hand to follow up on those long rapid jabs. The contest was over in two awe-inspiring rounds, Ruddock having been felled on three occasions before the referee came to his rescue. It was an incredible showing from Lennox who had finally arrived on the big stage with this warning of intent for all other heavyweights to behold. Adding to the spectacle was my dad who had wagered thirty pounds on a second round stoppage at odds of fifty to one! It was his third big collect after the Williams and McCrory contests!
Beating Ruddock became a bittersweet pill for Lennox. Riddick Bowe had beaten Holyfield in a classic, yet negotiations for a dream match-up between the 1988 Olympic rivals failed to materialize. The boxing world is a poorer place for not being able to witness these two meeting in the squared circle, as at the time they were undoubtedly the two finest heavies in the world. Evenly matched in size and records, opinion was divided on who would be victorious. Bowe claimed Lewis wanted too much of a percentage of the purse as a challenger, Lennox claimed Bowe was afraid of him after their previous fight. Personally, I thought Lewis would have prevailed as Riddick could be cowed when up against opponents as big as him. The disappointment of not fighting Riddick for the world title was offset by the WBC awarding the title to Lennox after Bowe had ungraciously tossed the belt into a trashcan. There was a certain sense of animosity from the boxing fraternity in the U.S. for Lewis being announced as a world champion as he hadn’t done so with deeds performed in the ring. It may have had some merit but closer examination may reveal the resentment as America was relinquishing control of a title that had almost been monopolized by American fighters. Given Lennox was in the prime years of his career, it was likely he would prohibit the ascension of any national to the top table, not just Americans.
Lewis made three defenses of his title against previous world champion Tony Tucker, Frank Bruno and Phil Jackson. Surprisingly, the most difficult bout of the three was the Bruno contest in Cardiff. The limited peoples’ champion Bruno may have had the majority of Britain’s fight fans behind him but the reality was he wasn’t in the same class as Lewis. The wretched weather conditions at the open air venue played havoc with the scheduling and when the bout was brought forward, Lennox had to be roused from his pre-fight sleep. It would partially explain his sluggish start to the fight in addition to Bruno feeding of the crowd’s fervour. Order was restored in the seventh when Lewis finally tagged Bruno with vicious right uppercuts forcing the referee to stop the fight.
A supposedly routine fourth defense of his title at the end of 1994 would suddenly bring Lennox’s world crashing down. In spite of his unblemished record, Lewis had up until this time been rather neglectful of his fantastic skill-set. Aside from the Mason bout when he used his incredible reach to punish his foe with the jab, he had resorted to headhunting with his huge right cross and uppercut. Having the brash trainer Pepe Correa in his corner was more of a hindrance than a help and the contest versus Oliver McCall would prove his undoing. That McCall was smaller and not as skilled was compensated for by having something Lennox didn’t have – an astute cornerman. Emanuel Steward prepared Oliver with great sparring partners and to react to the inevitable big rights Lennox would throw by timing a big right of his own. If he landed, simple mechanics would do the rest. The first round almost saw McCall pull it off yet the caveat was ignored with Correa yelling between rounds for Lennox to throw the vaunted haymaker. Unfortunately he did throw it, missed and walked straight on to a peach of a right himself! Getting up at the count of six did not help Lennox as the referee deemed him unfit to continue. There were malodorous utterings from the Lewis camp of a Don King inspired fix to get the Mexican referee to aid McCall but in all fairness the victory was valorously won in the ring. His reign may have been over but there was to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
The crushing defeat led to a splintering of Lennox’s corner team. Correa was released and the hunt was on for a trainer who could rebuild the confidence of the former champion. The man they turned to was the engineer of his loss, Detroit’s very own Emanuel Steward. Having worked with a who’s who of boxing greats including a number of top heavyweights, his appointment would go down as a masterstroke. His initial prognosis for Lennox was to develop his footwork and balance and use a weapon he had neglected for so long – the jab. With an eighty-four inch reach at his disposal, effective use of the jab would demoralize most foes in the ring especially if the powerful right came blasting in after it.
Their first bout together saw Lennox pitted against fringe contender Lionel Butler. Another small heavy in the same mould as McCall, Lennox looked almost cautious before stopping Butler in the fifth. October of 1995 saw Lennox paired with the big punching Tommy Morrison for the lightly regarded IBC title. Many were of the view stateside that Morrison would prove to be too much for the Brit but what ensued was a six-round masterclass of punishment before Mills Lane rightly determined “The Duke” had had enough.
His next fight would prove to be one of the stiffest challenges of his entire career against Ray Mercer, the former marine. This pugnacious, teak-tough adversary fought tooth and nail with Lennox for the full ten rounds and it was only Lennox’s greater work in the last two rounds that gave him the majority decision. The decision could have gone either way to be fair but what it did do was give Lennox added confidence that he could mix it up with the tough men. His four fight winning streak was rewarded with a return with Oliver McCall in February 1997 for the vacant WBC belt. The thirty-month gap between fights hadn’t been kind to McCall with accusations of drug use and mental eccentricities. That the fight took place was really a farce, as surely some of the many medical personnel present would have noted McCall’s bizarre behavior? What followed were five rounds of bemusing inaction with Lennox dominating but being unsure as to what his opponent was up to. Was it a ruse to catch him out again? He needn’t delve too deeply into his fight plan. McCall was suffering a very public mental breakdown and between rounds walked the ring sobbing. The sight of fabled trainer George Benton’s total look of bewilderment and embarrassment was my lasting memory of this sorry affair. Lennox had reclaimed his title but yet again events had conspired to take the gloss of his achievement in becoming world champion!
His two bouts to see out the end of 1997 were a five-round disqualification of the frightened Henry Akinwande and a one-round demolition job of the Pole, Andrew Golota. Again Lennox’s detractors forecast dire consequences for the Brit. This was the same Golota who had just fought twice with Riddick Bowe and essentially beat him up on both occasions only to inexplicably lose the plot and continue to foul, leading to two disqualifications. That he’d so comfortably dealt with Bowe lead many so-called experts to predict a stoppage of Lennox. Lennox outbullied the bully and issued forth a thunderous stream of big bombs that left the Eastern European counted out in the safety of the referees clutches. The doubters were starting to come round to the idea that maybe this six-foot-five goliath with the agility of a middleweight was the best of his era. Two successful defenses the following year against Shannon Briggs and Zeljko Mavrovic set up a blockbuster unification clash with the resurgent Evander Holyfield. It must be noted Briggs had some success getting through to Lewis during their five rounds and appeared to stun him on more than one occasion before order was restored. The Mavrovic bout in my opinion was a lot closer than the judges declared. That he never fought again after his only loss is a mystery as he would have been a live contender against any of the heavyweights campaigning at the time.
The stage was set for the Lion to face off with the Real Deal in Las Vegas in March 1999 with the winner taking all the recognized belts and the lineal award. The Vegas bookmakers slightly favored Holyfield but the twelve rounds saw the younger, bigger Brit thoroughly dominate and unify the titles. However, this didn’t pan out as the action decreed it should do so. In as an inept a display of judging up until the recent Mayweather-Canelo bout, one judge (British) scored it even and one scored it to Evander by two rounds! A draw was declared to the astonishment of those at ringside and the millions viewing worldwide. Whilst on paper Lewis didn’t emerge with a victory, it convinced the American boxing public that he was indeed the greatest heavyweight and some of the luminaries of the boxing landscape attested to this. The inevitable rematch took place with a unanimous decision for Lennox to become the undisputed champion but this contest was even closer than the first and if this was declared a draw it wouldn’t have created the furore the first bout caused. Nevertheless, Lennox “The Lion” Lewis was now the undisputed champion of the world and no belts in trashcans or mental disintegrations could impugn his ascension to the meridian of his craft.
Straightforward victories over Michael Grant, Frans Botha and David Tua were followed by a mundane defense against lightly regarded Hasim Rahman. Lennox terribly underestimated and showed a lack of respect for his opponent. Filming fight scenes for a Hollywood film gave him only ten days to prepare in South Africa for a fight at considerable altitude. I vividly recall manager Frank Maloney distressed at ringside prior to the action, lacking his usual confidence. When Lennox entered the ring looking bloated and out of shape the portent of an upset reared its ugly head. Though ahead on all cards a lackluster Lewis bounced back off the ropes and onto a big right hand. The lights went out and his titles were once more lost to an American. Fortunately for him an immediate rematch was ordered and a focused, fit and vengeful Lewis exacted retribution upon the unfortunate Baltimore native.
Lennox’s penultimate fight was against the once “baddest man on the planet” Mike Tyson. Unsavory press conferences ending in the two fighting in a studio created an air of volatility that was exacerbated by the ring being divided in half to prevent the combatants fighting before the first bell sounded. In truth, Tyson was a shell of the previous ferocious athlete. The fight was at least a decade late from being competitive. Mike had always struggled against big men who were not afraid of him and were quick-witted even in his prime, guys like Bonecrusher Smith and James Tillis attest to this. That he had slowed down considerably from his pomp and no longer exhibited his head movement was only going to lead to one conclusion and that was a savage and prolonged beating. Steward thought that Lewis could have easily finished him earlier but Lennox, smarting from the previous bad blood had decided upon a course of action that would finally put to rest the supposed “badness” of Iron Mike Tyson. Maybe it was Mike’s bad intent throughout their sparring sessions nearly two decades previously, maybe it was Mike’s refusal to allow Lennox a title shot in the nineties (although he was compensated amply) or maybe it was the fracas in the build-up but Lennox displayed a new side to his persona that night, one that Steward intimated had always been there – nastiness!
The last contest in this warrior’s career is now ten years past and to me it still seems so fresh in the memory. I was in L.A. and was quoted an astronomical fee for a seat in the clouds. I passed it up not thinking it would be his swansong much to my chagrin. His opponent, Vitali Klitschko, though boasting an impressive resume was regarded as mentally weak due to a retirement loss when handily leading an outgunned Chris Byrd. This shoulder injury plagued his obvious credentials in the media and thankfully his resolve shown during the Lewis fight and subsequent career have educated the world of the attributes of this wonderful fighter. As I sat down in my motel near the airport I was dismayed when I saw Lennox enter the ring. He looked too heavy and for all intents and purposes it looked like a carbon copy of the Rahman fight in South Africa. Admittedly the champion was nearly thirty eight years of age and getting into top shape was getting more demanding, yet the man in front of him was the number one contender with a tremendous knockout percentage. This presumptuous attitude enabled the Ukrainian to build an early lead with his better workrate, which on several instances appeared to buzz Lennox, so much so that he appeared in deep trouble and forced to hang on. Lennox’s saving grace in this bout was his refusal to submit to his younger foe and revert to the bad old days of headhunting as his physical condition was certainly a detriment. Lennox opened up huge gashes around Vitali’s eyes and the doctors determined they were so severe the contest was halted before the seventh stanza. Lennox retained his title. Lennox bristled at the interview afterwards in the ring, suggesting he would eventually have taken Vitali out as there were another six rounds to navigate. It did appear Lennox’s huge barrage was getting to the Ukrainian, especially as eye damage was hindering his vision. However, even an ardent Lewis fan like myself could really see the bigger picture. Yes, Lennox could carry on and beat up on a few more average contenders but he had had trouble in the past getting himself up for these contests. The top predators in the mix would be a different kettle of fish and Vitali had shown what lay in store if he ventured down that path!
So it was in February 2004, Britain’s greatest heavyweight and arguably its finest fighter ever announced to the world he was retiring from this hard business. Along with Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano, he is the only heavyweight champion to retire with no unavenged defeats. His record reads forty-one victories, one draw and two losses with thirty-two of those victories coming by the short route. He defeated every man he ever faced in the ring, avenging the two losses with one bizarre and one dominant riposte. His amateur career saw him reach the pinnacle with an Olympic gold. He fought every top-ranked boxer of his generation.
What has always vexed me is his standing amongst the all-time greats when opinions are expressed. Some detractors noted his style was boring. Really? He had a seventy-two percent knockout statistic. He fought and beat the two best heavyweights of his era, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. Yes, they were both well past their prime when matched with Lennox but circumstances dictated they wouldn’t fight earlier. Evander lost to Bowe when the heavyweight mini-tournament decreed the winner face the Lewis-Ruddock victor. There was no reason for Lennox and Evander to fight each other unless there was a title on the line. Tyson had the chance to defend his title in the nineties but opted out by paying Lewis off. The only blip on his incredible career is the lack of a defining fight to truly cement his legacy. That would have eventuated if Bowe had chosen to fight him. Perhaps his humbling in the 1988 Olympic final had a bearing on his refusal to face Lennox, despite his defamatory remarks. Even Bowe’s legendary trainer, Eddie Futch, conceded he felt Lennox was just too good for his charge and that was why the match was never allowed to proceed. I know there are some writers on Boxing.com who lament the modern-day behemoths holding the heavyweight belts. Evolution of humans will continue to see size increase. In fifty years from now Wladimir and Vitali will appear small by comparison with the 2060 world champion. Lennox was the first real big man who had great speed, skill and knockout power. When he threw that huge right hand after softening up opponents with the jab it was an awesome sight.
The hypothetical lists numbering the greatest in a division appears to be the recognized benchmark of a fighter’s place in history. The surprise is many don’t place Lennox amongst the truly elite. You can discount anyone before Ali as too small to bother Lennox. A focused Lewis would shade most every heavy in history. His hardest challenges in my opinion would have been Larry Holmes and Wladimir Klitschko as both had/have fantastic jabs. Ali would have been a great fight but I feel he may have been a little on the small side and his quick combinations wouldn’t get near Lennox with his huge reach. One man you wouldn’t want to play rope-a-dope with would be Lewis. Given an invitation to tee off would be a brutal stoppage of The Greatest.
It’s been ten years since this top three heavyweight of all time hung up his gloves. He left some indelible memories and was a flag-bearer for boxers from other countries to wrest the title from American domination. He retired in good health and has always conducted himself like a champion in and out of the ring. The greatest British heavyweight by a country mile and just perhaps, the greatest ever, Lennox “The Lion” Lewis.