Throughout the twentieth century, the image of the British heavyweight was frowned upon. “Horizontal” was the word used to define the failure to capture boxing’s richest prize. Good fighters such as Tommy Farr, Don Cockell, Brian London, Henry Cooper, Joe Bugner, Richard Dunn and Frank Bruno had all fallen in their respective challenges for the world heavyweight championship. But things started to change as the new millennium approached. Starting in the early nineties, one man, possessing great athleticism, a fight ending right hand and, more importantly, a winning and highly competitive mentality, changed the face of things forever.
Lennox Claudius Lewis was welcomed in to the world on 2nd September 1965. The second child of mum Violet, he never had much to do with his father who was already married with another family. Violet had come to Britain from Jamaica in 1956, setting up home in London’s East End. But times were hard and, after trying to set up a better life for her family in America, Canada became the next choice. Lewis was already big for his age and was highly mischievous with it. He was expelled from one school, aged just six, for fighting, with the headmaster saying it was for the protection of the other children! The fighting spirit was revealing itself very early. The first time he went to Canada it was for a short period as his mother was struggling to pay his school fees. He came back to England but returned to Canada, aged twelve, when Violet had gained regular work and an apartment for her young son.
Lewis was a natural athlete, excelling at basketball, Canadian football and soccer. But it was boxing that became his calling when one of his teachers suggested that he needed to channel his aggression after he had found himself fighting again, retaliating after other students had mocked his cockney accent.
It was at the Waterloo Regional Police Boxing Association Gym that he met a man who would become more than just a coach. Arnie Boehm became the father figure the young Lewis needed in his life. He instantly noticed Lewis natural ability and took to molding the young fighter in to an outstanding amateur. Lewis list of titles and accomplishments included winning the world junior championship in 1983. He represented Canada at the Los Angeles Olympic games of 1984 but, aged just eighteen, he lost a decision at the quarter-final stage to eventual gold medalist Tyrell Biggs. He won gold at the 1986 Commonwealth games before having a second chance at Olympic success. He made his way in to the super heavyweight final of the 1988 Seoul games, meeting USA hope, and future heavyweight champion, Riddick Bowe. This time he would not be denied, overpowering Bowe for a second round win, achieving his Olympic dream. But now he had become one of the hottest fighters in boxing and the battle for his signature was red hot. All sorts of figures and plans were dangled in front of him, but one thing he realised was that for him to maximize his progression, and profile, he would have to leave Canada. Knowing how passionate and knowledgeable British fight fans were, played a huge and significant part in where he wanted to be based. He wanted his journey to the heavyweight title to start where it had all began for him. With that in mind, he returned home.
But Lewis decision was met with cynicism by a few. They argued that it was a move of convenience, that it would fast track his progress where he would struggle in Canada. He even spoke in a mixed accent. But the reality was, he was just a child when he moved countries, and no child can make a decision on where to live. Yes, there was some truth in why he came back, and he would always consider Canada as home too, and rightly so, but he wanted to represent the country of his birth, to be the one who would create history as being the first British born heavyweight champion of the twentieth century.
Lewis surprised many by signing with promoter Frank Maloney. Maloney had been looking for a way to break in to the big time, having promoted mostly on the small hall circuit. A decent amateur in his time, he had worked as a trainer for Frank Warren and matchmaker for Mickey Duff, the two biggest promoters on this side of the pond. But now, with the backing of The Levitt Group, he had announced himself on the big stage with the signing of Lewis. But where this contract was different from most was that Lewis was in control. He would approve his team and he had a say on future opponents and options. Team Lewis then started to be assembled. John Davenport, relatively unknown but a hard disciplinarian, was installed, against Maloney’s wishes, as head trainer, Courtney Shand, a schoolboy friend of Lewis, was brought in to be responsible for strength and conditioning, and ex-super featherweight contender Harold Knight was added as assistant trainer. It was time to start the journey.
Midlands area champion Al Malcolm would be the first opponent to get the ball rolling. On 27th June 1989, Lewis entered the ring for the first time as a professional, scoring a second round knockout. Fighting regularly, he went through the usual journeymen type, stopping nine of his next ten with only Melvin Epps disrupting the streak, being disqualified in two before he would have invariably joined the list. In fight number twelve though, Lewis was extended the distance by veteran Ossie Ocasio. Ocasio was a former cruiserweight champ who had been stopped by Larry Holmes in a bid for his WBC crown. Now he was just getting by looking for a payday. But he knew how to survive and taught Lewis invaluable experience during their eight rounder. Mike Acey was swept aside in four in a warm up for Lewis first title opportunity.
Collecting The Belts
Jean-Maurice Chanet had shocked Derek Williams to rip away his European crown, then repeated the trick in a rematch. The Frenchman was stocky, with a lumbering style and, in fairness, Williams should have beaten him comfortably both times. But Chanet had taken advantage of Williams lackadaisical approach and was now in position for his biggest payday and opportunity, defending against the rising Lewis.
To no ones surprise, Lewis dominated the Frenchman, stopping him in six one-sided rounds to win his first title. But problems arose behind the scenes when The Levitt Group were placed in to administration. It was a worrying time until Panos Elidias, who dealt with companies in this position, stepped in and took over Lewis contract with Panix Promotions. With normal service resumed, Lewis set his sights on the British title, held by the unbeaten Gary Mason. Mason was part of the Terry Lawless stable and had been steered in to a WBC top ten world ranking despite never having faced a world rated contender. He was a strong, but plodding type, and knew a win over Lewis would see him taken serious at world level.
Lewis had shown a ruthless side to his personality in preparation for this fight. Mason had had surgery to repair a detached retina in his right eye. Exploiting this weakness, Lewis and his team had put tape on his sparring partners headguards, just above that spot. Hours of sparring, focusing on that area, were about to pay off. For six rounds, Mason gave Lewis his hardest fight to date. But the damage around Mason’s eye was becoming increasingly worse. With Mason under fire, the referee stepped in during round seven. Lewis now had two titles to his name.
Former WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver was the victim of a one punch knockout in round six, in Lewis next fight. It had been a cagey performance up until the finish, with Lewis cautious of the veteran’s power and experience. A quick defence of his titles saw him brush aside former IBF cruiserweight champ Glenn McCrory in two, before moving on to a chance of revenge against the man who had ended his 1984 Olympic dream, Tyrell Biggs.
Making A Statement
Biggs had failed to live up to his amateur promise, being hammered in seven by Mike Tyson in his only title shot. Since then he had taken on the role of a “name” opponent. But he had proven troublesome for Lewis rival, the up and coming Riddick Bowe, rocking the young fighter, before being stopped in the eighth. Lewis now had a double incentive, revenge and a chance to put one over on Bowe. On the undercard of Evander Holyfield’s defence of the undisputed heavyweight championship against Bert Cooper, Lewis delivered his most impressive performance to date, blowing Biggs away inside of three rounds. He dominated the first two rounds before flooring Biggs three times with big right hands. When Holyfield struggled with Cooper in the main event, many wondered how he would stand up to Lewis power, especially after Cooper inflicted the first count of his professional career.
But then, in his next fight, Lewis lost some of his lustre when extended by durable fringe contender Levi Billups. Billups had never been stopped but had made Lewis appear quite ordinary throughout. There had been rumblings throughout his camp that he had become unhappy with Davenport. Davenport’s surliness had certainly not helped his cause, but Lewis had seemed to stop progressing. For a man who was naturally athletic, he had been looking flat footed and predictable, sometimes even clumsy. A change was needed and Pepe Correa was thought to be the man to help develop him. It was a decision that would come back to haunt him.
Lewis continued his domestic clean up when he knocked out Derek Williams in three to add the Commonwealth title to his growing collection. It was then announced that Lewis would take part in a four man tournament to establish who was the best heavyweight in the world. Holyfield would defend his titles against Bowe, whilst Lewis would fight the man considered the most dangerous in the division, Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, to determine the number one contender for the winner.
Horizontal No More
The fight was set for 31st October 1992, with Holyfield v Bowe scheduled to follow on 13th November. Lewis warmed up with a four round win over Mike Dixon before starting his preparations. Ruddock had built his reputation with knockouts of former heavyweight titlists James “Bonecrusher” Smith and Michael Dokes. The Dokes knockout was extremely brutal and testament to the power he carried, and he had further enhanced his standing in two battles with former champ Mike Tyson. Ruddock was floored twice in the first fight, before being stopped controversially in the seventh, and then lost the rematch on points after again suffering two trips to the canvas. But in between, he had given a strong account of himself, particularly in the first fight when, in round six, he stunned Tyson with shots that would have finished many. Tyson himself described Ruddock’s power as “like a kick from a mule”, or words to that effect! But Ruddock had become enamoured with his hybrid left hook cum uppercut punch, making him appear a little one handed as he loaded up and looked for a home run shot. Nevertheless, if it landed, it had goodnight written all over it.
When the two came together in the ring for the referees final instructions at London’s Earls Court, Ruddock smirked at Lewis and said “We meet again”. The pair had sparred in Lewis amateur days, and the story went that Ruddock opted out when things got a little rough for him. Lewis remembered that vividly, giving him a huge psychological edge. He was as cool as could be.
It took just under two rounds for Lewis to wipe away the stigma of British heavyweights. He had bossed the first round before a thumping right hand caught Ruddock high on the head. Ruddock looked like someone had pulled a rug out from underneath him as he fell hard on his side. The crowd roared in astonishment as the man many viewed as a champion in waiting looked as though he wouldn’t survive the first round. But survive he did, though it was just a stay of execution. At the start of the second, Lewis moved in, drilling Ruddock with a right hands to send him down again. He dragged himself up, but Lewis went for the finish. A combination sent Ruddock face first to the canvas as the arena erupted in jubilation. Lewis had arrived and in blistering fashion.
Now it was over to Holyfield and Bowe. Lewis was hoping for a Holyfield win, having doubt’s that Bowe would honour the agreement. He sat ringside as the pair produced one of the greatest fights in heavyweight history. After twelve rounds, the bigger and younger Bowe took the title by unanimous decision. After Lewis and Bowe engaged in a verbal altercation as the new champ left the ring, it appeared that a new and exciting rivalry had been born. But, as we know, appearances can be deceiving.
By the middle of December, Bowe had decided that he would not be dictated to by the WBC and staged a show of him dumping the green belt in to a bin. The WBC awarded the title to Lewis on the strength of his win over Ruddock, and he joined Ken Norton as the only fighters to hold a piece of the heavyweight crown under these circumstances (Norton having beaten Jimmy Young and champion Leon Spinks opting to fight Muhammad Ali in a rematch). But it didn’t matter. Lewis had become the first British born heavyweight champion of the century. He now wanted to earn the respect of a champion and pressure Bowe in to a fight the boxing world wanted to see.
First up was number one contender Tony Tucker. Tucker had been IBF champion briefly back in 1987, before being outpointed by Tyson in the final fight of Don King’s unification tournament. He had given a good performance and it remained his only loss in forty nine fights. But that was six years previously and he wasn’t quite the same fighter now. Lewis was expected to deliver an impressive performance.
A unanimous twelve round decision went Lewis way. But the fight was met with mixed reviews. He had managed to floor Tucker twice, the first man to do so as a professional, but he had appeared amateurish at times, missing with big shots and losing his balance. If he was going to convince the public he was for real then he needed to dominate like a champion.
Battle Of Britain
Frank Bruno was a huge fan favourite who had fallen short twice in previous shots at the heavyweight title. A stiff puncher, he was, unfairly, labelled chinny when his stamina seemed to be more of his weakness. All three of his defeats had come inside the distance, but in each he had extended or hurt the protagonists. He had stopped all but one opponent in his thirty six wins but, in truth, he had been matched cautiously. But under the tutelage of George Francis, he had become a more relaxed fighter, showing a lot more of the ability that he possessed.
It was the first time in history that two British fighters had ever contested the heavyweight crown and the build up included unsavory comments from both, focusing on Lewis nationality, again, and Bruno’s pantomime career. It all added needle to an intriguing match up.
If the experts were already taking potshots at Lewis, then they had a field day after this performance. He struggled from the start, as Bruno outjabbed him and put combinations together, looking completely at ease. A big right from Bruno in round three rocked Lewis back on his heels as the crowd got behind the challenger. After six rounds, Bruno was ahead on the cards. But there was always the danger lurking that the power of Lewis could end things at any given moment. And that was exactly what happened in the seventh when Bruno was caught by a sweeping left hook. Lewis went for the finish as Bruno, eyes glazed, stumbled, desperately trying to survive. But it was not to be. Lewis backed Bruno to the ropes and landed a crunching right hand that forced the referee to rescue the beaten challenger.
Lewis had retained his title but there was no doubt that under Correa he wasn’t showing any signs of improvement. There was unrest in the camp, with Correa being exposed as lacking the technical and strategic nuance Lewis needed, and being viewed as more of a cheerleader. But they continued to push forward together.
Talk switched to a unification with WBO champion Tommy Morrison. Morrison was a powerful puncher, and supposed nephew of the famed actor John Wayne, whose only loss had been a brutal fifth round knockout to Ray Mercer in his first shot at this title. But before he could sign for the fight, he was blasted out in one round by Michael Bentt in a huge upset, losing his title. Then, after goading and doing everything he could to make the fight with Riddick Bowe, Bowe lost his titles when Evander Holyfield turned the tables, winning a twelve round decision. Holyfield had to meet his mandatory in Michael Moorer, so Lewis next defended against Phil Jackson, comfortably dispatching him in eight rounds. When Moorer outpointed Holyfield for the WBA/IBF titles, hopes of a unification faded fast. Lewis turned to his number one contender. It was a fight that would change his career.
The First Loss, But The Right Trainer
Oliver McCall could quite rightly be described as an unpredictable and erratic sort. Or sandwich short of a picnic if you prefer. But he was as tough as they come. He had made his reputation as a sparring partner for Mike Tyson, absorbing his best and dishing out plenty in return. However, his in-ring performances could be inconsistent. All of his five losses had been on points and he had never been knocked off of his feet. There was no doubt that his promoter Don King, and his connection to the WBC, were responsible for McCall’s mandatory positioning. It was figured that Lewis would have too much ability for McCall and that attitude was prevalent throughout his training camp. Lewis had already planned to get rid of Correa after this fight, well aware that he needed someone he would truly listen too.
McCall had brought in the esteemed Kronk guru Emanual Steward to help fine tune things. Steward was a huge admirer of Lewis, but even he had commented on how much Lewis had looked poor and was not using his natural talents. Little did he know how huge his influence on this fight would be for both men.
Steward had observed that when Lewis threw his right he almost bowled it over, leaving him leaning too much to his left, and straight in to the path of an oncoming right. It was a simple move, but McCall rehearsed it time and time again. And after a quiet first round, McCall executed it to perfection in round two, dropping Lewis heavily and cutting his lip. Lewis pulled himself up but as the referee observed him, his legs buckled. The fight was waved off. It had taken just one punch and his title was gone.
There was debate at first, with Lewis arguing that as champion he should have had the benefit of continuing. Then it was claimed it was a lucky punch, as McCall had his eyes closed when it landed. But Steward dismissed this, putting it down to a well drilled reflex reaction. Either way, there was a new champ, and now Lewis had some serious rebuilding to do.
Correa was dismissed as expected and in came the man who had plotted Lewis downfall. Steward had tried to sign Lewis after the ’88 Olympics and constantly maintained his admiration for him. Now he could mold him in to the fighter he believed he could become. The pair gelled instantly, and Lewis loved the training and competitive nature of the Detroit based cauldron. Steward’s incredible, but simple, attention to detail would be crucial as Lewis rebuilt. He wanted him to use his natural athletic ability, where he had become flat footed and robotic. When he threw the right hand, he would follow up with a left hook, pulling him back on balance. His jab would become a thumping, dominant weapon, not the poking, prodding one that had previously been in place. They would work on his inside game, developing a humdinger of an uppercut. But in a classic psychological move, Steward replaced Lewis black boots with white ones, the colour giving the image of being lighter on his toes. Lewis would shadow box and spar with his hands sometimes down, helping him to rely on his speed and reflexes. Over time, this training would develop a very special fighter.
It was time to mount an assault to regain his title. Team Lewis lobbied for an immediate rematch, but as McCall had been a mandatory, he was permitted time to have voluntary defences. Lewis was matched with Lionel Butler, a hard puncher who had been on a good run of form, in an eliminator for McCall. McCall barely squeezed by aging former champion Larry Holmes in his first defence and it looked like his reign could very well be a short one. Lewis stopped Butler in five, before keeping busy stopping Justin Fortune in four. His fight with Tommy Morrison was arranged again, now a battle of ex-champions. Morrison had raised his stock again with a spectacular sixth round knockout of Razor Ruddock and was confident he could do the same to Lewis. But the reality was very different. Lewis produced a brilliant performance, flooring Morrison four times and stopping him in six.
McCall returned to England to put his title on the line against Bruno. The winner was ordered to defend against Lewis. McCall was the pre-fight favourite but Bruno produced the best performance of his career to outpoint the passive American. With Bruno now holding the WBC title, things looked to be straightforward. That was until Mike Tyson was released from jail and installed as the number one contender. King’s cosy relationship with the WBC had favoured one of his own fighters again. With a career high purse dangling in front of him, Bruno chose to defend against former champ Tyson leaving Lewis out in the cold.
While the battle for Lewis case went on in courts, Lewis went in with former WBO titlist “Merciless” Ray Mercer. Mercer had won Olympic gold at heavyweight back in the same Olympics as Lewis, winning all of his fights by stoppage. He had started promisingly as a professional, knocking out Francesco Damiani and Morrison, before dropping a decision to Larry Holmes. He then blew a shot at Riddick Bowe by dropping a decision to Jesse Ferguson, where he was accused of bribing Ferguson to throw the fight, later aqquited. But he had redeemed himself in his previous fight, rising from the first knockdown of his career, to push Evander Holyfield all the way, though losing a ten round decision. Those were his only losses in a record of 23-3-1, 16 ko’s. Even at thirty five, he was one of the toughest fighters out there.
There are moments in a fighter’s career when, faced with a gut check, he answers questions about himself, and then he moves forwards, knowing that he will always have that bit extra inside when needed. For Lewis, Mercer was that man who erased any lingering doubt’s about whether he could come through a crisis and be victorious.
From the first bell, in a small ring, Lewis was forced in to a bruising encounter. Both possessed strong jabs and jarred each other throughout. At the end of ten gruelling rounds Lewis was awarded a majority decision. Both finished marked up, although Lewis looked the worse. But it was a fight that proved he was for real. Now it was time to finally get his title back.
The WBC title had changed hands once again when Tyson had demolished Bruno in three to regain his former crown. Lewis had threatened to sue the new champ unless he defended against him next. This put the proverbial spanner in Don King’s plans as he wanted Tyson to unify the belts, thus gaining control of the division. Tyson knocked out Bruce Seldon to regain the WBA title and promptly relinquished the WBC belt, opting to fight a supposedly ringworn Evander Holyfield in their long awaited showdown, a plan that backfired spectacularly when Holyfield hammered him to an eleventh round defeat. But now Lewis had the chance he craved, and a chance at revenge when he was matched against McCall for the vacant title.
For anyone to have a breakdown is truly sad. But to have one in front of millions of people watching worldwide is a tragedy in itself. And in one of the most bizarre moments in heavyweight history, that is exactly what happened to McCall.
Lewis came out full of concentration, working behind an authoritive jab. But midway through the third McCall stopped fighting. Backing up, it looked like he was goading Lewis in to making a mistake. Then in round four, his behaviour became even stranger. He kept walking around the ring, hands by his side, as Lewis went about his business in a professional manner. Referee Mills Lane asked him if he wanted to fight. McCall shook and nodded his head in unison. At the end of the round, as the crowd booed the lack of action, McCall refused to sit in his corner, wandering around the ring, sobbing uncontrollably. As he had done this previously to fire himself up before fights, many were unsure if this was the same emotion. He started the fifth a little more positively, until a big uppercut from Lewis knocked him back. He reverted to form and this time the right was stopped. It was a far from ideal showing, but Lewis was champion once again.
He stepped in with fellow Brit Henry Akinwande next. Akinwande was a former WBO titlist, and had relinquished that belt for a shot at Lewis. Unbeaten in thirty three fights (including one draw), he figured to give Lewis an interesting evening. As it turned it, the busiest man in the ring was referee Mills Lane who spent his time pulling Akinwande off of Lewis, constantly warning him for holding until disqualifying him in round five. So two fights, back to back, had seen frustrating nights for Lewis. Next time out though, his performance would push his stock to the highest level.
Poland’s Andrew Golota was regarded as one of the toughest contenders in the division, although also a loose cannon. He had lost twice in thirty fights, both by disqualification, both to Riddick Bowe, and both in the most bizarre of circumstances.
In fight number one, Golota was getting the better of Bowe, but persistent low blows saw points deducted before Golota was thrown out in round seven. There followed ugly scenes as members of both camps and fans rioted in Madison Square Garden. A rematch was arranged, and this time Golota fought even better, flooring Bowe twice before, incredibly, being disqualified AGAIN for low blows in round eight. Both fights took so much out of Bowe that he was never the same fighter and retired.
Based on those performances, Lewis knew that a convincing win would add even more weight to his standing in the division. But no one could envision such an explosive, short and dominating statement from the champion. At the sound of the bell, Lewis went straight at Golota, taking the centre of the ring. Lewis looked sharp, and with just a minute gone, a big right hand stunned Golota. As Golota backed up, Lewis uncorked a combination that sent Golota to the canvas. As the crowd went wild, Golota struggled to get his legs underneath him. He assured the ref he was ok to continue, but it didn’t take Lewis long to finish the job, sending Golota down once more. This time it was stopped. Lewis pounded his chest as adrenaline pumped through his huge frame. He had made a gargantuan statement about who the best heavyweight in the world was.
Shannon Briggs had won a close decision over George Foreman to claim the “lineal” title (the man who beat the man, etc), and was lined up next. A colorful character, he had lost only once in thirty one fights when he suffered an asthma attack and was stopped in three by Darnell Wilson. He had rebounded well though, and the win over Foreman set up his first shot at a major title.
And he certainly had his moments in a rock and sock ’em brawl when he staggered Lewis in the first round before hurting him again in the second. But Lewis showed his grit and class, flooring Briggs twice each in the fourth and fifth rounds before it was stopped. European champion Zeljko Mavrovic proved to be made of sterner stuff though, taking Lewis the distance before losing a unanimous decision.
But now the time had come for a fight that Lewis had been waiting seven long years for. It had taken lots of negotiations, but now he finally had the chance to face the WBA and IBF heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield to find out who was the best heavyweight on the planet.
Modern great Holyfield had been looking to unify the titles since he first regained the WBA and IBF belts against Riddick Bowe back in ’93. He lost them in his first defence to Michael Moorer before becoming only the second three-time heavyweight champion in history, when he reclaimed the WBA version, after being viewed as washed up, by hammering long term rival Mike Tyson in eleven. After defending against Tyson in the infamous ear biting incident, he regained the IBF title, and revenge, when he floored Moorer five times in their rematch, stopping him in eight. Keen to hold on to titles, he outpointed mandatory contender Vaughn Bean, to clear the path for Lewis.
It was viewed as an even match up, although Holyfield, even at thirty seven, was the bookies favourite. On 3rd March 1999 at Madison Square Garden, the pair finally came together. Neither seemed eager to commit over the first two rounds, but in the third Holyfield went for the finish. He had boldly claimed that he would knock out Lewis in three, now was his chance to back that prediction up. Lewis was under heavy pressure as Holyfield looked for the golden punch. But he couldn’t find it and in round five it was his turn to survive as Lewis hurt him with a succession of right hands. But Lewis was too cautious, perhaps over respectful of Holyfield, to move in for the finish, and the moment passed. Lewis kept things at range, but neither man was really putting their stamp on the fight. Nevertheless, after twelve rounds, the crowd waited for the expected announcement that Lewis had won a unanimous points win. Instead the stench of robbery was left in the air when the fight was unbelievably declared a draw. Boo’s rang around the arena as Lewis was denied what should have been rightfully his. The media went in to outrage with front page coverage mocking the decision. The organisations did the only the thing they could. An immediate rematch was ordered.
Undisputed Champion..At Last
Eight months after the first fight, the pair came together again. And this time both put it all on the line. Lewis took the early rounds, utilising his height and reach to keep the smaller man on the end of his shots. But no fight with Holyfield is easy. The dual titlist started to get through in round six, and in round seven he wobbled Lewis twice with big left hooks.Lewis showed tremendous durability to take these punches and fire back under pressure. From there the fight swung back and forth until the final bell. It was closer than the previous fight, but came down to a unanimous decision, all three judges favouring the big man from Great Britain. After a ten year journey, Lewis had finally achieved his goal. He was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
But boxing politics reared their ugly heads again when, in a continued wisdom known only to them, the WBA stripped Lewis of their title for not meeting number one contender, the undeserving John Ruiz. But it didn’t matter. Everyone knew who the real champion was.
Lewis returned to America for his first defence, taking on the unbeaten Michael Grant. In a ruthless display, Lewis floored Grant three times in the first round before flattening him in round two with a beautifully timed uppercut. A homecoming fight saw him blow away South African Frans Botha, also in two, before meeting IBF mandatory David Tua. The New Zealand native was a very heavy handed fighter, but at five feet ten inches tall, would be given away a huge advantage to Lewis. And so it proved as Lewis dominated his man, winning a wide unanimous decision.
Lewis was now deemed head and shoulders above the others in the division. The Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, were on the rise but not thought of being ready just yet, even though Wladimir held the WBO title, as once held by his brother. Lewis wanted a big money fight with Mike Tyson but Tyson got himself suspended, testing positive for drugs after his fight with Andrew Golota. So when an opportunity to fight in South Africa in arose, Lewis jumped at the chance. Hasim Rahman was picked in a voluntary defence. Rahman possessed a strong jab and right hand, but his two defeats had both been inside schedule. It was felt he wouldn’t cause too much of a problem. But with the big guys, all it takes is one punch.
Fail To Prepare, Prepare To Fail
Whilst Rahman went to South Africa early to acclimatise, Lewis was more interested in appearing in the heist film “Ocean’s Eleven”. His scene involved “a fight” against Wladimir Klitschko where the lights go off before the fight happens. With more focus on that, Lewis arrived in South Africa just under two weeks before the fight. When he weighed in at a then career heaviest of 246 1/2 lbs, it appeared he had taken this fight lightly.
Lewis lacked sharpness in the first, finding himself being outjabbed. He pulled it back in the second and third rounds but still looked flat. In the fourth, Rahman started finding the range with his right hand with Lewis being caught far too easily. But in round five Lewis paid for his lack of preparation, when Rahman backed him to ropes. Lewis smiled as he tried to move off, but he left himself open. Rahman’s right hand thudded on to Lewis unprotected jaw, sending him flat on his back to the canvas. Lewis was gone. And just like that, so was his title. It was one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.
Lewis acknowledged his mistakes and vowed to regain his title. But Rahman and Don King had other ideas. They wanted to make a voluntary defence first. But Lewis threatened court action unless they honoured the rematch clause in the contract. They relented and the fight was set for 17th November 2001, this time in Las Vegas. But the animosity between the pair boiled over when they were being interviewed on ESPN’s Up Close tv show, where words were exchanged before a wrestling match ensued.
When they met in the ring though, it was a very different Lewis. Looking leaner, he came out with a focus and determination missing from first time. He swept the first three rounds before bringing things to a sudden end in round four. A long left hook maneuvered Rahman in to the path of a dynamite right hand. The punch exploded on to the side of Rahman’s jaw, echoing around the arena like a gun shot. The crowd gasped as Rahman almost fell back in slow motion, out to the world. Only instinct pulled him up before he pitched on to his front again. Lewis pounded his chest in celebration. He had joined only Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield in becoming a three-time heavyweight champion. It was probably the most satisfying win of his career. Ring magazine voted the punch as their Knockout of the year. Now it was time for the fight he always craved.
Cementing His Legacy
The long awaited showdown with former champ “Iron” Mike Tyson was finally scheduled for 8th June 2002 at the Pyramid Arena in Tennessee. Tyson was the last big name left from Lewis era and, although he wasn’t the fighter he was from his glory years, he still carried massive name recognition, as well as the concussive power that had rendered forty four opponents unable to continue in a record of 49-3, 2 NC. This would be his final shot at world glory.
There had already been trouble at the announcement of the fight when a scuffle broke out between each team and Tyson bit Lewis on the leg. It was one of many infringements that Tyson had been in trouble for, and this one cost him $335,000. On fight night the two fighters were seperated by a diagonal line of security and each had their own ring announcer too.
Tyson took the first round on activity, even though Lewis got through with several hard shots. But from the second onwards, it was all Lewis. Lewis went to work with a stiff jab, setting up hard right crosses and a jarring uppercut, gradually breaking down the durable challenger. By the fifth Tyson was cut over both eyes, and it became a question of how much more he could take. In round eight though, Lewis finally broke through when a big left uppercut and straight right combo sent Tyson in to a squatting position. Referee Eddie Cotton issued a count but it was only a matter of time now. Lewis went for the finish, landing hard right hands on a rapidly fading Tyson. Then it came. One big right hand laid Tyson out flat on the canvas. It was all over.
It seemed the perfect way to walk in to the sunset, but the competitive spirit of Lewis wanted to keep fighting. He took a year out and vacated his IBF belt rather than face top contender Chris Byrd. Negotiations were held for a rematch with Tyson, with the winner set to face Vitali Klitschko. But an agreement couldn’t be made so a warm up defence against Kirk Johnson with Klitschko on the undercard, setting up a December clash with the former WBO titlist, was arranged. But when Johnson pulled out Lewis opted to fight Klitschko instead. So on 21st June 2003 Lewis stepped in to the ring for what would turn out to be the final time.
Father Time Comes Knocking
Now aged thirty seven, weighing a career heaviest 256 1/2 lbs, and out of the ring for a year, Lewis struggled to get his rhythm going. Klitschko used his height advantage well in the first, then had a dominating second when he constantly nailed Lewis with right hands, wobbling him on several occasions. The title changing hands was looking very probable. But Lewis called on his experience and Klitschko suffered a cut around his left eye as Lewis dragged himself back in to the fight. The pair slammed away at each other for the next two rounds, but by the sixth, Klitschko’s face was a mask of blood. He survived an almighty right uppercut that would have knocked out a lesser fighter. But at the end of the round, the doctor declared the cut eye was too bad to continue with and the fight was halted. It would require sixty stitches to close afterwards. Lewis had retained his title, but he had struggled.
There was talk of an inevitable rematch, but in February 2004, Lewis decided to call it a day, his legacy intact. His final record stood at 41-2-1 with 32 ko’s, avenging each blemish on his record.
In 2009, his place in history was cemented when he was inducted in to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota.
Since his retirement David Haye, Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua have all captured boxing’s greatest prize. But they all have a long way to go before they match the achievements of the man who forever changed the reputation of the big men from these shores. Three-time heavyweight champion of the world, Mr. Lennox Lewis.