Legacy: Lennox Lewis and the hole he left behind

FLOYD MAYWEATHER once said, “I won’t get my dues as an active fighter. It will be when I’ve been retired for 20 years when you will all look back and realise how great I am.” Not quite as poetic – or humble – as Joni Mitchell’s timeless Big Yellow Taxi, but the point is the same in boxing as it is in real life: Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?

Lennox Lewis is the perfect case in point. While he was active there were question marks over his chin, his fighting spirit, and, as his career started to wind down at the turn of the century, his place in history. Now gone for 20 years, we certainly know today what we had back then: Not only one of the most complete fighters of them all but also one of the greatest. Better still, in Lewis, we had one – and only one – fighter we looked up to as the true champion in the heavyweight division.

Still we wait for his true successor. No other dominant world heavyweight champion’s departure left such a chasm. It would be unfair on those who attempted to follow Lewis to solely place the blame at their feet because, without question, there were many factors at play. Whether it was two brothers ruling concurrently and therefore quashing any hope of one king, sanctioning bodies for a time making ‘undisputed’ all but impossible, drug tests being failed or rival managers and promoters failing to get along, modern day heavyweight boxing is unrecognisable from the days when one champion would retire and the two leading contenders would then contest the vacant title.

It was apt, however, that in Lewis’ final bout, a bloody and brutal win over Vitali Klitschko in 2003, he defeated a fighter who would be widely regarded as the best of the post-Lewis era. So while Joe Louis lost to Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali lost to Larry Holmes and Holmes lost to Mike Tyson, Lewis actually beat the bloke to whom he was handing the baton. Take that and run with it, Lennox might have said, once you’ve got your eyes stitched up and the wind back in your gut. Apt, too, that his last action as an amateur was to win Olympic gold in 1988 by beating Riddick Bowe, the fighter who should have been his greatest professional rival – if only “Big Daddy” had accepted the challenge.

In between those Bowe and Klitschko-shaped bookends, Lewis took on – and defeated – all-comers to completely clear out a division during the last great heavyweight era. Is there another boxer who can say they did all of the above? Of course, arguments can be made for boxers like Ali and Louis being greater, but both fought on too long, leaving behind ugly losses and forever damaging themselves in the process. Marciano lost fewer fights than Lewis but his time at the top was comparatively brief. Perhaps Mike Tyson was more exciting but, unlike Lewis, he behaved badly both inside the ring and out, and encountered defeat each time the going got too tough.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to pay Lewis is this: Though there are numerous legends who came before him, how many have dominated in the same way since he retired? Nobody we can yet put in the same bracket as Lennox, that’s for sure. Arguably, when all is said and done, only Oleksandr Usyk or Tyson Fury can possibly come close. And even the winner of that May 18 showdown will have to cover an awful lot of ground to do so.

But nobody’s perfect. And Lewis, though masterful when focused and in full flow, was underappreciated in his own time – so he therefore lacked the impact of an Ali or a Tyson – and his two losses came to boxers, Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, who would not be considered among the very best of their own era, let alone make the conversation for the greatest in history. And the manner of those defeats, both delivered to a hanging jaw with one hopeful swing, mean that many will always doubt Lewis’ ability to take a full-bloodied shot.

Yet the arguments against Lewis being a heavyweight legend are significantly easier to counter than those to the contrary. The defeats to McCall and Rahman were avenged emphatically and can be explained by two momentary lapses in concentration. Even so, those who believed he couldn’t withstand the whack of a heavyweight, despite watching him stand up to punches from Evander Holyfield, Ray Mercer, Frank Bruno, and Shannon Briggs, also believed that Rahman would repeat the trick.

“Can you believe people were predicting that Rahman would win that rematch?” Lewis asked when we spoke in 2020. “But I don’t blame them. They thought the chink in the armour is there forever. You lose one fight and they write you off. People were asking me what I was gonna do now. What am I gonna do now? What am I gonna do now? I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do now. I’m gonna go and get my belts back, that’s what I’m gonna do. But people presumed it was the end for me.”

It wasn’t of course. Rahman was bombed out with startling ease. And Lewis could bang with the best of them (just ask anyone who sampled his fists at full-pelt), or box to orders if the opponent demanded such care. That versatility, which sometimes drew unfair criticism when he refused to take risks in certain fights, is yet another feather in Lennox’s cap; while blitzing Andrew Golota he looked like a destroyer every bit as savage and merciless as a peak Tyson yet as he shut down David Tua over 12 artful rounds, he was simply outboxable. No other heavyweight in history, I’d argue, exhibited such extreme levels of adaptability.

Behind the scenes, Lewis found his own skin a source of great comfort. He didn’t care if the media found him aloof nor allowed himself to get too concerned by his opponents’ reputations. Moments before almost every ring-walk, Lennox was not nervously pacing the room trying to summon the beast from within, he was lost in the music blaring from his headphones, content that the beast was already there. “The funny thing was I would dance in the changing room before a fight,” he said. “Mike Tyson would be punching holes in the wall and I’d dance to reggae music and catch the vibe in there. By the time I’m walking to the ring, I’m crazy, and you’re in trouble.”

Lewis, after beating everyone he shared a ring with, left the sport on his own terms in February 2004 at the age of 38.

“When I first started there was no straight road to my becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. I learnt on this trip that if you lose that doesn’t mean that’s the end of your boxing career,” Lewis said in his closing statement.
“When I first lost and people said that was the end for me, they actually had me believing it for a long time. But because of the way I lost, I thought ‘get up and brush myself off and get at them’.”

In the immediate aftermath of that announcement, bookmakers offered 7/2 odds on him fighting again within two years. Apparently, plenty of punters took the bet. Whether or not he decided against having a rematch with Klitschko because he feared he might lose is a moot point; the fact he had the sense to get out when he knew the end was nigh is just one more reason why he was so different from all the rest.

Source link