By Thomas Gerbasi
It was the cruelest of April Fool’s Day jokes, but oh, it was a good one.
“I've enjoyed retirement but there is unfinished business at hand & 125 million reasons 2 finish. Sept 29th #LLVK2 #DoneDeal”
The tweet came from the account of one Lennox Claudius Lewis, the 46-year old former heavyweight champion and International Boxing Hall of Fame member. And for a moment, before realizing the date, boxing fans and media thought that a rematch of Lewis’ final pro bout in 2003 against current heavyweight titleholder Vitali Klitschko was about to become a reality. Even those close to Lewis began to prepare for September.
“It’s funny because the reaction from even some of my friends was like ‘we’re ready to go back to war,’ and ‘if this is my decision, they’re with me,’” laughed Lewis in a chat with BoxingScene.com earlier this week. “I played with them for a minute, but when I let them know, they just started laughing. They said ‘aw man, you never change. You’re always a practical joker.’ I think that’s one of the things people don’t realize about me, that I am a practical joker.”
That’s because much of the public persona of Lennox Lewis over his years as an active fighter was as the regal king of the heavyweight division, the pugilist specialist who was all business, both in and out of the ring. We rarely got a glimpse of the private Lewis, the jokester as quick with a laugh or a witty quip as he was in the ring with his thudding right hand. But nearly nine years after he left the ring following his sixth round TKO of Klitschko, Lewis has settled into the role as an ambassador for the sport and one of its elder statesmen. There are no fights to be won, just a life to be lived as a citizen of the world and a father and husband. So when he’s asked if he misses the sport, the answer doesn’t surprise.
“It’s like asking a guy if he misses getting punched in his face,” he said. “No, I don’t miss it. I do miss the kind of attraction I once gave in the sense of, you look at some of the fights right now, and I don’t think they’re good fights. Even this last one with Vitali where he got slapped (by challenger Dereck Chisora). That was just a big disrespect for the sport and the heavyweight scene. How can you slap the heavyweight champion of the world? That’s a big disrespect.”
And something that wouldn’t have gone unanswered by Lewis in his day. For all the characterizations of him as a chess playing gentleman boxer, Lewis would most certainly respond when provoked, as his in studio altercation with Hasim Rahman before their rematch and his press conference brawl with Mike Tyson proved. Yes, Lewis was a gentleman, but beyond that, he was a fighter, and one who is finally starting to be accepted for what he was – one of the greatest heavyweights to lace up the gloves.
“I’m telling people that I’m like fine wine,” he laughs. “They won’t realize what happened until later on. In one aspect, I kinda knew it because this is how history is. People don’t see it until later. There are certain things that blind them and then when they look around and say ‘what happened?’ they realize. A lot of people say ‘boxing’s not the same since you left.’ I get that everywhere from all different nationalities, which is a great compliment.”
41-2-1 with 32 knockouts over the course of his 14 year pro career, Lewis (who also won an Olympic Gold medal for Canada in 1988) held the world heavyweight crown for the better part of seven years over three reigns, defeating the likes of Tyson, Rahman, Klitschko, Evander Holyfield, David Tua, Michael Grant, Frank Bruno, Shannon Briggs, Andrew Golota, Ray Mercer, Oliver McCall, Razor Ruddock, and Tony Tucker. He avenged the only two losses of his career to Rahman and McCall, and his one draw with Holyfield was widely considered to be one of the worst verdicts in heavyweight history.
Yet his greatest accomplishment may be that he left on top and never returned. And nearly nine years later, it may be pretty safe to say that there will be no comeback, all April Fool’s jokes notwithstanding.
“Every decision you make is always a big decision when it comes to your life and your future,” said Lewis. “And for me, being a fan of Muhammad Ali, he’s the man that really got me involved in boxing. Me and my mum used to sit in front of the TV and watch him. I told people ‘I love Muhammad Ali,’ and everybody would say ‘yeah, but you see what happened to him? You see what boxing’s done to him?’ And it put it in my mind that I wanted to retire at a good age, definitely an age with all my faculties, and definitely accomplishing all my goals.
“Obviously I love Muhammad Ali, love Bruce Lee, love Michael Jordan, all big-time athletes and icons in their sport,” he continues. “You have to open your eyes and look at their past and learn from it as well. Michael Jordan was great, he went into a different sport, and then he tried coming back into basketball (with the Washington Wizards in 2001) and was never the same. So I understand that and I understand the history of boxing where most of the heavyweight fighters and most of the people that retire came back, and what was the thing that really encouraged them and made them come back? A lot of different things, I would say. Money was one. Missing the glory, and having people everywhere they go say ‘hey, come on champ, you’ve got one more fight; we can do it.’ And you believe in yourself, but Father Time is still knocking on the door.”
That’s not to say that there weren’t offers thrown at him over the years to make a return. But he never bit. Was he ever tempted to lace up the gloves one more time though?
“In the aspect of ‘did you see that fight? Man, I could get in there and do something with these guys. I can give them a great fight,’” he said. “And then I wake up and I realize it’s daytime and during the day I talk myself out of it. I say to myself ‘okay, you’ve made millions with boxing; just empty your cup and go on to something else. You’ve accomplished that goal already, set another goal and try to accomplish that.”
Since retirement, Lewis has done commentary work, appeared on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice series, and is basically enjoying the fruits of his labors. And while he isn’t missing the day to day grind of the fight game, he doesn’t mind sitting down and watching his old bouts, especially when his son brings the tapes out.
“My son surprises me most of the time because he pulls up different fights and he brings them to me and he asks me questions about them, which is great,” said Lewis. So what runs through the champ’s mind as he watches his past flash before his eyes.
“Classic,” he smiles. “That man is the true pugilist specialist. And Don King said I’m the ‘Emperor of boxing.’ It’s funny because every time I watch them, I’m in tune and it’s like I’m watching every shot like it’s my first time. I always enjoy watching myself and I’m definitely gonna bring out a DVD when all my fights come out with me commentating so you can actually hear what I was going through at that time, pre-fight or after the fight, and how I felt.”
That would be must-see viewing, because we never got a look at the inner workings of the pugilist specialist in his prime. Now, Lewis is freer with his thoughts on what it took to ascend to the heavyweight crown and keep it for much of his career. Sure, he took his share of criticism at times over the course of his reign, but looking back, who could box and bang with equal ability like he could? Who had the size to intimidate but the speed and athleticism to box for 12 rounds? And perhaps one of the most underrated parts of Lewis’ game was his heart, which was on display in firefights against Briggs, Bruno, and Klitschko, and in his ability to rebound from adversity to even the score with Rahman and McCall.
You don’t see that kind of versatility these days in the sport, and while they’ve been ultra-dominant in the post-Lewis era, the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, are seen by many as the best of a dismal division, boxers who will beat anyone put in front of them, but that don’t bring the excitement a Lewis, Tyson, or Holyfield brought to the ring. Remember, when that aforementioned trio was doing their thing, they were front page news, not a blurb in the transaction section of the sports page.
“When it comes to the Klitschkos, they’re great guys, lovely guys, they’ve just been brought up a certain way,” said Lewis. “My history of boxing comes from Muhammad Ali; I love the middleweights like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, and it depends on what kind of trainer you get. If you get an old-time trainer, they’re gonna say it all breaks down to mental strength. Even if your arm’s broken and the other one’s good, you still use it. You say you’re hurt and you can’t run anymore, what are you talking about? If you’re still breathing and still standing, you can run more. Only when you pass out you can’t run. It’s that type of mental thinking. And they come from a different place with their sense of boxing. They’re doctors, so if they’re hurt, they say you need to fix that and get the best doctors possible. Why hurt it anymore? They’re coming from a different thinking aspect. We’re thinking, it’s hurting and I can’t use it, but I’m gonna go out on my shield. They’re thinking oh no, don’t hurt it anymore, you gotta get it fixed.’ And that translates into their boxing as well. They’re scoring points. And they forget that this is boxing and we’re supposed to be gladiators. People want to see either you render the other guy unconscious or you trying to do so.”
That’s cutting it down to the bare essence of fighting, and Lewis got that, but he also had many layers to his game. The way he saw it, “It came from me always wanting to perfect myself and looking at other fighters that I enjoyed watching and trying to do something they did. Jersey Joe Walcott, he did a certain move, and I did that in sparring. It didn’t really reach a fight yet, but it was in me. I looked at something George Foreman did, sticking his big arms in the way, blocking shots. And sometimes you would see (Joe) Frazier ducking different ways like a madman, wondering what was coming, and all of a sudden something comes.”
Like his one-time nemesis Tyson, Lewis had a sense of history, of what came before him. Yet oddly enough, the native of West Ham, London, England also paid attention to what others said about him, and he took a lot of that talk – and criticism – to heart.
“In my life in boxing there were a lot of different tests that you have to go through and one of the biggest tests was ‘oh, does he have enough stamina?’ ‘Does he have the killer instinct?’ ‘Does he have heart?’ All these questions get answered with each fight, and I basically ticked them off as they went along throughout my whole history,” said Lewis. “(HBO commentator) Larry Merchant was a big criticizer. First, it was ‘oh, he doesn’t throw enough jabs.’ I’m there watching it, watching it, okay, and in training I started throwing more jabs and making sure that I threw a lot of jabs and they never had to complain about me throwing the jab. All I could hear was ‘he throws a lot of jabs’ after that. So I just wanted to answer each question and make sure I was helping myself get better by ticking off each of these questions.”
So Larry Merchant is responsible for the success of Lennox Lewis?
“Not him entirely. Listening to George Foreman really egged me on too because he said ‘Lennox needs to be throwing more jabs and pushing this guy back.’ The next fight, I listened to that. When I got in that situation, I’m pushing the guy back and I’m throwing that jab, because he’s saying that and he’s been there before.”
It’s a fascinating look into the mind of one of the greats, and what he did to earn that lofty place among the best the division has had to offer. But when it’s all said and done, what would he consider to be the definitive Lennox Lewis performance, the one for the time capsule that says ‘this is who I am’?
“Oooh,” he says, stumped for a moment before responding. “I would say the (second) Rahman fight. That was a good night. We had a great Christmas after that.”