Before serving as a pallbearer at Muhammad Ali’s funeral on Friday, former world heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis spoke to CNN’s Hala Gorani about how Ali inspired him in and out of the boxing ring.
“If I would get into a fight on the road or something, my first recollection of who I was was Muhammad Ali - running around doing this, moving my head, saying, come on, sucker. You know, that's what Muhammad Ali does, you know? And maybe throw in the Ali shuffle in there as well.”
Lewis also recalled an exchange with Ali after a loss at the world championships that stayed with him throughout his career.
“One time I remember at the world championships in Daytona. I lost the fight against a Cuban fighter, and he was at ringside. Muhammad Ali is at ringside. So I don't care what anybody else says but Muhammad Ali. After the fight I went out -- I lost the fight -- but when I went out and shook his hand and everything, he said, you won the fight, and he said, you're going to be really good someday. So I always remember that in my heart, and something to really think about and remember throughout my whole career.”
HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Fans have been paying their respects to Muhammad Ali in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Thousands attended a public Muslim service just a few hours ago at the city's Expo Center where Ali fought his last fight in the city. He'll be buried on Friday.
Joining us now from Louisville is Lennox Lewis, he's a former world heavyweight boxing champion. He'll be one of the people carrying the casket at the funeral of Muhammad Ali, whom he has described in past, and still does, I'm sure, Lennox Lewis, as his hero.
What will your role be tomorrow, Lennox Lewis?
LENNOX LEWIS, FORMER WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING CHAMPION: Just being one of the pallbearers for Muhammad Ali. And, you know, it is such a great privilege to be able to do that and a great honor. Words can't really describe how I feel.
GORANI: And tell me, that's what was going to be my next question, because after the worldwide outpouring of love for this man, who was such an unbelievable icon in so many ways, not just the sporting world but as a civil rights activist, as a rebel, just all around, what is going through your mind that you're taking part in this?
LEWIS: You know, just how many people he really affected around the world, and you know, from the young to old. You know, speaking to people while I was there, hearing so many different stories.
And we can -- we really should just celebrate his life because he has had such a great life and affected so many people. And really part of his mission was really bringing people together. And giving young kids hope, especially me when I first started boxing -- or even was a young kid with just me and my mother. He was a young kid and he just had his mother with him as well.
And he showed other young kids that you can be whatever you want to be. Just sacrifice and focus on what you want to be.
GORANI: And you also went on to become one of the greatest boxing champions of all time. But I am interested in, as a child watching him, what you were thinking, because you'd watch him on TV and you'd want to be like him, right? He inspired you in that way.
LEWIS: Yes. I mean, yes, definitely. If I would get into a fight on the road or something, you know, my first recollection of who I was, was Muhammad Ali, running around doing this, moving my head, saying, come on, sucker. You know, that's what Muhammad Ali does, you know? And maybe throw in the Ali shuffle in there as well.
GORANI: Yes. And now, I mean, what were your interactions with him during his lifetime? When did you have the opportunity to meet him and in what context?
LEWIS: Yes. I met him a few times, different times all through my whole life. One time I remember at the world championships in Daytona. I lost the fight against a Cuban fighter, and he was at ringside. Muhammad Ali is at ringside. So I don't care what anybody else about Muhammad Ali.
So after the fight I went out -- you know, I lost the fight, but when I went out and shook his hand and everything, he said, you won the fight, and he said, you're going to be really good someday.
So I always remember that in my heart. And, you know, something to really think about and remember throughout my whole career.
GORANI: So he gave you that encouragement even though you -- technically you lost the fight. He told you won it in other ways. When was the last time you were able to speak with him?
LEWIS: Well, last time I -- I was with him, he didn't really speak too much but he spoke with his eyes. And, you know, he's always joking -- he was always joking around. So I could tell that he was joking around with me because he would give me that look, like this, you know. So I know what he was saying. And every time he gave me that look, he always put a smile on my face.
GORANI: Yes. He'd put a smile on so many. Because -- I mean, Muhammad Ali, I mean, some people have said, there will never be another one like him because of him, because of his personality, because of his charisma, because, of course, of his sporting genius as well, that he was the greatest and the era he lived in as well.
Do you think that as well, the one and only, there will never be anyone to match him?
LEWIS: No. There will never be anybody. He'll always be the greatest. And even the era -- the era that he was in was a serious time in American history. And, you know, he gave a lot of young kids and kids that have no money, he gave them hope.
And he told this them that they were beautiful as well. So everybody can remember Muhammad Ali using that term, "you're beautiful."
GORANI: Yes. And finally, I've got to ask you about tomorrow. How did it come about that you would be one of the pallbearers? I know other -- I know Will Smith will be one of the pallbearers as well. How did it come about that you were asked to do this?
LEWIS: It was really a phone call from Lonnie, said that this was one of Muhammad Ali's wishes, for me to be one of the bearers at his funeral. So, you know, when I heard that, I was just flabbergasted and like truly honored.
GORANI: I can imagine. An unbelievable honor. And really an emotional time, I'm sure, for you as well. Lennox Lewis, one of the greats as well. Thank you so much for joining us on CNN. We really appreciate it.
LEWIS: Thanks for having me.