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Lennox Lewis Deserves More Props: A Retrospective, Part 1

Tommy Rainone

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He made his professional debut at a relatively late age for an Olympic gold medalist. He blossomed in the paid ranks at a later age as well being both susceptible and un-polished until around his sixth professional year. More often than not he wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing in style and certainly wasn’t the most charismatic of pugilists. He lacked many defining qualities of a superstar both in and out of the ring but ultimately ended up not only a luminary in the sport of boxing but one of the greatest heavyweights the sport has ever seen. He is Lennox Lewis.

Lewis won the gold medal at super heavyweight in the 1988 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California, defeating the favorite in Brooklyn’s Riddick Bowe via controversial second round stoppage.

Lewis won gold in ’88, but it was Bowe who had more buzz in the years following the Olympics.

Lennox had come up short in the 1984 Games, losing to eventual gold medal winner Tyrell Biggs in the quarter finals.

Rather than turn the then 19 year old Lewis professional after that defeat, Lewis’s handlers chose to take the risk of staying in the amateurs another four years to take one more shot at Olympic glory. In doing so the risk of losing out on what could be four invaluable years of professional grooming and experience was taken. If Lewis was to come up short after a second Olympic bid, his stock would drop dramatically by going 0-2 in the Games, coupled by the loss of what would have most likely been between 20 and 25 professional fights during that four year duration. The risk paid off, though, in capturing the gold and now Lewis would lead a pack of highly touted prospects who would all turn pro during 1988/1989. Those prospects who would eventually become contenders and champions consisted of 1988 Games silver medalist at super heavy Riddick Bowe, heavyweight gold medalist Ray Mercer, Tommy Morrison and Michael Moorer. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s all of these men would be at the top of the heap in a heavyweight era arguably second only to the 1970s from the standpoint of overall talent, depth and great fights produced.

Out of these five prospects Lewis had something working against him at the time as he was the only non American. Lewis was born in West Ham, London, England to Jamaican parents and raised in Ontario, Canada, moving there at the age of 12, ultimately representing Canada in the Olympic Games. During the 80s and 90s the American TV networks rarely covered boxing outside of America, which gave Lewis’ contemporaries a leg up on him. Although Lewis defeated Bowe for the gold medal in the Olympics, it was Bowe who was considered the best prospect of the fab five and the media coverage centered around him.

Lennox Lewis debuted as a professional in 1989.

Lewis fought just once on American soil in his first 15 professional fights–fight number two he beat Bruce Johnson (TKO2) in Atlantic City underneath Mike Tyson-Carl Williams on July 21, 1989–with 12 taking place in England and two in Canada.

Lewis was missing out on the precious American TV dates and press that the other rising prospects enjoyed. To compound matters British fighters, especially heavyweights, were not held with the same regard they are today. Being a British heavyweight in the early 1990s was to almost have a strike against you already, as the last British heavyweight to hold the crown was Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897.

Lewis would finally fight in America again as well as make his television debut in his 16th professional outing. The bout would be the co main event on a TVKO Pay pay per view against former and faded 40 year old heavyweight champion Mike Weaver (video below) on the Tony Lopez vs. Lupe Gutierrez card. Lewis would score a one punch knockout in round six courtesy of a huge right hand but did not thoroughly impress the previous five rounds, often looking off balance and unpolished.

After another knockout victory at home in London, Lewis returned to America and exacted revenge on Tyrell Biggs. This was a far cry from the Biggs that beat Lewis in the 1984 Olympic games or the heavyweight who showed so much promise before Mike Tyson and drugs got in the way of Tyrell ever coming close to realizing his potential.

On that same night, on the Holyfield- Cooper undercard, fellow prospect Michael Moorer scored a first round knockout in his fourth bout in the heavyweight division to improve to 26-0 with all 26 wins coming via knockout. Moorer turned pro at light heavy and was fast tracked to a world title shot with his team most likely knowing he would not be able to make the 175 limit for long. After capturing the WBO title in only his 12th professional and defending it successfully nine times, Moorer entered the heavyweight division with plenty of well deserved hype to his name. Two and a half months later in February of 1992 both heavyweights would make their HBO debuts and disappointed to a degree as they were both taken the distance in performances that showed their current limitations.

For Moorer, he was forced to go the distance for the first time, with Mike White, albeit barely as he had White down three times throughout the course of the fight culminating with a vicious right hook that had White down and out as the bell rang to end the 10th and final round.

Had the bell not rang as White hit the canvas Moorer would have kept his knockout streak alive as his opponent was a finished fighter but Moorer still managed to put an exclamation point on an otherwise average showing.

Lewis went the ten round distance with Levi Billups, who was stopped in three rounds by Moorer less than 8 months earlier. Lewis struggled more than expected in a tactical boxing match that had a few fun moments of slugging, slugging that showed that Lewis had a leaky defense as he absorbed more clean shots than a top prospect in a showcase fight should. When the televised doubled-header concluded, Lewis was perceived as a prospect in need of more seasoning.

Two of the other prospects of those early 90s, Ray Mercer and Tommy Morrison, had taken the risk/reward path in the form of putting their undefeated records on the line, fighting each other a few months before the Lewis/Moorer HBO showcase.

The result was a vicious fifth round knockout victory for Mercer after Morrison started fast and furious over the first four frames. (Scroll to 3:57 mark.)

The momentum that Mercer gained in defeating Morrison quickly evaporated as he was upset by a 42 year old Larry Holmes in Atlantic City. This loss came on the heels of Lewis’s victory over Billups a week earlier, Feb. 1, 1992. With Mercer and Morrison both suffering their first defeats and heading towards the rebuilding phase of their careers, it now looked like a three man race between Bowe, Lewis and Moorer in securing a shot at the world title held by Evander Holyfield.

Just two and a half months after Lewis’s HBO debut, he was back in the ring, this time at home in London, making quick work of Derek Williams. Lewis would follow that victory with another knockout on American ground over journeyman Mike Dixon in August of 1992, to improve his record to 21-0, 18 KOs.

At this stage of Lewis’s career the overall consensus was that he was a big man who could certainly punch but had not been tested, never going past 8 rounds while often looking amateurish and clumsy in the process. Bowe on the other hand had amassed a 31-0, 27 KOs record while defeating better competition than his counterpart. Bowe had also received far more exposure than Lewis and was the number 1 ranked heavyweight contender in the world. It would be Bowe and not Lewis receiving the world title shot against Holyfield on November 13, 1992, but there would be a consolation prize for the number two ranked Lewis.

Prior to the November Holyfield fight Bowe would have to sign an agreement with the WBC that should he defeat Holyfield his first title defense would be against the winner of the just announced Lennox Lewis- Razor Ruddock eliminator which was set to take place less than two weeks earlier on October 31st in London. This was part of a loosely formed heavyweight tournament between the four fighters. Ruddock was a ferocious puncher and fellow Canadian, having fought Mike Tyson tooth and nail in two defeats the prior year, before Tyson was sent off to prison leaving a gaping hole in the heavyweight division. This mini tourney was intended to answer the question of who was the world’s best heavyweight.

Ruddock felt up close and personal the timing and accuracy of big Lennox.

Going into the fight, Ruddock was a 2-1 favorite to defeat Lewis. The two had sparred together in Canada so Lewis was very familiar with Ruddock’s crushing power. Aside from the bookmakers, most of the experts were picking the more experienced Ruddock. The perception at the time was that Lewis was too green for such a battle tested knockout artist. When the bell rang as expected Ruddock came out the aggressor as Lewis moved around the ring boxing off his back foot and using a very effective jab. This would be the theme throughout the first round as Lewis circled with defensive responsibility behind an accurate jab while avoiding Ruddock’s power shots. Suddenly and violently a long, counter right hand by Lewis put Ruddock down face first on the canvas. Ruddock was badly hurt and luckily for him the bell would ring as he reached his feet signaling the end of a round; he most likely would not have made it out of otherwise. That luck ran out quickly as an aggressive Lewis looking to end matters did just that in round two, quickly jumping Ruddock with relentless power shots and sending him to the canvas twice, the second of which planted him face first as the referee waived the contest off. Lennox Lewis had proven the critics wrong and finally arrived, and next his title shot would follow.

Fast forward two weeks and Riddick Bowe would take the stage looking to dethrone the defending and undefeated champion in Evander Holyfield.

Bowe chose to walk to the ring to an early 1980s song by Phil Collins, “In The Air Tonight.”

That this was a fitting song would be an understatement as Bowe would put on the performance of a lifetime in wrestling the undisputed championship from Holyfield in what would be one of the greatest heavyweight fights in boxing history.

Both men battled back and forth over the course of 12 non stop rounds of brilliant violence. When the smoke cleared it was Bowe who had his hand raised and managed to not only top Lewis’s outing two weeks prior but make a definitive statement that he was the man to beat in the heavyweight division.

Bowe now had all three pieces of the heavyweight title and the WBC gave the new champion until December 13th to reach an agreement on a deal for a Bowe-Lewis fight. If an agreement could not be reached in such time the fight would then go to a purse bid. If for some reason a resolution could not be found financially and Bowe refused to fight Lewis, the WBC would strip Bowe of his title and award it to Lennox on the merit of his #1 contender status and victory over Ruddock.

Unfortunately for the fans, the sport and the legacy of each fighter no such deal was reached and on Dec 14 of 1992 Riddick Bowe held a press conference vacating the WBC title by way of throwing his title belt in a garbage can.

Can Man, before Broner.

The WBC awarded the strap to Lewis and once again the heavyweight championship was fragmented as both undefeated fighters would go in their own directions.

The direction that Lewis moved in would be a title defense against former IBF champion Tony Tucker. It takes two to tango and Lewis was in with the wrong dance partner.

Tucker fought a safety first defensive fight and looked as if he had no intention of winning, rather the main objective looked to be to go the distance and not get hurt. Lewis scored knockdowns in the 3rd and 9th rounds but had to settle for a unanimous decision in going the 12 round distance for the first time in his career.

Next, Lewis would close out 1993 with an all British clash against power punching London legend Frank Bruno. The bout would take place in front of nearly 26,000 fans at National Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, U.K.

Lewis would face his first real adversity as a professional when a focused Bruno built an early lead on the scorecards punctuated by a big right hand to the temple in round three which buckled Lennox and had him continuously holding and moving while using every inch of the ring and second of the clock.

Rounds 4 and 5 were no better for Lewis, who was not committing to his jab or throwing many punches while seemingly tired and getting hit more and more. In round six, Lewis began to come alive, fighting with more passion and zest to his punches on a now fading Bruno. There was little doubt about who was ahead on the scorecards so if Lennox was going to put the brakes on and make a stand the sixth round was when he finally did so.

An aggressive Bruno came out in round 7 looking to retake command behind an aggressive attack and seemingly stunned Lewis again, who was pushed back to the ropes. In the middle of Bruno’s offense Lewis uncorked a huge left hook which put Bruno on queer street. Lewis seized the moment, teeing off on a defenseless Bruno with upwards of 20 unanswered power punches before the referee finally called a halt to the bout.

The second defense of Lewis’s WBC title cemented his acceptance as a champion after overcoming such a determined opponent in a hostile environment as the crowd fueled Bruno on. Lewis showed the heart of a champion while showing he wasn’t afraid to get in a fire fight.

A month after Lewis’s successful defense against Bruno the other two heavyweight titles would again change hands with Holyfield defeating Bowe in a rematch to take back the IBF and WBA titles. With Bowe losing the titles any possibility of a unification fight was now further out the window so a title defence against Phil Jackson in Atlantic City would be next for Lennox. This was nothing more than a stay-busy assignment as despite Jackson’s impressive 30-1 record, one would be hard pressed to recognize any names on Jackson’s fluffed up resume other than a Razor Ruddock, who knocked him out in four.

Lewis treated the fight accordingly, scoring knockdowns in rounds 1, 5 and 8 with the third knockdown signaling an end to the fight by a merciful Arthur Mercante Sr.

Closing out 1994 would be a title defence against Oliver McCall in London at Wembley Stadium. McCall was viewed by most as an easy defence, he turned out to be anything but. Lewis got off to a shaky start in round one as McCall landed a few judge-friendly, eye catching power shots. None of these shots hurt Lewis but Lennox clearly lost the opening stanza. Scorecards would never become a factor as at the very start of round two a huge right hand by the 5 1/2 -1 underdog McCall sent Lewis crashing to the canvas for the first time in his career.

Lewis rose immediately on unsteady legs as he was administered the mandatory standing 8 count. By the time referee Jose Guadalope reached eight a still wobbly Lewis fell forward into the official, causing the fight to be waived off. Lewis protested in disbelief as McCall celebrated his new WBC championship in a huge upset. For Lewis, unification dreams and big fight hopes were now out the window, it was on to the rebuilding stage.

In 1995 the heavyweight division had a new look at the top of the class, not only had McCall relieved Lewis of his WBC championship responsibilities but Michael Moorer dethroned Evander Holyfield late in 1994 to capture the IBF and WBA titles.

That reign didn’t last very long as a 45 year old living legend by the name of George Foreman pulled off the upset of all upsets in knocking Moorer out in his first title defense in round 10 to recapture a heavyweight championship he held 20 years earlier.

Mercer and Holyfield were set to fight with the winner moving up the rankings within striking distance of a title shot and a man by the name of Mike Tyson, who was released from Indiana state prison after three and half years behind bars and was ready to resume his boxing career. Lewis had a new look as well, in the form of a legendary trainer by the name of Emanuel Steward.

Steward would look to polish Lennox and turn a talent often too reliant on his power into a boxer/puncher who would use his height, reach and boxing IQ. The first assignment would come in May of ‘95 against Lionel Butler in Sacramento, California. Butler came out very aggressively the first three rounds as Lewis boxed and used his legs before domesticating Butler with some well placed right hands in round four. Lewis would take the role of aggressor in round five immediately dropping Butler to begin the frame and pepper his opponent throughout before scoring a decisive and fight ending knockout just before the bell to end the round.

The marriage between Lewis and Steward was off to a good start.

Lewis was right back in the ring less than two months later, this time against an 11-2 relative novice in Justin Fortune in Dublin, Ireland. Lewis would make easy work of Fortune, easily out-boxing and out-punching his opponent before ending things violently in round number four.

Lewis was clearly beginning to evolve into a different fighter, one that fought with more confidence and bravado, often dropping his hands and throwing punches from unorthodox angles. More often he was now boxing behind a hard, committed jab used to set up his sledge hammer of a right hand. If his opponents closed the distance he would simply tie them up and allow the ref to break them so he could resume using his height and reach from long and medium range.

After two comeback victories Lewis was ready to close the year out with a step up fight in the form of another contender he once shared the label of prospect with, in Tommy Morrison.

The two were originally supposed to fight in March of the previous year when disaster struck for Morrison in what was intended to be a stay-busy fight to prepare him for his title shot with Lewis. At the time Morrison was riding a ten fight win streak since his lone defeat in 1991 to Ray Mercer. The apex of that successful run was a unanimous decision over the same George Foreman who would knock Michael Moorer out for two thirds of the championships a year later. With the win over Foreman came the (at the time) lightly regarded WBO championship. After making a successful defence of his title, the Lennox Lewis warm up to stay busy would be against a 10-1 Michael Bentt.

Bentt had a standout amateur career but was considered a letdown in the paid ranks having defeated just 1 fighter with a winning record in his 11 fights. Bentt also wasn’t viewed as a big puncher but Morrison would soon find out that any man over 200 pounds can punch. After Morrison started fast and hurt Bentt with his signature left hook he went in for the finish and Bentt let loose a counter right hand which would change Morrison’s life as he crashed to the canvas. After rising, Morrison would quickly visit the canvas twice more, signaling the three knockdown rule in the state of Oklahoma and the end of the fight. In just a minute and thirty three seconds Tommy Morrison saw his world title dreams and $7.5 million dollar payday evaporate. Morrison, who always maintained a busy schedule, would fight eight more times, winning seven, including a dramatic knockout of Razor Ruddock and drawing once in the two years since the Bentt defeat.

This was a must win for each fighter as a victory would inch the victor that much closer to a world title shot. Morrison’s odds now of defeating were much longer than they were two years before; from the onset Lewis boxed with focus and aggression behind a powerful left jab that had Morrison’s eye already swollen at the end of the first round. It only got worse from there for Tommy who was dropped in round two and again in round five while providing very little of an offensive threat to Lennox Lewis.

Lewis’s jab was accurate, his combination punching sharp and hurtful and his defense alert. After two more knockdowns in round six Mills Lane would call an end to the one way traffic with a one eyed Morrison offering little in protest. This was a near flawless performance from Lewis as Morrison had long been one of the most dangerous and explosive punchers in the sport. Morrison had been a fighter who showed character throughout his career, overcoming cuts, a broken jaw, and deficits on the scorecards only to be bailed out with his heart and punching power. Lewis was acutely aware that all Morrison needed was one shot to turn things around and Lennox never lost focus or got greedy with his offense. The teachings of Steward were paying dividends.

A previous Lewis victim in Frank Bruno would defeat Oliver McCall late in 1995, winning the WBC belt and after Lennox took care of Morrison he was the leading contender for the title shot. Enter Mike Tyson, whose name recognition carried as much weight as his punch, which helped guide to his positioning of the shot at Bruno after just two quick and easy comeback fights.

Lewis went as far as taking the matter to court claiming that as number 1 contender he and not Tyson should receive the title fight but the court ultimately ruled against him so Tyson-Bruno would move forward. From here on out the opponents wouldn’t get any easier and next up was Ray Mercer, coming off a very competitive loss in his previous outing with Evander Holyfield. The bout would be held at Madison Square Garden and serve as the co main event with Holyfield-Bobby Czyz taking the top spot but it was Lewis and Mercer who stole the show.

From the outset both fighters wasted little time feeling each other out as the action was back and forth. Mercer came in shape and to win and Lennox was learning this very early on. Mercer took 2 of the first 3 rounds as his jab began to cause swelling on an apparently tiring Lewis.

Lennox reasserted himself in round four, putting beautiful combinations together and landing clean shots upstairs on a Mercer who would respond in kind during the last minute of the round, rattling the former champion with upwards of 15 punches to punctuate the round. After four rounds, Lewis found himself in a hole that wouldn’t be easy to dig out from as power wouldn’t bail Lennox out against a fighter with a titanic chin who had never been stopped.

Slowly but surely from round five on Lewis began to steadily get the better of Mercer during many close rounds. Both men were clearly tired but Lewis was able to dig just a little deeper and find more energy in reserve, outworking Mercer the second half of the fight to win a very narrow majority decision.

Following his close victory over Mercer, Lennox Lewis was now the #1 contender for his former title.

Check back, for Part 2

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