Lennox Lewis was on the hunt for a crown, now.
The belt had changed hands yet again two months prior to the Lewis-Mercer bout. Mike Tyson had once again knocked out his old nemesis Frank Bruno after the WBC opted to allow the fight to happen rather than grant Lewis the opportunity.
Once again Lewis found himself in a courtroom rather than a boxing ring as he sued to make Mike Tyson defend his recently acquired title against him. This time Lewis won. Unfortunately again for the fans of the sport, politics would get in the way.
Politics reared its head in part one of this series, which you can read here.
Rather than defend against Lewis, Tyson’s promoter Don King wanted Mike to fight for the WBA title againt newly crowned Bruce Seldon. Seldon had won the vacant strap after George Foreman was stripped of the title for not fighting the WBA’s number one contender. Lewis accepted $4 million dollars in step aside money to allow Tyson-Seldon to happen in September of 1996 with the agreement that Tyson would then fight Lewis next.
Tyson would need a little more than a half a round to dispose of Seldon, knocking him out at 1:49 of the first to claim the WBA title. Immediately after collecting his second title, Tyson elected to keep the newly won WBA and vacated the WBC title rather than fight Lewis as was previously negotiated.
Earlier in 1996, Riddick Bowe had agreed to finally fight Lewis later on in the year as well, with both taking an interim fight before having a fight in September. Two months after Lewis defeated Mercer, it was Bowe’s turn to take care of business against a little known, undefeated Andrew Golota. An underprepared Bowe came in at a career high 252 pounds and took a ton of punishment from non stop combination punching Golota throughout the course of the fight. Golota dominated the bout with one major issue..he kept hitting Bowe with low blows. Ultimately Golota would get himself disqualified in an affair he was in complete control of and well ahead on the scorecards. See it for yourself, including the post-fight riot at Madison Square Garden, below:
Bowe managed to escape with a victory but took great punishment along the way. A rematch would take place five months later, further delaying a Lewis-Bowe fight.
The second Bowe-Golota fight was as brutal and bizarre as its predecessor with Golota once again managing to get himself disqualified, this time in round 9 for low blows in a bout he was winning handily. A Lewis-Bowe clash would sadly never happen as Riddick would announce his retirement from the sport ten days later at the age of 29.
The struggle for credibility would further elude Lewis as Holyfield pulled off the upset of the year, knocking Tyson out in 11 rounds, taking Iron Mike’s WBA title in the process.
For Lewis, 1996 saw mega fights with both Tyson and Bowe fall by the wayside as he sat on the sidelines following his May victory.
Good news would transpire early into the new year for Lewis, because the WBC ordered a fight for the title that Tyson vacated as Iron Mike set his sights on an Evander Holyfield clash. Lewis would be fighting for the vacant title against a man he was very familiar with, in Oliver McCall. The fight would be in Las Vegas on February 7, 1997.
McCall would be facing a very different version of the Lennox Lewis that he faced two and a half years earlier.
Lewis would also be facing a different version of McCall, a McCall who had been battling drugs and personal demons with a few run ins with the law the previous year. This would turn into one of the strangest championship fights in boxing history.
Lewis controlled the first three rounds behind a stiff jab, occasionally backed up by a hard right hand and coupled with a focus and attentiveness. At the end of the third stanza McCall refused to go back to his corner, instead electing to walk around the ring in circles.
In round four McCall stopped throwing punches all-together and did nothing more than cover up. Lewis would attack but with caution not knowing what to make of the situation but making certain he wasn’t being set up for a sneak attack. At the end of round four referee Mills Lane walked McCall back to his corner attempting to figure out what was going on with the fighter and his handlers.
A crying McCall verbally expressed that he wanted to continue but when the fifth round began Oliver once again did not throw any punches, this time keeping his hands down at his waist letting Lewis swing away. Lane had no choice but to call an end to the bout and award Lennox the victory via a very awkward TKO. It may not have gone the way Lewis envisioned but he had avenged his only defeat while reclaiming his WBC title.
Lewis would box two more times in 1997, first beating undefeated Henry Akinwande via fifth round disqualification when Akinwande did more holding than fighting. After several warnings as well as point deductions, Mills Lane pulled the plug on the fight because of the excessive grabbing.
Closing out the year would be a title defence against Andrew Golota. Golota had not fought since his back to back DQ losses to Riddick Bowe, stepping into the ring off a ten month layoff. What made this fight both interesting and dangerous for Lewis was that Golota had gotten himself disqualified twice in fights he was easily winning with Bowe, although his ledger would read two losses, he had never been decisively overcome.
Lewis would change that and quickly as he jumped Golota immediately in round one, sending him to the canvas. Lewis’s follow-up attack would sink Golota to the mat again moments later and referee Joe Cortez would stop the fight 1:35 seconds into the opening round. Lewis made a statement with this knockout and the manner in which he went about it as Golota was perceived as a very real threat to the heavyweight crown at the time, if he could only stay out of his own way. Lewis became the first man to actually get in his way and did so in dramatic fashion.
Lewis would defend his title twice more in 1998. By this time Evander Holyfield was the kingpin of the heavyweight division having unified the WBA and IBF titles. In 1997 he successfully defended twice with a win by way of third round disqualification in a rematch with Mike Tyson, followed by a one sided drubbing in a revenge victory over current IBF champ Michael Moorer, who had won the vacant title seven and a half months earlier. Holyfield put the champion on the canvas five times before the fight was stopped.
Lewis first would defend his WBC title against hard hitting 30-1 Brooklynite Shannon Briggs.
Briggs was a highly touted prospect early in his career before suffering an upset knockout loss to Darroll Wilson in his HBO debut. He rebounded with four wins over run of the mill heavyweights before returning to HBO for a showdown with George Foreman. Foreman, who had upset Moorer in 1994, never lost his titles in the ring and the IBF and WBA had been stripped from Big George one at a time for not defending against the mandatory challengers.
In many boxing circles, he was still considered the lineal heavyweight champion, as he never lost his titles in the ring. Briggs would defeat Foreman by a controversial 12 round majority decision. This decision so dis-heartened Foreman that the 48 year old ageless legend finally would retire from the ring for good after the verdict was announced.
Controversial or not, Briggs now had a legit claim to the lineal heavyweight championship entering his fight with Lewis. Briggs would come out strong in round one, hurting Lewis midway through the round with a left hook. Lewis used his experience and survival instincts to hold and kill the clock, getting out of a round clearly won by Briggs. Round two would see Briggs land some big shots on the champion once again to bank another round on the cards in a fight very unlikely to go the distance. Lewis would steady the ship in round three, finding his range with the jab while sneaking in a few lead right hands which drew blood around the mouth of a now tiring Briggs.
These were two big heavyweights and although both were very capable boxers, they had almost silently agreed to fight at close range in the middle of the ring and trade power punches, testing one another’s chins rather than their boxing skills. Round four would see an aggressive Lewis looking to close the show and end matters. He hurt Briggs with a volley of punches very early in the round as Briggs refused to go down. The onslaught would continue and a big right hand would clip Shannon high on the head, finally sending him to the canvas for the first time in the bout. Briggs would absorb heavy punishment over the next minute when suddenly he would clip Lewis with a clean left hook and follow up with some heavy shots of his own in a fight that was turning into a war. Lewis appeared to be stunned or perhaps was playing possum when an attacking Briggs would then run into a left hook from Lewis followed by an uppercut and right and sending Briggs to the canvas for the second time in the round. Briggs would rise again and with just 20 seconds left and make it through the round on a visibly winded Lewis.
Round four was a give and take round from both heavyweights but it was crystal clear that Lewis had the momentum and the end wasn’t too far away. Briggs came out for round five a wounded and tired warrior with blood continuing to trickle from his mouth. He would make one final stand. Briggs came out fast, letting big and powerful punches fly in the hopes of catching a hopefully complacent Lewis. Lewis kept his guard high and his composure in check, catching most of Briggs’ big shots on his forearms and gloves before turning on his own offence behind a punishing, accurate jab. By this stage of the fight it was becoming target practice for Lewis as Briggs somehow took one power shot after another standing upright. That would continue until the 1:51 mark of the round when a huge right hand by Lewis would put Briggs flat on his back. Somehow Briggs would make it to his feet but a follow up assault by Lewis in the form of around thirteen clean power punches would signal the end from referee Frank Cappuccino.
Lennox would defend his title once more in 1998 against undefeated Zeljko Mavrovic, who came into the bout with a 27-0 record but no familiar names to speak of on his resume. Lewis would fight a much different fight than the caution to the wind style used in his previous fight with Briggs. This was a much more reserved, cautious and tactical Lennox Lewis. Mavrovic came to fight and was unorthodox in his approach but Lewis would show the many layers of diversity to his game as he figured out along the way that the best way to fight his aggressive opponent would be to counterpunch. After 12 rounds of boxing Lewis would win a wide unanimous decision.
Unification was in the air as Holyfield had successfully defended his titles a week earlier against Vaughn Bean and the timing and public demand of the fight was now.
Lewis and Holyfield would meet on March 26 of 1999 at Madison Square Garden, a fitting venue with a storied history of heavyweight championship bouts. The undisputed heavyweight championship of the world would be on the line. For Lewis this would mark the fifth defense of his WBC title, in turn Holyfield would be making his fourth defense of the WBA crown and second of his IBF title. This one was for all the marbles.
By this stage of his career Evander Holyfield was a living legend and cross over-star having not only won the heavyweight championship three times but also unifying the Cruiserweight championship before moving up to the land of giants. Evander was a constant overachiever who had avenged both his losses, to Bowe and Moorer, as well as slayed the dragon in Mike Tyson.
For all the hype, the anticipation and the exposure that this fight generated what would transpire would be one of the biggest letdowns in boxing history. In front of 21,284 fans and millions more taking in the Pay Per View Lennox Lewis put on a boxing clinic. He easily outboxed, outfoxed and outpunched Holyfield round after round after one sided round. After twelve such sessions the verdict of the decision seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Lewis had put it all together in a one sided and dominant performance over one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, at long last Lennox Lewis would be alone at the very top of the mountain. When Jimmy Lennon Jr. read the scorecards of the three judges, the fans and media alike could hardly believe their ears… a split decision draw.
The champion or champions in this case would keep their titles. Although Lennox would seemingly have won the fight going away, somehow through corruption, incompetence or both, Evander Holyfield would escape with a draw and his titles in a fight in which he won no more than 3 of the 12 rounds.
Such a one sided affair was this bout that by Compubox numbers Holyfield landed a total of only 130 punches in the fight. Lewis on the other hand landed more jabs alone, with 187. Lewis nearly tripled the amount docked on his opponent with 348 blows scored. Although CompuBox is only a guideline for how the rounds and fight go, those numbers in this case illustrate just how one sided things really were at the Garden that night. A heartbroken and dejected Lewis would seek to make the wrong things right in a rematch with Holyfield.