There was a time that the world heavyweight champion was one of sport’s most revered figures, from the early pioneers such as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano through to the 60s and 70s greats counting Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman among their number.
In the 80s, such intense focus petered off as the middleweights – Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler et al – put on some of the sweet science’s most memorable bouts as its division was knee deep in talent and Vegas superfights began to dominate the landscape.
That was until the emergence of one ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, who ripped through all those, ageing legends and pretenders alike, who stood before him to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history and a household name as “the baddest man on the planet”. He was joined by other talented names like Riddick Bowe as the best the cruiserweights had to offer – James Toney and Evander Holyfield – also made their way up.
Simultaneously, after defeating the aforementioned Bowe in the final to claim super-heavyweight gold at the 1988 Olympics more famous for a hometown robbery of Roy Jones Jr, one Lennox Claudius Lewis was quietly making his way through the paid ranks.
Born to Jamaican parents in London and moving to Ontario as a 12-year-old, nationalistic, chest-thumping Brits failed to warm to Lewis during his career over his decision to represent Canada in Seoul and some never gave him his dues despite his lofty achievements – even in retirement.
Nevertheless, he initially made the UK his base. When suffering a shocking second-round TKO to Oliver McCall at Wembley Arena in 1994 however, relieved of his WBC title, the boo boys came out in full force and pushed him to American shores in order to fulfil his potential – save for a pitstop in Dublin to quickly dispose of Justin Fortune.
— Lennox Lewis (@LennoxLewis) September 24, 2017
An Atlantic City victory, which brought with it the curious IBC strap, over Tommy Morrison was followed by the impressive scalp of Ray Mercer until finally the chance to avenge McCall came in Las Vegas some three years after his original humbling at the hands of the American.
Lewis made a huge statement with a fifth-round KO and was crowned champion, holding onto the WBC strap with ease and becoming lineal champ at the expense of Shannon Briggs until the big, unification fight he’d been waiting for, against WBA and IBF king Evander Holyfield, was finally granted at the turn of the Millenium.
Their first dust up ended in a controversial draw but when their rematch was again left to the judges, it was this time decided Lewis had done enough to become undisputed champion, and indeed the division’s last until now.
It was likewise deemed that Lewis was 1999’s Sports Personality of the Year – suggesting an increase in popularity and that the British public had finally started to warm to ‘The Lion’. Yet there were still naysayers, American audiences also divided despite a newfound headline standing, again proven right by a humiliating fifth round demolition job by Hasim Rahman in South Africa of all places.
— UKPressOnline (@UKPressOnline) April 11, 2017
Lewis, distracted by his celebrity status and a cameo in Ocean’s Eleven, had lost his way. But, like all great champions do, rose from the canvas to return the favour and dispatch of Rahman in the exact same round in Vegas seven months later.
Then came a bout Lewis had savoured just as much as the unification clash against Holyfield. Boasting arguably the most volatile and tense build up ever witnessed before a fight, with police having to separate the two as Michael Buffer introduced them, a 2002 showdown against Mike Tyson culminated in an eight-round triumph for Lewis.
Inevitably this wasn’t enough for some. Tyson was well beyond his best form. A has been. Past it. Lucky that the proceedings were stopped on cuts, it seemed that Father Time had come knocking for Lewis too as he laboured to defeat Vitali Klitschko after and hung up his gloves to pass on the mantle to the Ukranian and his brother Wladimir.
Ironically, it was the Klitschkos’ promise to their mother never to face one another that has kept Lewis as history’s last undisputed heavyweight ruler. Now, Anthony Joshua, who with Tyson Fury ended Wladimir’s dominance recently, attempts to overturn this whilst looking up to Lewis as his idol in a far less talented generation.
Whether he succeeds or not, the fact remains that in retrospect, the unappreciated Lennox Lewis and his achievements were simply incredible. Without question, he deserves now more commonly held consideration as one of the greatest to ever lace them up.