By Jimmy Krug.
Perhaps no other champion in recent history has been evaluated so many times and from as many different angles as Lennox Lewis has. On paper Lewis was one of the most physically imposing champions in the history of the division, standing 6’ 5” with an 84” reach. His jab and his ability to use his size to his advantage increased with the passing of time with the help of his Hall of Fame trainer, Emanuel Steward. Lewis’ final record stands at 41-2-1 (32).
A champion’s place in history, however, goes much deeper than just the numbers on a piece of paper. For Middleweight Champion Jake LaMotta was asked if he thought he were deserving of his Hall of Fame Status after making only two successful defenses of the title.
LaMotta’s response was that greatness was a lot more than just numbers. Despite only 2 defenses of his title and 19 losses throughout his career, LaMotta handed the great Sugar Ray Robinson his first defeat. He rallied to score an inspirational, come from behind 15th round knockout of Frenchman Laurent Dauthuille. The fight was voted as Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine in 1950. LaMotta’s legendary chin also took him 102 fights before ever being knocked to the canvas.
And so, with this in mind, let’s take a much closer look at the career of Lennox Lewis.
During his three reigns as Heavyweight Champion, Lewis defended the title a total of 14 times. Fourteen title defenses is nothing to sneeze at. Unlike a fighter like Larry Holmes, however, who had 20 successful defenses that included 15 wins inside the distance… Lewis actually lost the title twice during that period of time. Not only did he lose, he lost as the result of “one punch” knockout defeats to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman.
It would be unfair, however, to magnify these details while relegating the others to the back burner.
Within those 41 victories are wins over some very big punchers including – David Tua, Tommy Morrison, Razor Ruddock, Hasim Rahman, Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko. When focused, Lewis seemed very skilled at protected what some considered to be a susceptibility to a big punch. He also went to war, toe-to-toe, trading punches for 10 rounds against Ray Mercer which seems to belie the weak chin theory.
Lewis also faced and defeated a very capable boxer in Tony Tucker came in with an impressive record of 49-1 (40) with his only defeat coming against a prime Mike Tyson in a decision loss over 12 rounds.
Tucker was the real deal.
He also defeated an outstanding boxer/puncher in Evander Holyfield. Another opponent, Andrew Golota, was one of the more talented Heavyweights of the era. Golota totally unraveled against Lewis, succumbing to a first round knockout defeat.
I personally remember the Razor Ruddock fight perhaps best of all. I was driving up the east coast at the time and stopped at a Hotel for the night just to watch the fight. Two rounds and three knockdowns later, the fighter who gave a Tyson two tough fights a year earlier was done for the night.
Lewis was one of the first fighters of modern times to win a title at the advanced age of 36. For Lewis, it would be his third reign and final reign. By the age of 36, fighters like Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali and many others were long past their peaks.
Lewis’ first title reign ended abruptly in his fourth title defense. He defended his title successfully 9 times during his second reign. That included two controversial fights against a slightly past prime Evander Holyfield. The first fight was a travesty in judging. Lewis retained the title by a draw in a fight most ringsiders thought he clearly won. Lewis won the rematch. Interestingly enough, many people including myself thought Holyfield did enough to win the fight. It was if one injustice balanced another in this particular case.
His defense against Henry Akinwande was a total disgrace to the sport. Henry hugged and clinched his way to a disqualification loss.
Shannon Briggs rocked Lewis badly in the opening round. So much so, it appeared that Lennox was well on his way to becoming an ex-champion once again. He recovered and sent Briggs to the canvas 3 times in registering a 5th round stoppage.
Evander Holyfield, who fought two fairly close fights against Lewis, was also a three-time titlist. He never made more than 4 title defenses in a row.
When it came to convincing title defenses, Mike Tyson’s nine one-sided defenses was far more impressive as was a prime Holmes whose 20 title defenses was second only the great Joe Louis’ record of 25 defenses.
Holmes made trips to the canvas compliments of Ernie Shavers and Renaldo Snipes. In both cases, however, he climbed off the floor to score stoppage victories.
To Lewis’ credit, he stopped by Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman in rematches. This is not something to be taken lightly as the general rule of thumb in boxing is… if one fighter knocks out another… they’ll do so even easier in the return match (should there be one). Lewis stretched out Rahman with one punch, relieving Rahman on the title with a single shot as a single shot had relieved him of a title. Oliver McCallum unraveled in the middle of a live televised bout, appearing to have an emotional breakdown in the middle of the fight.
In the 5th round, McCall appeared to have neither interest in fighting nor defending himself. Mills Lane pulled the plug on the contest 55 seconds into the round.
Lewis faced the man promoted to be the Heavyweight of the future in Michael Grant. With a record of 31-0 and standing 6’ 7” 250 lbs. with an 86” reach… Grant was considered to be the Heavyweight of the future by many experts. Two rounds later, Michael Grant become a “Heavyweight of the past” and was never in serious contention for the title again.
Lewis’ final test came three months before his 38th birthday against Vitali Klitschko.
A past-prime Lewis seemed to lack the timing and coordination that he been his years earlier. Besides opening up bad gash above the left eye of Vitali Klitschko early in the fight, he wasn’t able to mount any type of sustained offense. The fight was stopped in the 6th round with Lewis behind by two points on all three judges’ scorecards.
The Klitschko fight would be Lewis’ grand finale. At the age of 36, just past his peak, Lewis hung up his gloves for good.
So how good was Lennox Lewis? On the right night, Lewis had the size, jab and right hand and heart to beat any man who ever stepped into the ring. It wouldn’t have been easy… but he had all the right stuff. Conversely, on the wrong night, he could be the victim of yet another stoppage or decision loss upset.