By Thomas Gerbasi
November 30, 2016
Many great artists aren’t truly appreciated until after they’re gone. Lennox Lewis, who turned 51 on September 2, is in that category.
Think about it. What would “The Pugilist Specialist” do with the crop of titlists sitting atop the heavyweight division he once ruled?
Deontay Wilder. Tyson Fury. Anthony Joshua. All young, all talented. But could they compare to a prime Lewis? Some believe at 51 he could still teach the youngsters a thing or two. It’s why his April Fools’ Day joke in 2012, where he Tweeted about a rematch with Vitali Klitschko, fooled so many and got the boxing world excited.
It’s because when Lewis was King, he was King. His name was even regal – Lennox Claudius Lewis. And could there be any better example of a WORLD champion than one who was born in England of Jamaican descent and then went on to represent Canada in the 1988 Olympics before fighting everywhere from London to Los Angeles, South Africa to Memphis?
For sure, absence has made the heart grow fonder for one of the sport’s all-time greats, but Lewis has never been one to worry about his place in the history books or how he is perceived by anyone outside of his family. He’s always been his own man, choosing to do things his way in a sport that has too many recurring negative images.
So when he walked away in 2004, after a stirring sixth-round stoppage of Vitali Klitschko in 2003, it was for good. And he never looked back, telling me in 2012, “It’s like asking a guy if he misses getting punched in his face. No, I don’t miss it. But I do miss the kind of attraction I once gave.”
It’s one sorely missing these days. As great as Wladimir Klitschko was during his long reign atop the division, only a handful – if that – of his title defenses captured the imagination of the public outside Europe. Fury, Joshua and Wilder have the potential to make some noise, but only if they fight each other. In many ways, that’s not their fault given the state of the division, but even when Lewis dominated, he did so against dance partners named Holyfield, Tyson, Klitschko, Bruno, Tua and Golota, just to name a few.
And when Lewis was in a big fight, the world knew it, and if you asked the average guy on the street who the heavyweight champion was, the answer came back immediately. It was almost comforting to know in the age of sanctioning bodies and fractured titles, the people were aware that the best of the bunch was still clear. That’s not the case today.
“I’m telling people that I’m like fine wine,” he laughed. “They won’t realize what happened until later on. In one aspect, I kinda knew it because this is how history is. People don’t see it until later. There are certain things that blind them and then when they look around and say, ‘What happened?’ they realize. A lot of people say, ‘Boxing’s not the same since you left.’ I get that everywhere from all different nationalities, which is a great compliment.”
These days, Lewis is still as comfortable in his own skin as he’s ever been, and he’s embraced family life in addition to his role of ambassador for his sport. His trademark dreadlocks are gone, yet one look at him during recent television appearances have him appearing to be ready to jump into the ring at any time. But he’s not coming back. He wasn’t in 2012 when I asked him about it, and he’s not in 2016.
“In the aspect of ‘Did you see that fight? Man, I could get in there and do something with these guys. I can give them a great fight,’” he said. “And then I wake up and I realize it’s daytime and during the day I talk myself out of it. I say to myself, ‘Okay, you’ve made millions with boxing; just empty your cup and go on to something else. You’ve accomplished that goal already, set another goal and try to accomplish that.’”
That may be the greatest accomplishment of his career – leaving on top and with all of his faculties intact. You don’t see that in boxing, or in any sport for that matter, but Lewis has never been typical. Except in one aspect of his former day job. Yes, he was a gentleman. Yes, he represented the sport with class around the globe. But that didn’t stop him from being a fighter, and few were as competitive as Lewis, whose final resume didn’t include a fight with Wladimir Klitschko, but did see him defeat Vitali Klitschko. When I spoke to him in 2012, I asked him about the most accomplished sibling team ever seen in the division and a pair always linked with him during the latter part of his career.
“When it comes to the Klitschkos, they’re great guys, lovely guys, they’ve just been brought up a certain way,” he said. “My history of boxing comes from Muhammad Ali. I love the middleweights like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, and it depends on what kind of trainer you get. If you get an old-time trainer, they’re gonna say it all breaks down to mental strength. Even if your arm’s broken and the other one’s good, you still use it. You say you’re hurt and you can’t run anymore, what are you talking about? If you’re still breathing and still standing, you can run more. Only when you pass out you can’t run. It’s that type of mental thinking. And they (the Klitschkos) come from a different place with their sense of boxing. They’re doctors, so if they’re hurt, they say you need to fix that and get the best doctors possible. Why hurt it anymore? They’re coming from a different thinking aspect. We’re thinking, ‘It’s hurting and I can’t use it, but I’m gonna go out on my shield.’ They’re thinking, ‘Oh no, don’t hurt it anymore, you gotta get it fixed.’ And that translates into their boxing as well. They’re scoring points. And they forget that this is boxing and we’re supposed to be gladiators. People want to see either you render the other guy unconscious or you trying to do so.”
Lewis never pulled punches, in the ring or out, and that statement proves it. And though pegged with the “Thinking man’s boxer” tag, his greatest performances came when he hit the gas and showed that when push comes to shove, he was more fighter than boxer.
Like on November 17, 2001, when he walked into the ring at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas to James Brown’s “The Big Payback” and then launched a right hand that put his title belts back in his possession and ended Hasim Rahman’s night and reign.
Lewis kind of liked that one too.
“That was a good night. We had a great Christmas after that.”