By Nick Friend
Just as Wladimir Klitschko reminded a rapturous Wembley crowd, during a magnanimous and classy speech after an epic battle for the ages, boxing was a sport made in Britain.
And so, as the Ukrainian graciously accepted defeat, there was something of a ceremonial handover about proceedings as the grandmaster handed over to his apprentice on a remarkable night of boxing. Two giants from two different eras proving that with a bit of humility and a touch of grace, entertainment can be struck without press conference fights, without sick inhumane threats and without the gimmicky trash-talk that often overshadows the main event.
So, as Anthony Joshua went from burgeoning young hope to national treasure, it was fitting that he should do so in front of 90,000 adoring fans. All were spellbound by the heart that accompanied the unparalleled wild power of the most exciting heavyweight of the last decade – a man with the boxing world at his feet and the capability to transcend his minority sport into mainstream British culture.
On this night of all nights, with two Olympic gold medallists providing a rip-roaring slugfest, coupled with bucket-loads of class and respect for opponent and sport alike, it was appropriate that this changing of the guard should take place just yards from the eyes of Lennox Claudius Lewis CBE, the man who was king – the last Brit to preside over the heavyweight division.
Lewis, the last undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, remains the greatest boxer to be born on these shores. Like Joshua, from his mammoth stature he dominated the division with similar panache. Joshua hailed him as an ‘inspiration’ in the midst of his emotional – albeit adrenalin-fuelled – victory speech.
Although Lewis represented Canada in winning gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he was born in London and returned to Britain after turning professional. In the words of the great George Foreman, Lewis is “no doubt, the best heavyweight of all time.” Lewis, however, disagrees.
Typically respectful, he states simply, “I consider Ali the best ever. He changed everything in the heavyweight division. At his best, there was no one better.” Lewis’s admiration for his idol is no surprise. He considered Muhammad Ali to be a father figure to him, their relationship seeing Lewis acting as a pallbearer at the great fighter’s funeral.
Yet, for all his humility and rejection of Foreman’s tribute, the facts don’t lie – the career of Lennox Lewis stacks up alongside the greats of any sport. Having moved to Canada as a twelve-year-old and flourished as a key member of his school’s basketball and football teams, it was the individuality of boxing that led ‘The Lion’ to choose the ring over his alternatives.
“On team sports, you can have a great season and in the championship game a teammate can drop the ball or miss a shot and it’s all over. I liked boxing because I didn’t have to rely on others to win – only myself.
“If you’re gifted with all of the physical aspects, then [a great boxer] is someone who is committed to learning the art of boxing, who is willing to sacrifice to achieve his or her goals. Life has a way of weeding out those who aren’t prepared to stay fully committed and focused on their goals, someone who is willing to learn in any way possible – from other people’s mistakes, or from your own, you must be open to learning. Someone who is disciplined enough to stay focused inside and outside of the ring on all of the things necessary to reach their goals and better themselves.”
In Lewis’s answers, the similarities to Joshua – a fellow gold medallist – are palpable. The steely cold win-at-all-costs professionalism that both share is equaled by the gentlemanly graciousness with which both supreme athletes speak – a trait so lacking in modern boxing.
There is no egotism in either character, just an understanding of the singlemindedness required to flourish in the brutal world of the heavyweight division.
“I knew I was good and I could win some trophies,” Lewis readily acknowledges of his early career. “Then I realized I was very good. From that point, I wanted to be the best and prove it by fighting the best.”
On whether he enjoyed the feeling of knocking out his opponents, Lewis is as philosophical as he is pragmatic. Ultimately, he admits with the hard-headedness of an undisputed and highly respected champion, “It’s just part of the sport. It means the fight is over and there’s no more work that night. Of course, I’m also happy to have the victory and put on a good show for my fans but if the knockout comes then great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too as long as I get the win.”
Such was his focus in the ring, Lewis maintains that “I never really felt the punches as I fought. I was so focused on my fight game that it’s like I didn’t notice them.” After turning professional following his Olympic success, Lewis would fight on forty-four occasions. He would emerge victorious from all but three, avenging defeats – to Hasim Rahman and Oliver McCall, while defeating Evander Holyfield in a rematch after the pair drew after an epic twelve-round encounter.
A mark of Lewis as a man is his respect for those with whom he shared the ring. Holyfield, he calls his “toughest competitor,” lauding him as “a true warrior and I’m now happy just to call him a friend.” Yet, it is equally telling that this companionship does not extend to all his rivals. Despite the magnitude of huge names disposed of in an illustrious professional career, it is the rematch victory over Rahman that provided Lewis with the most satisfaction.
Having claimed a fifth round knockout over Lewis in South Africa – a defeat Lewis labels as “a fluke” and the result of a failure to acclimatise to the altitude of the South African arena – Rahman taunted Lewis, with a US Federal Court hearing required to grant the rematch.
Among his forty-one victims, Lewis saw off Frank Bruno, Ray Mercer – in his “toughest fight,” Shannon Briggs and Mike Tyson, before signing off his professional career with a sixth-round stoppage of Vitali Klitschko in a haphazardly arranged bout.
Despite a rematch clause in the contract with Klitschko, Lewis opted not to redefend his titles, in doing so, retiring alongside Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano as the only heavyweight champions to suffer no unavenged defeats.
“Father Time waits on no one,” he explains. “I made a decision early on in my career about my goals in the professional ranks and when I would retire. In boxing, either you retire it or it will retire you. I’ve seen too many greats who fought too long and lost to people they never would have in their younger days. By the time I fought Tyson, I was already talking retirement. After many years of trying, the thought of finally fighting Tyson was the only thing I really wanted but it always looked like it wasn’t going to happen for one reason or another. When I was in a position to make it happen, I did.
“After the Tyson fight, HBO talked me into a two-fight deal which included my final fight against Vitali Klitschko. It was a tough fight and took some time to make the proper adjustments but when I did, I could feel him getting weaker as I got to him more and more. I felt it was only a matter of time before I could get him out but they stopped the fight on the massive cut he had. I considered a rematch, but my mindset was already that this was my last fight.
“Besides, I had just given him what he said was his toughest fight ever on ten days’ notice, and in my worst shape. No one had touched him like that before or since. So, I can only imagine what would happen with me in tip-top shape. The thought of another training camp and all of the things that surround a promotion like that just didn’t excite me anymore so I did what I knew I should have done and retired.”
His retirement, however, left the heavyweight division without a frontrunner, devoid of the razzmatazz of the previous era, with Holyfield and Tyson also hanging up their gloves. In the words of Lewis, the product provided by his successors was “dismal.”
“It’s starting to get a pulse again after ten years of domination by Klitschko against mediocre opponents, you’re now starting to see life and excitement back in the division because the playing field has been levelled out.
“The Kiltschkos rose at a time where it was just perfect timing for them, the old guard like myself, Holyfield and Tyson were at the end of our careers and the new talent wasn’t experienced enough to give them a real run for their money, so you had this gap in the division that they filled. I call it the Klitschko gap. It’s not their fault – you can only fight who’s in front of you, but it definitely put the division to sleep.
“Now with Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, and Deontay Wilder, the division has a heartbeat again. The heavyweights used to rule the boxing world. It still has a long way to go before it’s gets back to those days, but at least it’s getting interesting again.”
Photograph: nickon via Flickr