Three-time world champion, two-time lineal champion, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world: Lennox Lewis’ career achievements read like an ode to legendary fighting. That’s before you even get down to the nitty gritty of 41 wins in 44, with a whopping 32 knockouts to boot. The 6’ 5” ‘pugilist specialist’ went toe-to-toe with some of the sport’s most iconic names and came out victorious, but Lewis is adamant that being a true champion is as much about losing as it is winning.
“You can be heavyweight champion of the world but there are always mental dramas you have to deal with; it shows if you are a true champion or not,” the 53-year-old declares. “I suffered a few losses and then regained them - what kind of person does that? What was my mental aspect like? What was it that allowed me to regain the heavyweight championship of the world as opposed to falling astray like some do?”
Lewis’ legacy is all the more impressive given his early struggles with recognition and popularity.
Though he entered the professional scene fresh from winning gold medals at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympics, it was years before Lewis had won over the public on either side of the Atlantic. Although Lewis’ career was to extend until after 2004’s brutal and bloody encounter with Vitali Klitschko, the majority of Lewis’ fighting took place in the golden era of boxing.
And ‘The Lion’ was an integral player in that masterful cycle of heavyweight encounters that begun with Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson in the Sixties and ended three decades later with Mike Tyson mutilating Evander Holyfield. “The Tyson, Lewis, Holyfied, Riddick Bowe era: those were exciting times,” he nods. “Even Frank Bruno; it was an exciting time for boxing.”
Of course, Lewis had his own run in with ‘Iron’ Mike in 2002, which at the time was boxing’s biggest event. Tyson – up to his old tricks and eventually forced to surrender over $300,000 of his purse for biting Lewis at a press conference – remains one of the sport’s most controversial characters. But the eighth-round knockout that prompted George Foreman to declare Lewis “the best heavyweight of all time” and guaranteed him a $17million-plus pay-out is not top of the pile when it comes to choosing his greatest bout-ending blows.
“Not the Tyson fight,” he says. “For him, he was a rebel in the ring. he wants to hurt you - we all heard him say about punching the bone into my head and this and that. He looked at it all in a sadistic way, I looked at it in a sporting way. I’m trying to match my skill against yours and gain more points in this fight. It was the allure of both of us.
“But I’d say the Rock Rahman fight was my greatest knockout. He was a guy that had beaten me - he hyped it up, he was saying ‘no more Tyson, Lewis’. What people don’t realise is that I had to chase this guy around the world to three different judges to get him to fight me again - he couldn’t fight anyone else because he’d signed an agreement saying that he’d do the rematch with me!”
Casting his eye over the crop of contemporary fighters, he sees Tyson Fury as Anthony Joshua’s biggest threat going forward: “he’s got all to prove,” he says of the former champion. “And nothing to lose.” But when it comes to the modern age of boxing, Lewis still sees problems when the potential purse gets in the way of professional advancement, especially when it comes to management.
“I always have this argument with people that they feel good with their amateur trainers, and their amateur trainers want to go pro with them,” he sighs. “To me it never works that way. If you’re in public school, your public-school teacher doesn’t go to university with you - you have got to get a university professor! My trainer, Arnie Boehm – love his soul, he passed while I was finishing my professional career - he did something that a lot of trainers can’t do. He took me to another trainer and said, ‘I’ve taught him all I know, you can teach him more; you take it from here.’” For his own part, he’s keeping busy throughout his retirement. Quick to diffuse any sort of comeback talk – “Return to the ring doesn’t always mean fight! I could return to the ring and play chess!” – Lewis prefers instead to focus on burgeoning business opportunities, public appearances, his family, and his own first steps on the path to boxing management.
“There are so many things that are possible - commentating, going to different events and dinners, looking after my kids and business opportunities,” he explains. “A lot of my friends wanted me to get involved in the record business, but the whole thing changed, and you didn’t need a manager any more you could just put your stuff out on the internet, you didn’t need a label any more!
“I’ve done a little promotion, a little management. Now I’m managing a couple of fighters from Jamaica, so I’m looking at other fighters and helping them with their career. My career is done now so it’s time for me to give back and help other young prospects and fighters out there to achieve their goals.”
One thing for certain is the mantra by which Lewis lived by – and he hopes future generations of fighters, in a world where the financial side of sport provides such a draw, sit up and take note. After all, he was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
“They never remember how much money you make,” he booms. “They only remember what you’ve achieved!”