By Thomas Hauser: When Mike Tyson steps into the ring for his annual public workout on July 30th, once again he'll be fighting a British citizen.
Danny Williams follows in the wake of Frank Bruno, Julius Francis, and Lennox Lewis. Boxing fans know that Tyson fought Bruno twice. It's a lesser known fact that he and Lennox met in the ring several times.
Lennox's road to boxing was a circuitous one. After moving to Canada from London, he was subjected to frequent taunts in school because of his size and accent. Fights with disciplinary consequences often followed. At age twelve, to avoid a row that would have brought further punishment, he suggested that the would-be combatants settle their differences at a local gym -- the Waterloo Regional Police Boxing Association facility. Lennox showed up for the confrontation; the other side didn't. And out of curiosity, Lennox went inside on his own.
The gym was run by a police sergeant named Jerome "Hook" McComb. He introduced Lennox to a coach named Arnie Boehm. In his first amateur fight, Lennox knocked out his opponent in two rounds. By age fifteen, after three years of boxing, he was undefeated and the Ontario Golden Gloves 165-pound champion. At age eighteen, he won a gold medal at the World Junior Championships. Then, in the spring of 1984, Boehm brought him to Catskill, New York, to spar for a week with a young man named Mike Tyson, who was training under the tutelage of Cus D'Amato. Lennox was eighteen; one year older than Tyson.
"Arnie and I got to Catskill and met Cus," Lennox recalls. "He told us that Mike would be home later in the day, but he wasn't there before I went to bed that night. The first time I saw him was the next day at the gym. I was tall and lanky back then. Mike was stocky, very muscular, a real powerhouse. He looked a lot older than seventeen."
"We put the gloves on," Lennox remembers. "The bell rang. And Mike ran across the ring trying to hurt me. He wasn't sparring. It wasn't about the two of us learning and working out together. He was trying to knock me out. I threw a jab. He ducked under it and came back with a hook that sent me back against the ropes. Later in the round, he knocked me down and bloodied my nose. And I realized then, 'Okay, this is how it goes. It's not a sport. This is life and death.' You need certain dramas to wake you up to certain realities in life. That round introduced me to the reality of boxing."
Arnie Boehm later recalled that, on the first day, Lennox "dodged and ran to get away from Mike because he wasn't accustomed to meeting a guy that ferocious."
Lennox says simply, "The whole first day in the ring, I was adjusting. And each day after that, I got better. I guess you could say that I was doing my Muhammad Ali impersonation and Mike was doing his Joe Frazier impersonation. By the third day, I was holding my own. And I gave him a busted lip, which made me feel good because I felt that then we were even."
"Outside the ring," Lennox remembers, "even though Mike and I were staying in the same house, there was very little interaction between us. One evening, we looked at footage of old fight films together. One of the films was of Jersey Joe Walcott. I could see how Walcott would step back to lure his opponent in and then -- BAM -- come back with a quick right hand. And one afternoon, I went with Mike to some girl's house to pick up a package she had for him. But overall, he was cold to me."
Lennox captured a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Then he turned pro, won the WBC title in 1993, and became undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in 1999. But Mike Tyson was always lurking in the background. And as time went on, things got ugly between them.
"The ugliness was a surprise," Lennox acknowledges. "After our sparring sessions in Catskill, Mike was always pleasant to me. Then, all of a sudden, I saw him on television threatening to eat my children. And after that, there was the press conference, when he attacked me and bit my thigh. Once that happened, people kept asking me, 'Aren't you afraid of Tyson.' And I'd tell them, 'No; not at all. I don't want to be one of his statistics outside the ring. But inside the ring, Tyson should be afraid of me.'"
"Manny [Emanuel Steward] told me for years that Tyson would be an easy fight for me," Lennox continues. "Mike's strengths are his left hook, the uppercut, and his body attack. But I knew that, if I kept him away with my jab, he wouldn't be able to get inside to go to my body or throw the uppercut. And if I kept my right hand glued to my cheek, I'd be protected against the hook. Buster Douglas showed how to beat Tyson before I did. Box him and push him back; that's all. And those sparring sessions in Catskill helped me when Mike and I fought in Memphis. Every experience in life helps. And because of those sessions, on a very primitive level, I knew what to expect from Mike."
Lennox now has a scar the size of a quarter on his left thigh. Like Evander Holyfield's ear, it's a permanent reminder of Tyson's savagery. But the retired champion prefers to dwell on a fonder memory of his Tyson experience.
"Right before I left Catskill," Lennox recalls, "Cus D'Amato told me, 'You're good and you'll get better. Someday, you and Mike will meet in the pros.'" A pensive look crosses Lennox's face. "I wish Cus were still alive," he says. "I wish he could see what Mike and I reached and what we achieved in boxing."
July 28, 2004.
Picture: Tom Casino (Showtime)