Lennox Lewis - hoganphotos.com
By Paul Upham: It’s not every day that you get to sit down for lunch with someone once regarded the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. The way heavyweight boxing is going today with no one universally recognised champion, Lennox Lewis could be the last undisputed champion for a very long time. While he retired in February 2004, many fans still regard him as the real king of the heavyweight division.
"I think it’s great," Lewis says with pride. "Even now, people tell me I am a true champion. ’You are the champion still. There is nobody else around’, they say. That’s because the guys who have come along, they don’t stay around too long. Look at Vitali Klitschko, look at Hasim Rahman. They are not staying around as champion too long."
Only two other previous heavyweight champions have retired on top and never returned to the ring. Lewis is in good company with legends Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano. Unlike Lewis 41-2-1 (32), two big name former heavyweight champions continuing on past their best days today are Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr.
"They have got big egos," said Lewis, giving his belief as to why they fight on. "They need the money. I don’t. They miss the glory. I don’t. They may have people around them who are telling them, ’you can still do it’. That’s because the people around them want to get paid. I think they should retire. Obviously, they don’t."
Always a thinking fighter, Lewis’ decision to retire on top will be one that will benefit him for the rest of his life. Not fighting exclusively for money was the key.
"The difference is I set goals," he explained. "I set a goal for myself to become undisputed heavyweight champion, have a couple of defences and retire. Once you become undisputed champion, there is no higher. What you would be doing is basically boxing for money. I don’t box for money. I box for glory and I understand that the money follows. If I don’t have the hunger, I don’t feel I need to step into the ring. The hunger is what drives me. I am competitive and that is what drives me. If you say I can’t do it, I’m going to say, ’what?’ Especially the media. The media helped me to be great, because they said I couldn’t do it and that I was going to lose. Automatically I train for it and I’m going to prove them wrong. That’s what really drives me. If I don’t have that hunger, there is no use. You can tell in my boxing. I will be boxing, but if you hit me, that wakes me up. Who likes to be hit? So, that wakes me up. That’s what makes me box and perform at my highest."
When meeting Lewis in person for the first time, the most immediately noticeable aspect is the size of his forearms. Thick, log like trunks that flow into a huge set of hands. While he has put on some weight since his fighting days, Lewis’ height, wide set of shoulders and flowing dreadlocks make him an intimidating sight and his muscled back indicates that he is not too far away from his best condition. "I’ve just started training again regularly to stay in shape," he said. While lining up at the buffet table, Lewis was asked his favourite food. "I’m on a seafood diet," he laughed. "I see food and I eat it." Yet having said that, he only helped himself to a plate of salad.
In Australia last week to promote the new heavyweight tournament Superfighter in Melbourne on December 2, Lewis is the Ambassador and television commentator for the pay-per-view event, which will match eight leading heavyweights together in a knockout format. Each fight is only four by three minute rounds.
"If you are able to deal with all of the styles, that makes you the Superfighter," he said. "The winner will be the Superfighter. Definitely, they will be seen as a champion. Once you have won a tournament of your peers, you have to gain some resect from the boxing fraternity. They will be looking at the fact that you have boxed three times against sperate opponents in four hours and come through."
Lewis loves the concept of Superfighter, which is the reason he accepted the role as official Ambassador and would have willingly competed had it been around a decade ago.
"If Superfighter was around ten years ago," he said, "that’s what would have happened. Holyfield, (Mike) Tyson, (Riddick) Bowe and me together. That would have been great. There are some guys who are good in the first half of the fight or the first three rounds. There are others who are supposed to be the best, but when you put them in a tournament style like this, they can’t survive, because they are used to training for six months for one person. Now you are in the situation where you can’t train six months for one person. You have to train for every style. That’s what makes you a Superfighter."
While he has an aura about him and carries himself in a classy, world champion way, Lewis also has a coolness which sees him able to relax quickly when talking to people for the first time.
Proud of his achievements in the ring, Lewis admits he does not miss competing.
"No, I don’t," he said. "Obviously, you love when the crowd cheers for you. You love the thrill of knocking someone out. Anybody who hasn’t knocked anybody out doesn’t know that feeling yet. I look at it like in the movie ’Highlander’. You knock someone out and you steal their power. Like scoring a goal. Everyone jumps on your back and you feel great."
The grind of training is not something he misses either.
"Yeah," he agrees. "For me, I used to get up at 5am and go running. As I got older, I reached 9 in the morning, 10 in the morning. Training meant getting the running, getting the gym work in, then make sure I’m rested."
While his days as an active boxer are over, the goods news is that Lewis is still involved in the sport as a television commentator for the American network HBO.
"I’m just doing some commentary," he said, "doing some movies, looking after my family. Trying to make money without stepping into the ring."
Lewis appeared in the 2005 movie "Johnny Was" playing a Rastafarian reggae pirate DJ, which also starred former English football star Vinnie Jones.
"Acting and boxing is drama," Lewis said, explaining the similarities of the two. "Boxing is filled with great drama."
Before his loss to Hasim Rahman in April 2001, Lewis had a taste of Hollywood when he appeared in the George Clooney and Brad Pitt movie "Oceans Eleven".
"It was kind of weird," said Lewis. "You have to do a lot of standing around and sitting around. You go back to the trailer. Then you go out, shoot a scene and you come back. I like to be doing things, rather than sitting around."
Will we see Lewis involved in more movies?
"Yes," he replies, "but not the acting part. I’d rather be behind the camera. Maybe a director or one of those guys who says, ’you’re continuity is not right, do it again!’ (laughing)
Speaking in his thick English accent, Lewis pronounces every syllable and holds court for the next hour over lunch in a thoughtful, witty and at times extremely funny interview discussing a range of topics from all aspects of his career and boxing.
On working out when to retire
"When it comes to boxers, they should know themselves. Like for me, I realised that my main focus was Tyson. But after Tyson, I had no focus any more. Klitschko never called me names or sad anything bad about me. There was no drive, no hunger for me to fight him, so if you step in there dealing with the money and you are just going after the money and not dealing with the hunger and the glory aspect, you are really going uphill and fighting an uphill battle."
Will Bernard Hopkins fight again?
"He will fight again. He is staying in shape."
On Oleg Maskaev’s knockout win over Hasim Rahman
"He did very well. I didn’t think he was going to win, but as the fight developed, I could see how Rahman was fighting the fight wrong. If you are going to be heavyweight champion of the world, you have got to know how to win. You have to fight every fight with your heart. The other opponent has heart too, so it is a heart to heart."
On Joe Calzaghe fighting in America
"A lot of Americans don’t know Calzaghe too much. These last two fights with (Sakio) Bika and (Jeff) Lacy were when they really got to see him. They really still don’t know who he is."
On the legacy of Lennox Lewis
"A lot of the boxers have said they want to do what Lennox Lewis has done, retiring as champion, which is good."
Should Oscar De La Hoya retire now or face Floyd Mayweather Jr?
"I think he should retire. There is no way he can beat Mayweather. Mayweather is too quick for him. That is like Mayweather versus Arturo Gatti. Why did they make that fight? I put a whole heap of money on that fight because I knew the outcome."
Can anyone beat Floyd Mayweather Jr?
"See, a lot of the people don’t realise that boxing is survival of the fittest. That means that you have to be able to survive a cut, have good endurance, not get knocked out. All these factors are involved to make you a great boxer. You can be a great boxer, but if you have hand problems, it is going to lessen your chances. You can be a great boxer, but if you cut easy, there is always that chance some guy is going to throw a wild punch and cut you and you lose a fight on a cut, so it is always survival of the fittest."
On boxers losing a lot of weight to make their weight class
"They lose twenty pounds quickly to make weight. They lose a lot of water to make weight. When it comes to fight time, some have really had to squeeze out that last couple of pounds and that is what does them in. That’s how a lot of fighters get hurt. Once you get in that heavy twelve round fight, that don’t have that water in them and they get hurt. As they get older, they still think they can do it."
If you see Mike Tyson in public, do you say anything to him?
"Yeah, he is OK with me now. I haven’t seen him mad, like on television, carrying on. I never knew him like that."
What about Tyson at your infamous New York press conference?
"That was mad. I don’t know what happened there. I’m at the press conference wearing a three-piece suit. One thing Don King said to me one time, ’Save it for the ring. Don’t give it to them free’.
Did Tyson really bite your leg?
"I wish I could show it to you."
On finally fighting Tyson
"It was a fight that I didn’t even know if it was ever going to take place. I was supposed to fight him before his incarceration. After his incarceration he was supposed to fight me, but he went and fought Evander Holyfield. Then he went through all these little problems, but he was still around."
On Don King
"I actually like being around him, because I am always learning things. He is always talking. He can be funny too."
On the Andrew Golota knockout win
"I step into the arena and there are Polish fans hanging off the rafters. Fights everywhere. I go out there, the fight only lasts a minute. I turn around, nobody in the place, they have all left. They leave fast. Before the fight they are singing and making a whole heap of noise. After when you look around, they are gone."
On beating David Tua
"I was always one step ahead of him. He was like a guy trying, but he wasn’t there. He wanted to settle down after the first round. I hit him with a punch and he just covered up after that."
On Ricky Hatton
"Ricky Hatton’s style, although you can’t change his style now, there is a lot of American’s who would welcome that style. In your face like that. Where my trainer Emanuel Steward teaches step back, boom! Step back, boom! For guys that come on like that, that’s how you lull them into it."
On his most awkward win
"It would have to be Zeljko Mavrovic. They put us in the ring where the lights were burning my head. That’s how hot it was. It was like a sauna. It was a difficult because he was moving around. It was awkward. This guy trained two years just for me. This is who he wanted to box."
Since Lewis’ retirement, there has been no clear-cut heavyweight world champion. The four main title-holders now all hailing from the former Soviet Union.
"I do have a personal favourite and it would have to be Wladimir Klitschko, because he has my trainer," said Lewis. "He has gone to my training camp and he wants to know everything about me. He is very attached to it in the sense that he wants to be good and he wants to be a champion. I think that is commendable."
Klitschko was written off by many after his knockout losses to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, but he is now trying to work his way back and return better just as Lewis did in his own career.
"That’s the way I look at it," agreed Lewis. "I wouldn’t have been as good as I am unless I had those losses. The losses give you that character to become a true champion. That proves that you are a true champion to be able to come back from a loss. Realise your mistake, adjust and come back and win."
During the Superfighter press conference, vision was shown to the media of Oliver McCall knocking out Lewis in September 1994. The defeat still hurts. Lewis putting his large hands over the top of the video screen telling the media "don’t look".
"Yeah, it was one of those situations," said Lewis, "where I was throwing a punch, but my punch came like this (wide), his punch was shorter and his shorter arms won out on that one."
At the age of 41, the same as Lewis, McCall is still fighting as a professional and will be one of eight boxers in Superfighter.
"Yeah, I am surprised he is still doing it," said Lewis. "But there is nobody around and there is a lot of guys he could probably beat."
The observation that McCall is still fighting for money momentarily triggers something in Lewis.
"There is a lot of money," he mused. "If I came back right now, there would be some big, big money."
But why risk his legacy?
"That’s why I don’t come back," he replies.
Is his legacy of retiring as reigning world champion that important that he could turn down US$50 million for one fight?
"Yes it is."
Between October 1992 and February 2004, Lewis made fourteen successful world title defences over three title reigns.
"I don’t look at it as the toughest man," said Lewis, in defining what being heavyweight champion of the world means. "I look at it as being king of the hill. I always tell people it is lonely at the top. The only problem with that, especially when you are undisputed champion, you have three guys threatening to sue you for their mandatory because they want the fight. But you can only fight one person at a time."
While he was involved in many exciting fights, Lewis does not find it hard to select his most memorable win.
"I have a few, but my last favourite win was the rematch against Rahman," he said. "I actually went to Africa for our first fight because I wanted to follow in Muhammad Ali’s footsteps in the sense of boxing in Africa, the homeland and having a big, big fight over there. But unfortunately, it didn’t turn out well for me. Then, to have a rematch with Rahman and he ran away from me. I took him to three courts around the world. The only thing that he couldn’t stop was that he signed a personal guarantee for a rematch. Luckily, I made him do that, because that’s what really saved me."
Lewis speaks with great passion and feeling about the knockout of Rahman in Las Vegas in November 2001. The 4th round victory to regain the heavyweight crown for second time meant a lot to him.
"It did," he said. "It rekindled a dwindling light within me as champion. I was hanging around having a couple of defences. There was really nobody else out there for me. I was waiting around for Tyson. I wanted to keep busy so I picked Rahman. That was a mistake, but it turned out well in the end. In the first fight he threw a great punch and my chin happened to be in the way. He was going on unprofessional afterwards. Calling me names. I said to myself, ’OK, don’t worry’. I’m going back to the dungeons, while he is running around saying he is champion."
Before the rematch there was also their unforgettable wrestling match in an ESPN studio.
"All of that really wound me up," said Lewis. "That day, if you watch the tape of us wrestling, I grabbed a medallion from around his neck and I was holding it out to him. He was saying, ’give my chain back’. I said, ’come for it’ and he wouldn’t come for it. Since I’m not a thief, I just threw it back at him. Then the night of our rematch, I’m getting gloved up and watching him on TV trying to get into my change rooms. I’m saying, ’who does that?’ This is the most important fight of his career and he is trying to get into my change room to see me glove up. That’s stupid. Right then I knew I had him. The fight was really positive. I went back to my movement and he couldn’t stand that. At certain parts of the fight he was trying to call me on, but I was just using my sweet science. Then he made that mistake of going like that (holds his arms out). My right hand was usually straight, but I kind of brought it around like that. A great punch. I put him on the floor. Don King was happy, ’Oh, you knocked him right on the crown, the crown was on his head.’"
One of the hardest things for any boxer to do is to come back and beat the fighter who knocked you out without any tune-up fight. Lewis did it in style.
"What happens," explained Lewis, "is you have a lot of people, especially the press saying, ’but does he still have it, isn’t he making this mistake by coming back so soon after he got knocked out?’ I had to put that out of my mind, because I knew that it was more or less a slip that caught me when he knocked me down. It wasn’t the fact that he was beating me up."
Lewis says the punch from Rahman that floored him is another example of, "the drama of boxing".
"I was in the fight," he observed, "and I was on my way to knocking him out. I was taking him into the deep end. If you see the last two rounds, I carried him halfway around the ring. I would take him to my corner at the end of the round so I could sit on my stool as soon as possible, where he had to walk across the ring to his corner. I was getting as much rest as possible. The commentators were saying that I was tired. I was thinking later ’what are you talking about.’"
While he has a number of residences around the world, Lewis primarily lives in Miami with his family. In ten years time, he can see himself doing the same sort of things he is doing right now.
"On the boxing scene commentating, movies, yes," he agreed. "I don’t think I’ll be in music. A lot of people are always giving me CD’s and demo tape’s because they heard rumours I’m involved. But the music business can be just as bad as the boxing business. I have friends in it and it is terrible."
It has been an unforgettable journey for Lewis since he was first born in West Ham, England in September 1965. Asked if he still followed the local football team West Ham United, Lewis burst into tune with the team’s anthem.
"I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air. They fly so high, nearly reach the sky," he crooned.
"I followed them for a long time," Lewis said. "Hammers for life."
On top of that you can add the titles of heavyweight world champion, boxing ambassador and the perfect example of consummate cool.