Work in Sports
The Great Brit Hope
Lennox Lewis, a product of London's East End, may give England its first undisputed heavyweight title in this century
By William Nack
Issue date: February 1, 1993
It was half past noon when the elevator doors slid open at a shopping mall in the London suburb of Bexleyheath and the reigning king of Britain's sporting world emerged from the lift and began moving purposefully through the crowd. Though trying to blend in, Lennox Lewis might as well have done handsprings from the mall's main corridor straight into Woolworth's. A handsome giant of a man at 6 ft. 5 in. and 230 pounds, erect in bearing and serene in countenance, Lewis was as inconspicuous as a Masai warrior striding among the smaller, fair-faced folk who stopped to stare.
"Why, it's Lennox Lewis!" Ilisha Driscoll, a 16-year-old student, whispered to her school companion, Carla Burchell. "Let's follow him."
"Oh, my god!" said Burchell. "My father's not going to believe this."
Indeed, since scoring a second-round knockout over Donovan (Razor) Ruddock on Oct. 31 in London, Lewis has been besieged by well-wishers urging him to do what no British-born heavyweight has done in this century. Behind a single, swift right hand that dropped Ruddock and scattered his senses at the end of the first round, and a flurry of punches that knocked Ruddock senseless 46 seconds into the second, the 27-year-old Lewis left the unmistakable impression that if given the chance, he would prove to be the best heavyweight fighter in the world.
Given the foul, degrading and disingenuous manner in which business is often conducted in boxing, Lewis may have to wait until 1994 to make the case that he's the best. When he flattened Ruddock, Lewis and his manager, Frank Maloney, believed that Lewis would get the first shot at the winner of the Nov. 13 Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe title bout, a shot that both Holyfield and Bowe had indicated they would give him.
However, after Bowe outpointed Holyfield, it quickly became clear that Bowe's manager, Rock Newman, had no more intention of having his fighter meet Lewis right away than he had of dancing with a chain saw. Newman tossed a low- ball offer at Lewis, which Lewis rejected; then, looking for big money and easy pickings, Newman and Bowe signed a six-fight contract with Time Warner Sports, whose president, Seth Abraham, had been pushing Lewis as the greatest heavyweight in the world -- "Lennox Lewis is the real deal," Abraham said last fall -- right up to the Bowe-Holyfield fight, after which he began hyping Bowe. "Riddick Bowe could make as much as $100 million if he wins all six fights," Abraham said.
The dead-meat parade begins at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 6, when Bowe steps into the ring against 34-year-old Michael Dokes, a 250-pound spent bullet whose battle against cocaine addiction has been quite as spectacular as any he has waged in the ring. Once he has dispatched Dokes, Bowe will entertain Ray Mercer in Atlantic City in May in another waste of time. After Mercer he may take on George Foreman and even Larry Holmes, boxing's senior citizens.
On Dec. 14 Bowe relinquished the World Boxing Council's version of the heavyweight title by dumping the WBC belt in the trash. It was an unnecessary bit of showmanship; the WBC was going to strip him anyway for ducking Lewis. No longer the undisputed champ, Bowe now holds the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation belts. The WBC conferred its title on Lewis.
As things turned out, Lewis also ended up in the bosom of Abraham. On Jan. 14 Time Warner Sports announced that it had signed Lewis to a four-fight, multimillion-dollar contract. Like Bowe, he must win to advance to the next bout. "We knew we couldn't make ((Bowe and Lewis)) fight each other," Abraham explains. "So we decided the next best thing is to put both men under contract and use our influence to get them to fight. It's courtesy and it's politic and it's good business to start with Bowe. If we start the other way, Rock Newman would not make a deal with us."
No sooner had Lewis been given the WBC title, than WBC president Jose Sulaiman, a career lapdog and puppet of promoter Don King, told Lewis to fight the WBC's No. 1 contender, Tony Tucker, who happens to be a client of . . . let's have a little drumroll here . . . Don King!
On looking back, it is likely that the WBC's aim in all this was to set things up for King, who has a stake in Ruddock. By whipping Lewis, Ruddock would have had a shot at the undisputed title or, again with Sulaiman's connivance, the inheritance of the WBC title by default. Lewis skewered the scenario by beating Ruddock. The WBC's demand that Lewis fight Tucker gives King his only chance to stay active in a division in which he has been a bit player ever since former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson was sent to prison. Lewis is hoping to avoid Tucker -- at 34 still a gifted fighter -- preferring the tamer Alex Stewart, but he is unlikely to get his wish.
However the chips fall politically, Lewis has an excellent chance of becoming the United Kingdom's first undisputed heavyweight champion since Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Gentleman Jim Corbett on March 17, 1897. But Fitzsimmons's credentials as a true Brit are questionable. Born in England, he emigrated to New Zealand as a boy and ended up in the U.S., where he was a naturalized citizen by the time he won the championship. In any case Fitzsimmons lost the crown in his first defense, against James J. Jeffries in 1899. Over the next 93 years, 10 British subjects fought for the title 12 times -- Brian London and Frank Bruno each fought for it twice -- without a single victory.
For years British boxing writers have endured the ribbing from their U.S. peers about the state of British heavyweights -- a state that has ranged from the ridiculous to the supine. The Brits themselves are not above deriding their gladiators. In October, Harry Mullan wrote in The Sunday Times of London, "As the writer Dorothy Parker might have put it, if all the British heavyweights in history were laid out end to end, she wouldn't be in the least surprised." So it is no wonder that Lewis's stunning victory over Ruddock has elevated him to the status of national hero. The London headlines screamed for days:
LEWIS HAS THAT ALI LOOK, bannered the Daily Express. HERO! cried The Sun, next to a picture of Lewis waving the British flag. UNION JACK LENNOX IS READY TO CONQUER WORLD.
BULLDOG! barked the Daily Mirror, whose story began, "Lennox Lewis can drape himself in the Union Jack and have the keys to the vaults of the Bank of England."
As the British suddenly found themselves with a true contender for the undisputed world title, Lewis found himself celebrated as he never was before. For years Lewis had fought the notion that, like Fitzsimmons, his claim to be a son of Great Britain was tenuous. After winning the super heavyweight gold medal for Canada at the 1988 Olympics, he returned to the England of his youth -- some said to exploit a market hungry for a heavyweight champion. In fact, says Lewis, who holds dual citizenship, he has affection for both countries. "I love Canada. And England, too. My roots are here," he says.
Lewis was born in London's East End in 1965 and raised in its tough, working-class neighborhoods. His Jamaican-born mother, Violet, moved from England to Canada with him when he was nine, sent him back to London to live with an aunt a year later and then sent for him two years after that, when he was 12 and getting into trouble. "I brought him back to Canada because I thought someone would abuse him or ill-treat him," she says. "He was very stubborn and hyperactive."
Lewis's brother, Dennis, who is four years older, figures that Lennox would not have long survived in the knockdown world of London's East End. "He'd be in prison today or worse," says Dennis. "He was a rogue. He'd jump on my friends and have a go. Picked fights a lot as a kid."
Violet had settled in Kitchener, Ont., 60 miles west of Toronto, and Lennox, living with his mother in a world demarcated by school and year-round sports, underwent one of those transformations that mothers can only hope for. "He turned out to be one of the most beautiful kids," she says.
It was during his first year back in Canada that Lennox walked into Arnie Boehm's gym in the Kitchener police headquarters, got popped on the nose so hard that his eyes watered and waded in for more. "Most kids would say, 'That's enough for me,' " recalls Boehm. "Lennox stayed in there."
Lewis had discovered his own New World. "I liked it," he says. "It was ego against ego. Both looking at each other all the time. A chess game. The one-on-one is what appealed to me about boxing." Lewis soon became so large, and so exceptional in the ring, that Boehm had difficulty matching him with kids his age. When Lewis was 15, and 175 pounds, Boehm entered him in the Ontario intermediate championships, for boys 17 and 18 years old, in which he met another strapping youth, 17-year-old Donovan Ruddock. Lewis lost a squeaker 3-2. "It was even till the start of the third round," says Boehm. "Then his stamina gave out. But from then on he blossomed."
A few years later he got another glimpse of the division's future. He sparred with a young, swarming boy named Mike Tyson. "A rough kid, but a really sweet guy, I thought," Lewis says.
Lewis was on his way to becoming one of the leading amateurs in Canada. Out of the ring, meanwhile, he was one of the finest schoolboy athletes in the province -- a graceful, powerful fullback on the Cameron Heights Collegiate High football team, a power forward on the basketball team and a shot-putter in track. He quit football after one year of varsity ball. "He would have been an awesome football player," says his coach, Ron Bell. "He had speed, he had strength, and he was tough. He was also a tremendous basketball player. And he was an excellent kid."
Eventually, Lewis stopped playing other sports to concentrate on boxing. In 1983 Lewis won the world juniors in the Dominican Republic, then won the first of five straight all-Canadian super heavyweight titles. The next year he lost a quarterfinal bout to Tyrell Biggs of the U.S. at the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles -- "Biggs was 23, and Lennox was only 18, just a baby," says Boehm. Four years later Lewis was back on the Canadian Olympic team, in Seoul. In what he and his handlers view as an augury, he won the super heavyweight gold when, in Round 2, he landed a chopping right hand to the head of Bowe -- the very same -- forcing the second standing-eight count of the match. "I hit him with some good shots, and the referee stopped the fight," says Lewis, shrugging. "I'll always have that win over him."
The following February, Maloney was sitting in the London office out of which he was promoting fights -- "I was just breaking into big-time boxing," he says -- when a British sports photographer, Lawrence Lustig, called him from Las Vegas. "How would you like to manage the first British fighter in this century to win the heavyweight championship of the world?" asked Lustig, who was in Vegas to cover the Tyson-Bruno fight. Maloney laughed and said, "What are you talking about?" Lustig told him that the young super heavy who had just won the Olympics was in Vegas looking for a manager. "He's a Canadian!" said Maloney.
"He was born and raised in east London," Lustig replied. "He's British. Do you realize what it would mean?"
Maloney, who was born in rough-and-tumble southeast London, a cockney by birth and a former amateur flyweight by choice, knew precisely what it would mean. "It would be like having your own bank," he says. Which would be quite a change for Maloney, who once worked as a groom at Epsom, looking to be a jockey.
He left after nine weeks of mucking out stalls. "They treated you like a serf," he says. "Coming from a deprived part of town -- it breeds villains and rogues -- I wanted my friends to look up to me. Money didn't matter. I wanted respect." So wanting, Maloney sold secondhand furniture, studied to be a chef, ran a green grocery and got into promoting boxers. Looking for money to sign Lewis, Maloney acquired backing from a group of investors who worked for British financier Roger Levitt, and made Lewis an offer. By then, Lewis had decided to fight out of his birthplace. "I saw it as a good place to start," Lewis says. "I didn't see it as an economic thing." Even Boehm urged him to leave Canada. "The people that wanted him to stay were doing nothing for him, only for themselves," Boehm says. On April 24, 1989, Lewis signed with Maloney. "I knew I was going to get used in boxing," Lewis says. "I just didn't want to get used too much. I wanted to control my destiny. I couldn't see being thrown in the ring before I was ready. Frank allowed me more freedom, more say."
Lewis hired John Davenport, a former U.S. Marine, as his trainer, and he turned professional on June 27, 1989, when he knocked out one Al Malcolm in two rounds in London. Over the next two years Maloney and Davenport nurtured their fighter, avoiding any risk. "I fought a lot of stiffs, but Mike Tyson fought a lot of stiffs as well," says Lewis. "We had a major commodity, and we didn't want to take any chances with it. We went at a comfortable pace."
Indeed, the only discomfiting moments Lewis has faced as a pro have been out of the ring. First, in late 1990, Levitt's empire collapsed. Maloney spent weeks searching for a new bankroll before he found a willing investor in Panos Eliades, a London-based accountant who had made a fortune liquidating the assets of failed businesses. "I am not a gambling man," Eliades says, "and I don't know what it was that made me do something so completely and utterly out of character."
So far, he has gambled almost $2 million to keep the enterprise afloat, a sum he stood to lose had Lewis lost to Ruddock. "I'm not doing too badly," Eliades says. "I'm in a safe bet now."
The only other unpleasantness for Lewis occurred when he split with Davenport after a former football player, Levi Billups, took Lewis the 10- round distance in February 1992. "I had become too robotic," Lewis explains. "I had stopped moving."
In March, Lewis hired Pepe Correa, a former trainer of Sugar Ray Leonard. "I always liked Sugar Ray," Lewis says. The robot has disappeared, Lewis says, with Correa encouraging more movement and a freer way of fighting. "More my natural style," says Lewis. He barely had to move at all against Ruddock, who may have suffered one too many blows in his two savage fights, which totaled 19 rounds, against Tyson on March 18 and June 28, 1991. Lewis is a talent, to be sure, a powerful, mobile boxer-puncher who is, according to veteran ring observer Hank Kaplan, "the best defensive fighter in the heavyweight division." It is no wonder that Newman is distancing Bowe from Lewis. Still, the British fight fan longs for them to meet. "If Lewis won," says Alan Walton, the manager of Cauthens Pub in London's East End, "it would be like the coronation -- like a new king coming to the throne."
After stepping down from the medal stand in Seoul -- with Lewis wearing the gold and Bowe the silver -- Bowe looked at Lewis and said, "See you in the pros."
Four years later, theirs is the fight that everyone in boxing most wants to see.
Issue date: February 1, 1993