Just because Lennox Lewis likes to play chess doesn't mean he's particularly mysterious. Probably there have been boxers before him who enjoyed board games. Even heavyweight champions. It's the other stuff that makes you wonder: the way he looks up during sparring (in the middle of an exchange!) when a stranger walks into his gym, the way he scatters papers around his mother's apartment just so she'll have something to clean up, the way he steadfastly refuses to display his brilliance in the ring, even when his sport—or the fight he's in—is desperate for it.
Nobody knows him, not for sure. Friends think they do, but they don't. As a kid growing up in Kitchener, Ont., Lennox was nicknamed the Scientist for his calculating ways. "I remember, first day of football practice," says childhood pal Courtney Shand, who serves as Lewis's strength and conditioning coach. "I guess we're 13. They're handing out the equipment, but Lennox is standing way off across the field, his back against a tree, just checking everybody out. That's the kind of guy he is."
That's the only kind of guy he is? What about the time Lewis, driving his Mercedes through London to meet a woman, was cut off in traffic and, after venting some road rage, had his car set upon by bat-wielding thugs? Lewis returned, dressed like a ninja and seeking vengeance upon his assailants, and threw a tire through a window. "He did that?" says Shand. "Wow." Pause. "Well, you have to understand, that's not the kind of thing Lennox would ever talk about. Did he tell you that story? I didn't think so."
Shand shouldn't be surprised that he's been left in the dark. Lewis doesn't give you much more than is necessary, either in the ring or out. It makes him enigmatic and a little frustrating. His talent and his size-he's a magnificently proportioned 6'5"—make him the most formidable heavyweight of his era. Yet, at the advanced age of 34, he has a résumé that is astonishingly slim. He's got a 34-1-1 record. And since he regained the WBC title, he has defended it five times, but his performances (when he's had worthy opponents; he has been ducked a lot) have been distinguished by excessive caution.
In Lewis's most recent fight, last March 13, when he and Evander Holyfield finally collided to unify the three-headed championship (which they'll do again this Saturday), he was so spooked by Holyfield's reputation for being dangerous when hurt that he was reluctant to wade in and finish Holyfield off. The draw imposed on Lewis by the judges was outrageous, of course, but Lewis should never have let the fight get close enough for it to happen.
Outside the ring Lewis is equally puzzling. You can't even decide where he's from. He was born in England and raised in Canada, yet he seems to enjoy living in Jamaica most. It's a joke, really: He glides from accent to accent, talking Bob Marley or Masterpiece Theatre, whichever serves his protective coloration best. Increasingly, as he's come to enjoy fame, he's made public appearances. But he enjoys a privacy unheard of in this day of easy celebrity.
He's sure a tough and nondescript interview. Requests for sit-downs tend to involve a discouraging amount of negotiation. Yes, Lennox would love to meet with you, but his scalp specialist must be flown in from London. As far as pictures go, are you familiar with the work of Richard Avedon? Lennox would like Richard as the photographer. When he's cornered in his camp, in one of those honeymoon resorts deep in the Poconos, he warily and surprisingly submits. "Was it somehow on his own terms?" an old acquaintance of Lewis's asks afterward. Well, now that you mention it: Lewis had originally agreed to talk after an afternoon workout, pushed it back until after dinner, postponed it until breakfast and then, just as things looked bleak, sent an aide to pick up the surprised reporter for the semioriginal after-dinner session. The old acquaintance laughs.
That Lewis turned out to be genuinely good company during the interview, talking freely and not like somebody about to enter the witness protection program, is almost beside the point. His first instinct, in and out of the ring, is personal safety. Nothing's exposed, left to chance. Nothing's done on any terms but his.
Exactly what Lewis is protecting is anyone's guess. It may turn out, as he insists, that he's not very complicated at all. "I saw that movie about the Rat Pack," he says. "What I remember is that it made Dean Martin out to be an enigma. But what it was, there was no angle on him. It made me think, I'm like that. If the media didn't know I played chess, there'd be no angle on me at all." He thinks about that. "What if I took up trombone? Would that help?"
One more angle wouldn't hurt, although it's more than enough just to see Lewis in his natural state: calculating, yes, but a little playful. Yet who sees that, and how often? "He's quite a practical joker," says Harold Knight, an assistant trainer. Nobody, though, can recall a practical joke. Still, everybody insists that Lewis can be tons of fun. Head trainer Emanuel Steward, who came on board in 1995, remembers partying with Lewis on a trip to London. "He picked me up at midnight, and we got back at 10 the next morning," he says. "And the women! My god!"