Heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis, 38, with a career record of 41-2-1. SI's Richard Hoffer weighs in on the first heavyweight since Rocky Marciano in 1956 to quit while holding the title.
The heavyweight champion is God's lab rat, subjected to the most exaggerated experiments just to determine the extreme boundaries of human behavior. What will he do when, quite suddenly, the laser point of fame is focused on him? How will he perform when he is enriched beyond his wildest imaginings? What will he do in the face of defeat? How does he react to the shame of being battered against a ring post, his drool and blood a mockery of his talents? And how does he regulate his arrogance when he routinely batters someone else against that post?
For Lewis those experiments could hardly have gone better. The Brit was not everybody's cup of tea; he did not provide the outsized and cartoonish personality we seem to ask of our superheroes these days. But over 14 years (most as champion) he performed with a constant dignity, without scandal and with a professionalism that will likely be the envy of any successor. As a boxer, if he was not the greatest of all time, he was certainly extraordinary. He was among that wave of supercarrier division fighters, 6'5", 250 pounds, who could also move. His right hand, though he did not deploy it often enough to suit critics, was pneumatic. He was so talented that chief among the knocks against him, he would always be cursed as an underachiever, too cautious for his gifts, never quite dominant enough.
Probably we'd remember him with greater awe if his biggest victories, over Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, had occurred earlier in their careers. Or if he hadn't lost to inferior fighters Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman (losses he easily and emphatically avenged). Or if he'd been in some meaningful, dynasty-making fight. Or if he hadn't been touched up by Vitali Klitschko—his victory saved only when the Russian nearly bled out in the ring—in what proved to be Lewis's final fight, last June.
But let's remember him with respect, at least, for having met the strange, unholy challenges of the heavyweight championship and remind ourselves that Lewis, alone among his peers and his predecessors of nearly a half-century, has applied the final grace note to a terrific career and left on top.