World Heavyweight Champion: 1999-2001
While Frank Bruno was going down bravely in five rounds to Mike Tyson in 1989, 23-year-old Lennox Lewis was preparing to make his professional debut. Lewis had won Olympic gold in the super-heavyweight division in Seoul the previous year, and was marked out as the rising star of the British heavyweight scene. Ironically, he had also been boxing’s golden boy in Canada, and had competed at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles for that country. Lewis was born in the East End of London but moved to Toronto with his mother, Violet, at the age of 12. It was there that he started taking boxing seriously. By the late 1980s, when he was living back in England and making a name for himself in the sport, Lewis was diplomatic about his dual nationality.
He wanted his appeal to go far beyond both Britain and Canada; he aimed to attain popularity the world over as heavyweight champion. In March 1991, Lewis executed a brilliant seven-round demolition job on Gary Mason to take the British title, in what was only his 15th professional fight. A year later, he claimed his first world crown, in somewhat farcical circumstances.
Lewis was one of three top contenders for Evander Holyfield’s title, along with Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock and Riddick Bowe. A deal was done in which Lewis would fight Ruddock, with the winner to meet whoever came out on top in the Holyfield-Bowe contest. Lewis duly knocked Ruddock out in two rounds in London, on October 31, 1992. He then sat back and waited to see who he would face, the Holyfield-Bowe clash taking place two weeks later. Bowe won a unanimous points decision, then promptly reneged on the agreement and refused to fight Lewis. The WBC responded by stripping Bowe of their title, and Bowe famously showed what he thought of that decision by depositing the belt in question into a trash can in full view of the cameras. When it was salvaged from the rubbish, the WBC awarded it to Lewis. It was all very unsatisfactory: shades of Ernie Terrell in the 1960s and John Tate in the 1970s, both of whom were installed as champions by default, without throwing a punch.
Defeated by McCall
After successfully defending his title against Tony Tucker and Frank Bruno, Lewis suffered a surprising reverse against Oliver McCall. Lewis may have been disappointed by that September 1994 defeat, though some purists may have regarded the title as tainted goods anyway. Riddick Bowe certainly did. When he made his infamous dustbin gesture, he emphasised the view that championships could only be won and lost in the ring, not by political shenanigans involving men in suits.Lewis was the innocent party in all this. He wished for nothing more than to be given a chance to fight for any title that was going. He was certainly keen to get into the ring with Frank Bruno, after the latter took the WBC crown from McCall. But Frank took one look at Lewis and another at Mike Tyson, and there was hardly a decision is to be made. A second meeting with a hungry Tyson on the comeback trail was where the big bucks lay, and Lewis’s hopes were again thwarted. He finally got his chance to do battle for a coveted belt in February 1997. His opponent was once again Oliver McCall, and the prize at stake was once again the WBC title, which McCall had regained. This time Lewis made no mistake, with a fifth-round technical knockout.
Lewis’s second tenure as WBC champion thus had the stamp of approval that his first reign lacked. It was only one title, though. The other two major honours, and WBA and IBF titles, lay in the hands of a rejuvenated Evander Holyfield. The ‘Real Deal’ had shocked everybody by halting Mike Tyson’s comeback in its tracks, taking Iron Mike’s WBA crown in the process. He followed that up with a revenge victory over IBF holder Michael Moorer.
By 1999, the world was desperate to see an undisputed champion for the first time since Holyfield’s first reign of the early 1990s. The unification fight took place at Madison Square Garden on March 13, 1999. The fight went the full distance, and was something of a disappointment. Nevertheless, by common consent Lewis had done enough to get the decision. South African judge Stanley Christoudoulou was part of that consensus, scoring the fight 116-113 in Lewis’s favour. England’s Larry O’Connell had them level at 115 points-all. It was the scoring of the third judge, Eugenia Williams, which was met with utter incredulity. She had Holyfield the winner by 115-113. A split decision – particularly such a controversial one – meant that everything was on hold until Holyfield-Lewis 2 could take place. Eight months later, the two men duly stepped into the ring to do it all over again.
Unanimous verdict over Holyfield
If an injustice was done in the first encounter, amends were made second time round. Lewis won a unanimous points decision, and had thus added the WBA and IBF titles to his WBC crown. Holyfield had been the heavyweight of the 1990s, but his era was now effectively over. Lewis had the world at his feet. Three successful defences followed in 2000. Michael Grant was blown away in two rounds in April; Francois Botha lasted until the 11th in July; and David Tua took the champion all the way but went down on points in November. Lewis thus went into 2001 with three successful defences under his belt, yet he had still managed to lose one of his titles. The WBA had gone to court to strip him of their crown in April 2000.When Lewis opened his 2001 campaign by taking on Hasim Rahman in April, only the WBC and IBF titles were at stake. That hardly mattered. Lewis was the undisputed champion, and ‘The Rock’ knew that was the honour which was up for grabs. And grab it Rahman certainly did.
Born: London, United Kingdom 2 September 1965
Height: 6’5’ Weight: 245 lbs.
World Heavyweight Champion: 1992-1994 1997-1999 1999-2001 2001-
Record: Won 40 (31 Kos) Lost 2 Drawn 1
Canadian Olympic gold medal 1988. Commonwealth gold medal 1986