Lennox Lewis speaks on HBO departure

NEW YORK -- When junior welterweight titlist Amir Khan and ex-titleholder Paulie Malignaggi square off Saturday night at the Madison Square Garden Theater, HBO's "Boxing After Dark" commentators Bob Papa and Max Kellerman will be in their usual ringside positions to call the action. Missing will be their partner of the past four years, former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis.

That's because this will be the first BAD telecast since I broke the news last week that HBO had dumped Lewis following the recent expiration of his contract.

Before I wrote the initial story, I called Lewis for his comments but could not reach him and left him a couple of voicemails. To Lewis' credit, he was a stand-up guy and eventually returned the calls, so we had a chance to talk about his sudden departure.

He was philosophical about his dismissal.

"I wasn't really surprised at all because I had heard about budget cuts and I'm wondering where are these budget cuts coming from. I guess we know," Lewis said. "It's not like this was a job per se and I wanted to be a commentator for all my life. It wasn't like that. There are other things to do. One second you see me in a movie, one second on 'The Apprentice,' one second you'll see me as a commentator.

"I'm retired [from boxing]. I don't really have to work if I don't want to. [Broadcasting] gave me an opportunity to give different insight."

Lewis, 44, made it clear that his departure was not voluntary. His last show was the April 24 card headlined by heavyweights Tomasz Adamek and Cristobal Arreola. Lewis said a few days later, HBO Sports executive producer Rick Bernstein called him and "he said they're not going to be renewing my contract. I said, 'Oh, what's the problem?' He said, 'We're going through some budget cuts.' I said, 'Wow.' What can you say? There's nothing negative that I've done, so I'm not concerned about it. Everything is good. It's water under the bridge."

Lewis also told me that HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said that the show would go on with a two-man announce team. That, however, is contrary to the plans apparently underway to eventually replace Lewis. It's no secret that trainer Freddie Roach auditioned for the role last week during the Paul Williams-Kermit Cintron undercard (although contrary to some Internet reports it is simply false that he has been offered the job). Trainer Naazim Richardson is scheduled to test during Saturday night's undercard at the Theater. I am sure others will also test. (To answer queries I have received from some readers and several folks in the business, no, I haven't tested nor have I been asked to.)

HBO spokesman Kevin Flaherty said the network has no plans to fill Lewis' role on BAD.

Lewis said although he would have liked to remain in the role, he now has the opportunity to explore other areas of interest.

"I've been getting offers to do other things that I couldn't really do before," he said. "Now I can do other things. As far as liking to return? I wouldn't refuse if it was offered to me."

Lewis said he's going to continue doing more of what he did a lot of between his monthly assignments.

"Chill, spend some family time," said Lewis, who is married, with two small children, and living in South Florida. "But a lot of different things are open to me."

He mentioned public speaking offers and his desire to build boxing academies for young people in Florida and Jamaica (where he has family roots).

When Lewis came on board as a broadcaster in 2006 he was not far removed from his retirement as heavyweight champion and he had long been associated with HBO, on which he fought (by my count) 23 times. So it made sense that Lewis would get a shot as the expert commentator/ex-jock role. Despite an appealing demeanor and authoritative presence, Lewis was heavily criticized at times for mangling names and an insight that was often cliche ridden and shallow. And how many times could he answer a question from Papa by saying simply, "absolutely" or "definitely"?

Lewis said he brushed off the critics.

"I improved as I went along and I felt good about it," Lewis said. "Working with Max was great. We had good chemistry. We gave different points of view. I believed that of all the boxers they had I was the best in giving a boxer's point of view and explaining different things people may have not thought about. I could also talk from a trainer's point of view because I saw a lot of things in the ring that were wrong."

To Lewis' credit, he took the high road throughout our half-hour conversation and didn't rip HBO or show bitterness about the situation. But he did say he was hurt by one aspect of his departure. Heavyweight champs also have feelings.

Lewis said he would have liked to at least be given the opportunity to say a brief on-air goodbye to the viewers at the conclusion of his final telecast, since the HBO execs obviously knew it was going to be his last show.

"It would have been nice," Lewis said. "I would have thought they would at least give me that opportunity, but I don't think they think like that. I don't know why they didn't do it like that. They have their reasons, but it beats me."