Lennox Lewis: An Appreciation

Lewis went 41-2-1 with 32 KO in his career. 

It was Red Smith, the poet laureate of all sportswriters, who penned the immortal line "... the deep, dreamless slumber that comes to small children, the pure of heart, and all British heavyweights..."

The subject matter for the above line was Bruce Woodcock, the British heavyweight who had just been carried to his corner with "eyes full of the wood violets of Doncaster," courtesy of Tami Mauriello's right hand back in 1946.

But, truth to tell, it could have been written about any one of a number of Brit heavies, all rendered endwise by their colonial relations, the long list throughout the course of boxing history including the likes of Charlie Mitchell, Jem Smith, Bombardier Billy Wells, Don Cockell, Brian London, Henry Cooper, Jack Bodell, Richard Dunn, et cetera, etc., etc., the et ceteras going on for about four or five pages or more.

Incurable British boxing fans have always taken great nourishment in those small accomplishments of their heavies, with memories of Tommy Farr going 15 rounds with Joe Louis, Henry Cooper knocking down then-Cassius Clay and Frank Bruno momentarily stunning Mike Tyson all dancing in their heads. After all, it's part and parcel of the British mentality to instinctively admire any man who can make defeat sound like a victory. (Don't forget, they view Dunkirk as a victory.)

But all that changed on Halloween eve, 1992, when Lennox Lewis returned the favour (with a British "U") by knocking out Donovan "Razor" Ruddock in sensational fashion
in just two rounds. Forget that Lewis was Jamaican-born or Canadian-bred. He was now British-based and that was enough for British writers to enthuse about his ending "almost a century of routine humiliation at the hands of transatlantic heavyweights."

The victory of Lewis over Ruddock not only gave lie to the slander that Brit heavies couldn't stand up to their American counterparts -- or stand up at all, for that matter -- but all of a sudden established Lewis as the major force in the heavyweight division, the standard bearer for a long list of British heavies from Woodcock on up. Or down, if you will. And all of a sudden, the Brits, who had invented the bloody sport, were on the cusp of having their first heavyweight champion for... how long was that? Almost a century?

And then, a few months later, after Riddick Bowe had deposited his WBC belt into a London "dustbin," the WBC retrieved it and presented it to Lewis, retroactively, as their heavyweight champion. Lewis was now, as his British supports maintained, their "first heavyweight champion since Fitzsimmons," even if he had won the title while relaxing on the beaches of Jamaica.

Don King then rushed in with the mandatory challenger in the person of Tony Tucker, whom Lewis decked twice on his way to a unanimous, if uninspiring, 12-round decision. He followed that up with an equally unimpressive showing against Frank Bruno -- the first all-British heavyweight title fight in Lord-knows-when.

But still Lewis failed to win over his critics who continually carped about his style, one which found him keeping his lip stiff and upper and his punches a little less of both. It was almost as if they expected him to duplicate his effort against Ruddock with each and every outing and found his cautious, almost polite, style indicative of someone who didn't possess the requisite "fire in his belly." To hear from his critics, of whom there were many -- and all, it seemed over on this side of The Pond -- Lewis had all the appearances of someone who had his pinkie extended when he punched as if he were serving tea in the ring.

After finding himself in a negotiating cul-de-sac, all of his potential opponents finding something else to do on the day of a suggested fight, Lewis signed to fight Phil Jackson -- who not only wasn't on anybody's Top 10 list of heavyweights, but to the American sporting public wasn't even on their Top 10 list of people named "Phil Jackson."

The match-up was met with all the excitement of one hand applauding, as thousands upon thousands of fans showed up as empty seats at the Atlantic City Convention Center. From the opening bell it was obvious that the pairing was a mismatch, at least as far as size was concerned, with the 217-pound, 6-foot-1 Jackson giving away both height and weight to the 235-pound, 6-foot-5 Lewis -- a size differential accentuated all the more by Jackson's constant crouching, giving the two the appearance of the 1939 World's Fair symbol.

And then, just 30 seconds into the first round, Lewis put the punctuation point on the mismatch -- and Jackson on the seat of his pants -- with his very first right hand.

It was to serve as the pattern for the entire fight with Lewis loading up with his right hand and using his left merely as a divining rod and Jackson occasionally leaping in with a vagrant left. And then in the eighth Lewis ended the festivities by landing a short right and followed that up with an uppercut and two hooks that finished the job.

It was enough for referee Arthur Mercante, but not enough for the cynical American press which remained solidly underwhelmed by the lack of fire by Lewis.

Still, this was the beginning of that glorious day when some British journalists could finally write: "... and the deep, dreamless slumber that comes to small children, the pure of heart, and all American heavyweights..." Lennox Lewis had arrived.

From "Bert Sugar on Boxing"

copyright 2003, Lyons Press

Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.