Graham: Lewis avoids that one last temptation

So this is how it's done. Not with a gavel and handcuffs. Not with a denied license application or suspension. Not with slurred speech and assisted living.

Lennox Lewis ended his glorious boxing career on Friday morning with a news conference and a gracious prepared statement. It was done in a manner befitting a classy heavyweight champion, not like some wretch who never really quits as much as he fades into boxing's abyss.

Lewis became the sixth heavyweight king to abdicate his throne rather than have it seized from him. If the 38-year-old stays retired, which he insists he will, he will become only the third to retire with the championship and not be enticed by more money, more glory, more of that elusive fulfillment.

Fighters always seem to be after that one last fix. Boxing doesn't leave track marks, but it does inflict serious scars. Muhammad Ali retired as champ, but he couldn't resist the sweet temptation of the spotlight and the riches it brings. It was so very sad.

"There's always someone to fight, that's the drug of this sport," Lewis said. "But what else is there to prove?

"My mission is complete. I boxed everyone of my era, and it felt great to be the standard. I cemented my place in this era."

Lewis leaves the game with a record of 41-2-1 and 32 knockouts. At 6-foot-5 and around 250 pounds, he will go down in boxing history as the first great super heavyweight.

His decision to step aside took guts and common sense, a rare combination in boxing. Marvelous Marvin Hagler stopped cold turkey in 1987, but not many have done so before or since.

Lewis easily could have been tempted by another big-money bout with Vitali Klitschko. The rematch would have given the proud Brit a chance to erase any doubts about his shoddy performance against Klitschko in June, a fight Lewis won on cuts after six rounds even though Klitschko was ahead on all three scorecards.

Countless others fighters just couldn't help themselves. Joe Louis also retired as champ but was drawn back to the ring. Larry Holmes shamefully chased Butterbean. Evander Holyfield is delusional enough to believe he won't retire until he has unified the three major belts.

Lewis, however, promised to be the first heavyweight champ since Rocky Marciano in 1956 to retire and never look back.

"There's no chance remotely that I will step in the ring again," Lewis said.

"It's too late to call me out. Only a couple of heavyweight champions have retired and stayed retired. I'm definitely going to be the third."

It's disappointing to see such a great warrior leave the sport, especially with the premier division in such disarray. Lewis' WBC title is now vacant, and Roy Jones Jr. is on the verge of renouncing his WBA belt to fight at light heavyweight again. IBF champ Chris Byrd, meanwhile, has been virtually irrelevant for years.

Yet it's too bad Lewis didn't retire sooner.

Much of the appeal in sport is the storybook ending, and this isn't as poetic as the one Lewis could have written 20 months ago.

He should have retired after his monumental annihilation of Mike Tyson in the richest fight of all-time.

It was the last victory Lewis needed against the best heavyweights of his era. He had already beaten Holyfield and avenged stunning losses to Hasim Rahman and Oliver McCall, reducing the latter literally to tears in the rematch.

Lewis had dominated the top contenders and former champions of the day: David Tua, Michael Grant, Shannon Briggs, Andrew Golota, Ray Mercer, Tommy Morrison, Frank Bruno, Tony Tucker and Razor Ruddock. Lewis never faced Riddick Bowe as a pro, but beat him to win the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics.

Lewis, in beating Tyson, guaranteed his legacy as perhaps the most dominant heavyweight of his given era.

"I know it is a perfect time to retire," Lewis said after deconstructing Iron Mike. "But somewhere in the back of my mind I keep thinking I'm so much better than the rest, and why give away all that money which can be earned so easily?"

It was the sort of comment that makes boxing fans wince. Lewis seemed to be falling into the same pattern as all those hopeless souls who ignore the desperate pleas to hang up the gloves.

He signed up to fight Kirk Johnson, a flimsy contender who resembles the Michelin Man's urban cousin. Lewis trained accordingly, and when Johnson dropped out of the match because of an injury, a physically fit Klitschko was summoned from the bullpen.

Lewis accepted the fight despite a hiatus in his training camp. His knees were said to be shot, which hindered his requisite roadwork. He was overweight and sluggish. He had trained to fight a lackadaisical, 6-foot-3 tub of goo, not a 6-foot-7 doctor of sports science.

Klitschko dominated the early rounds of the fight. It looked as though Lewis had not learned the lessons presented by Rahman and McCall, two foes he erroneously pooh-poohed. Lewis, full of his Tyson conquest, had dismissed Klitschko as an also-ran.

Lewis' formidable jab, however, ripped gruesome gashes around Klitschko's left eye. Lewis started to take command of the fight and would have won even if it had continued.

"I didn't hug him to give him those cuts," Lewis said. "I punched him. The fight wasn't pretty, but he definitely was losing ground. He shot his load, and I definitely would have knocked him out in the next couple rounds."

That probability didn't prevent criticism from being heaped on Lewis. He was labeled a lazy champion, and justifiably so. He should have handled Klitschko easily, but instead he gave skeptics more kindling for debate.

The world heavyweight champion is the Alpha Male of sports. People want their Alpha Male ready for battle. Lewis wasn't prepared on three occasions, and now he has retired without making good on the last.

But even that criticism isn't enough to ruin his place in the pantheon of heavyweight deities.

Assuming Lewis doesn't make a comeback, he will never hand off that torch he carried for most of the past decade. There will be no symbolic slaying of the old lion -- as Holmes did to Ali, Cassius Clay did to Floyd Patterson, Marciano did to Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles did to Louis and so on.

In fact, Lewis actually can boast he struck a blow against the next generation before he got out. By stopping Klitschko he can claim to have beaten the man who likely will take his place as the globally accepted heavyweight champ.

"There's only a little sadness [in retirement] because you have to remember boxing has been my life," Lewis said. "It's not easy to let it go and step away from it. Stepping away from it and not doing it anymore, but knowing I did my best, I feel great about it.

"It wasn't an easy decision, but it was a happy decision for me. I'm proud I was able to make that decision."

It was a proud ending. It was a proper ending. It was a happy ending.

Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.