Lennox Lewis: ‘I knew I would meet Mike Tyson in the ring’

Lennox Lewis: ‘I knew I would meet Mike Tyson in the ring’

“I

t was funny,” Lennox Lewis says, “because I used to go out with my son, Landon, and people would hold up their fist and shout my name. He was so confused and horrified. He would say: ‘Why are these people holding up their fists as if to fight you?’”

Landon Lewis is now 16 and he and his sisters understand the reason why strangers still wave their fists and shout to their dad with reverence. The son of the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world is interested in boxing and Lewis expresses pride when describing the reaction of his children to a new documentary about him. “They love it. They see me with Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali and it’s narrated by Dr Dre which means a lot.”

Dr Dre, the great rap artist, was at his imperious peak during the 1990s when Lewis was also at his best. Lewis’s last two fights, and victories, were against Mike Tyson in June 2002 and, a year later, Vitali Klitschko – which show how he linked different eras of heavyweight boxing. Having made his name by stopping his bitter American rival Riddick Bowe in the super-heavyweight final of the 1988 Olympic Games to win gold for Canada, Lewis returned to Britain, his country of birth, to launch his professional career.

Lewis has always been an intelligent and singular man, and so it was fitting that, even while Don King, Bob Arum and every other major promoter in the world chased him, he signed with a diminutive but vocal Londoner in Frank Maloney – the antithesis to the big shots of American boxing. We would eventually recognise the extent of that contrast when Frank, a middle-aged father of three, opted for gender reassignment and became Kellie Maloney in 2015.

Maloney features in the documentary as do Lewis’s mother and wife, both of whom are called Violet, alongside his close-knit team. Inevitably, attention is drawn to Lewis’s interaction with Tyson. The closing scenes, when Tyson pays eloquent and tender homage to the man who vanquished him, are moving. They are the opposite of the archive footage which resounds like a riveting echo through the film as an unhinged Tyson sneers: “Lennox Lewis, I’m coming for you … I’m the most brutal and vicious and ruthless champion there has ever been. Lennox is a conquerer? No. I am Alexander. He’s no Alexander. I’m the best ever … My style is impetuous, my defence is impregnable and I’m just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat his children.”

Lewis laughs. “When he said he’s coming for me, I’m like: ‘He’s coming for me? He’s crazy. Doesn’t he realise I’m coming for him?’ When he said he’s going to eat my kids my mum said: ‘What’s he talking about? You don’t have no kids.’ I’m not into that vulgar jailhouse talk.”

Did Lewis ever feel apprehensive of Tyson? “Yes and no. Yes, because TV made him look like King Kong. But, no, because Manny [Lewis’s legendary trainer Emanuel Steward] always told me Tyson would be my easiest fight. I’d say: ‘Come on, now! He’s going to be a little difficult.’ But Manny said: ‘No. It’s your easiest fight.”

Lewis was much bigger than Tyson. He also could rely on his technical excellence and steady temperament to bludgeon Tyson to an eighth-round stoppage that shattered the myth of Iron Mike once and for all. Was it as easy as Manny promised? Lewis laughs. “No.”

There was a misconception that Lewis, because he played chess rather than spewed out trash-talk, was not as hard as his American counterparts in Tyson, Bowe and Evander Holyfield. His complicated British and Canadian past was also misleading because it implied he had not withstood the adversity endured by US heavyweights. But Lewis lost his mother for five years at a crucial stage of his young life, and he only knew his father fleetingly.

There is evocative material in the documentary about Lewis’s early years in east London, when his mother had to leave him to earn a living in Canada. He slipped towards a troubled existence until his mum finally managed to bring him to Canada – where he soon discovered boxing. He was nurtured by his first trainer, Arnie Boehm, about whom Lewis still speaks warmly.

Lennox Lewis lines up a punch against Mike Tyson in their 2002 world heavyweight championship fight in Memphis.

“Arnie is the first guy that’s seen my talent and he also saw a young kid he could help outside the ring. He cared about kids. He was one of these guys that would have 15 kids in his car, and we’d travel three hours to a tournament.”

Boehm also took Lewis to the Catskills so he could spar Tyson who, being a year younger, was 15. Did Boehm know Cus D’Amato, Tyson’s famous trainer? “No. They met the first time then and got along great. They had the same type of love for boxing and care for us as kids. It was an important visit because I wanted to learn my craft and be a pugilist specialist.”

Did he have an affinity with Tyson when they were teenagers? “I liked him. We got to know each other pretty well. We spoke, we went down to the town, went to a dance together. He was a giant because during training in the Catskills you’d watch him knocking people out easy. I thought he was great. When the time came I knew we would meet in the ring. I wanted to know if what Cus said would come true.”

D’Amato predicted Tyson and Lewis would both become world champions, and that they would fight each other. “I felt it too,” Lewis admits.

It seems apt that last Saturday night, while Tyson stepped into the ring again for a pointless exhibition against Roy Jones Jr, Lewis was on the smart side of the ropes, offering analysis for television. When we spoke first last week, Lewis was mildly amused by the prospect of two great old champions pulling on the gloves in their fifties. When I commended him for resisting all siren calls to return to the ring, Lewis joked: “I’m taking the winner.”

The line of the night belonged to Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr Dre’s old sidekick, who helped commentate: “This shit is like two of my uncles fighting at the BBQ.” When we spoke again on Sunday night Lewis laughed long and hard: “I think my friend Snoop summed it up best. But what stuck out to me was that my son was really happy because he was back in my era of boxing. He had a chance to see a guy I boxed. So I was happy for him. As far as the performance goes it was two aged champions giving us a bit of the past.”

Lewis’s renown has increased with time. When he was world champion many British fans still preferred Frank Bruno. Canadians felt that Lewis had walked out on them while the US could not quite understand a man of nuanced charisma. Yet Lewis is one of only three world heavyweight champions, alongside Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali, who defeated every man he faced in the ring. And only Gene Tunney, Marciano and Lewis retired for good as world heavyweight champion. He belongs in mighty company.

Muhammad Ali and Lennox Lewis meet in London in January 2001.

Lewis won 41 of his 44 fights. His solitary draw, against Holyfield in March 1999, was widely accepted as a travesty and he won the rematch in Las Vegas later that year. Lewis was guilty of complacency, and being caught by perfect punches, in his sole defeats against Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman in 2001. But he knocked out both men when they fought again.

Both defeats for Lewis were shock results but there were compensations. After he lost against McCall he appointed Steward as his head trainer and improved notably. His loss against Rahman, in South Africa, was softened by the support of Nelson Mandela, a boxing connoisseur who admired Lewis. “As soon as I met him he said: ‘Oh, don’t worry. He caught you with a lucky punch. All you need to do is get your jab working again. You’ll beat him next time.’

“I spent the whole day talking to him in Soweto. I heard the stories of when the oppressors used to come to his house and try and poison the milk. He taught me a great deal of history. I remember they said: ‘President Mandela, we have to go out, the press is waiting for you.’ So I got up and made way for him. But he pushed me out of the house ahead of him. Everybody’s looking at me and saying: ‘That’s not Mandela!’ I thought that was great – seeing his jovial side.”

Lewis’s other great hero, Muhammad Ali, also spent time with him. “He would ask me questions, and talk to me,” Lewis says of Ali. “For me to be with him, and speak to him over a meal, was special. One time he goes: ‘I used to be the greatest. But now you’re the greatest.’ I said: ‘No, you will always be the greatest.’ Ali just smiled.”

Was Lewis surprised five years ago when he heard that Frank Maloney was about to re-emerge as Kellie? “I was a little shocked. At first I couldn’t understand it when I considered his age. I was like: ‘That’s a very big step.’ But I supported Kellie because I believe it’s your life.”

Lewis always kept the core of himself private and so, by sticking to his principles and having good people around him, he avoided the mishaps and accompanying mental health problems that affected many of his contemporaries including Bruno, Tyson and McCall. He remains cheerful and, rather than claim that his era was superior to the one now dominated by Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, Lewis stresses: “I’m a fan of heavyweight boxing. In the last couple of fights Tyson showed a lot about him [against Deontay Wilder]. He adjusted to what happened in the first fight [when Fury had to settle for a draw after getting up from a heavy knockdown] and said: ‘I’m going to fight different and knock him out.’ The fact he did exactly that shows good character.”

Who does Lewis think would win the planned fight between Fury and Joshua next year? “They both have the capacity to win but Fury goes in there with a lot more assets.”

The youngest of his three daughters was born with Trisomy 18, a rare but serious condition which affects growth and development. It has not been easy but Lewis remains positive. “She’s doing good,” he says of his daughter. He is also philosophical about his son being lured towards boxing. “He’s been to all my Lennox Lewis League of Champions camps in Canada and Jamaica. So he’s interested in boxing – but also music, basketball and football. If he becomes anything, he’ll be a boxer. I feel good, because he’s already got it in his DNA.”

Landon Lewis, like his dad, will make up his own mind. But does Lewis, at 55, still miss the intensity of boxing? “No, but I remember it. I do a lot of commentating and when I hear the crowd’s roar, it’s like: ‘Yeah that was once for me. I remember it.’ But I don’t need it.”

Lennox: The Untold Story is on DVD and digital now, watch at www.lennox.film