Earlier this month, I had lunch with Lennox Lewis at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
Not long after retiring as an active fighter, Lewis told me, “When I was boxing, I could feel the big fight atmosphere. I was part of it. But I wasn’t focused on it.”
Now Lennox was in Las Vegas for the 7 May fight between Canelo Alvarez and Amir Khan. It wasn’t a huge fight, but there was a bit of a buzz.
Lewis lives each day with the satisfying sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done. He’s fifty years old, thirteen years removed from his last professional fight, and ageing like fine wine. The trademark dreadlocks are gone, but he still cuts an imposing figure. Heads turned when he entered the restaurant.
Lennox has become more social in retirement than he was before. He goes out more often and enjoys spending time with his four children (Landon 11, Ling 9, Leah 6, and Livia 3).
“I don’t miss being an active fighter,” Lewis told me. “I went through it. I enjoyed it. It was a great experience. But it’s over now. It was important for me to retire on my own terms, for my legacy and my health. I love it that I ended my boxing career as a champion.”
Looking back on that career, Lennox pointed to five fights that were particularly important to him
3 June 1991 – KO 7 over Gary Mason: “Mason was undefeated [35-0, 32 KOs], and the fight was for the British and European heavyweight titles. It was my first big test, and I passed it with flying colors.”
8 May 1993 – W12 over Tony Tucker: “That was my first world championship and also the first time I fought a Don King fighter that King thought would beat me.”
1 October 1993 - KO 7 over Frank Bruno: “I was born in England, moved to Canada to be with my mum, and won an Olympic gold medal for Canada. Then I went back to England to pursue my professional career. Frank was already there. He was the darling of the British media. And British boxing fans were divided. It was important to me to win them over, and that fight did it.”
17 November 2001 – KO 4 over Hasim Rahman: “I disliked Rahman a lot at that time. I gave him the opportunity to fight me for the title. He beat me, and I accepted that. But when Rahman became heavyweight champion, he had a responsibility to act like a champion. And he acted like a thug. He was rude and arrogant. There was the whole gay thing [when Rahman suggested publicly that Lennox was gay]. He tried to avoid the rematch even though he had a legal obligation to fight me again. Getting my belt back was a must. Knocking him out was extremely satisfying. I had several one-punch knockouts like that in my career. Frans Botha was another. In a way, it’s surprising. You’ve thrown that punch thousands of times before. And you don’t know it’s perfect this time until it lands and you see the result.”
8 June 2002 – KO 8 over Mike Tyson: “Tyson wasn’t Tyson anymore. But I had to beat him. Otherwise, people would have said forever, ‘Lennox was good, but he never beat Mike Tyson.’ So I needed that win; not for my own self-respect but so other people would respect me. I’m happy for Mike now. He seems to have remade himself. There was a time, even long after we fought, where I was always on guard when I was with him. I didn’t know what crazy thing he might do. I feel safe now when I’m around Mike. But I still always cut the deck.”
Inevitably, the conversation turned to Emanuel Steward, who began training Lennox in 1995 and was with him until the end of Lewis’s ring career. When Lennox retired in 2004, he told the world, “Emanuel did as much for me as any trainer ever did for a boxer. There were times when Manny believed in me more than I believed in myself.”
Looking back on his years with Steward, Lewis told me, “Every day with Manny, I was learning. As I got older, my body got older. That makes a big difference if you’re a boxer. Toward the end of my career, there were things I could no longer do physically that I could do before. But at the same time, my mind was getting sharper and my boxing skills kept improving. My biomechanics got better. I was more relaxed in the ring. I could do things more efficiently and put less demands on my body to do what I had to do to win. Manny was a big part of that.”
Stewart died in 2012 as a consequence of colon cancer that had metastasized throughout his body. By the time it was diagnosed, he had six weeks to live. He chose not to share that knowledge with many of those who were closest to him.
“If I could have Manny back for a day,” Lennox told me, “I’d say to him, ‘I didn’t know you were sick. I wish you’d let me know so I could have gone through it with you and done everything I could to comfort you.”
Then I asked Lewis to critique today’s leading heavyweights. His thoughts follow:
On Tyson Fury: “His style of boxing is right for him, especially since his power is limited. He has no strength. His power definitely needs to be worked on. But his boxing ability is better than most people realize.”
On Wladimir Klitschko: “He accomplished a lot. It’s never easy in boxing, but I have the feeling that it was particularly hard for him. To be a complete fighter, you have to be able to box on the inside and go to the body. Wladimir never did those things, so I don’t think he mastered his craft in a way that enabled him to live up to his full potential. If he had, he might have been great.”
On Anthony Joshua: “There’s a lot of potential there. But he has been moved along pretty fast against relatively weak competition. Let’s see what happens when he reaches a level where he can’t knock everybody out. You never know how great a boxer is until you see how he performs when he’s tired. Joshua could become the best in the world or he might fall short. We just don’t know.”
On Deontay Wilder: “He started boxing late, which is a drawback. And he depends almost entirely on his power, which isn’t good because boxing is about so much more than power. Also, I question his chin. But he might be better than I think.”
On Alexander Povetkin: “He’s a physically-strong, typical European heavyweight. No more, no less.”
On Luis Ortiz: “This is The Bogeyman. Everyone is afraid of him. He has good power and good boxing ability. I think he’s the best one out there for now.”
On David Haye: “He’s in the stew, but he’s not choice meat.”
Meanwhile, two days before my lunch with Lennox, Donald Trump had won the Indiana primary to become the Republican party’s presumptive presidential nominee. What did Lennox think about the 2016 presidential campaign?
“I’ve never heard this type of rhetoric in politics,” Lewis answered. “The candidates sound more like clowns in a circus than statesmen. But obviously, America loves it because people are voting for Trump and putting him on TV all the time.”
And if Trump wins?
“I’m not worried,” Lennox said with a smile. “I have a home in Florida. But I also have homes in Jamaica and Canada [where his 86-year-old mother lives].”
In other words, Lennox can always move the family to live with his mum in Ontario.
* * *
On 11 May, Matthew Macklin announced that he was retiring from boxing.
I met Matthew years ago in the media center before a fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and was impressed with how articulate and easy to talk with he was. Years later, I asked him, “Why did you become a fighter?” And Matthew answered, “Because I was stupid. And by the time I got smart, I was hooked.”
Macklin compiled a 35-6 (22 KOs) record over the course of 14 years as a professional fighter. His most impressive performance was split-verdict loss to WBA middleweight beltholder Felix Sturm on 25 June 2011 in Sturm’s home town of Cologne, Germany. Virtually every observer (apart from two of the three judges) thought that Matthew deserved the decision. He clearly won eight of twelve rounds. Two more were close.
One year later, Macklin challenged Sergio Martinez at Madison Square Garden and was ahead on the scorecards after seven rounds. But Martinez closed the show in the late going. “I got beat by a fighter who was better than I was tonight,” Matthew said afterward. “If you get beat, you get beat. It’s better than being cheated. A month from now, the Sturm fight will bother me more than this one.”
If Macklin is true to his word, he’ll leave boxing on a four-fight winning streak capped by a 9 April 2016 decision over Brian Rose that earned him the largely ceremonial IBF intercontinental middleweight belt. Before that, he held British and European titles. Given his intelligence and verbal skills, he should be able to transition seamlessly to calling fights from behind a microphone rather than being in them.
The most important thing now is for Macklin, like Lennox Lewis, to honor his vow of retirement. He didn’t have the same success in the ring that Lewis had. But like Lennox, Matthew is a class act.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (A Hurting Sport) was published by the University of Arkansas Press. . In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.