“It Can All End with One Punch”: Hall-of-Famer Lennox Lewis on the Heavyweight Division

Lennox Lewis celebrates after knocking out Hasim Rahman in their rematch at Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas, on November 17, 2001. (Nick Potts, PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Lennox Lewis, dressed head-to-toe in white, presses his back into his chair and wraps a giant fist around the end of each arm. “I feel like, right, now I’m in my throne, I’ve got the crown, I’m the king,” he says, transporting himself back two decades to when he ruled the heavyweight division as the undisputed champion. “But now I’m the king; I’ve got that guy saying, I’m no good, that guy saying he wants to beat me, that guy saying I’m chicken.”

“OK,” he adds, hauling himself onto his feet and rubbing his hands together. “I get up, slap up this one, come back and sit down, another guy took his place? There I go again, slap that one up too, even worse. I had plenty keeping me busy until I got rid of the lot of them.”

Lewis is fifty-three now, and it is sixteen years since he brought the curtain down on his Hall-of-Fame career by beating Vitali Klitschko in Los Angeles. These days he spends most of his life in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where he runs a boxing academy for youngsters.

But his current position on the perimeter of the professional game has given him a perfect vantage point from which to assess the heavyweight landscape. “You know, it’s still the same now as it was back in my time,” he says. “But it is just other names and other players involved. And just like it was in my time, in boxing, sometimes the king loses when he’s not supposed to, and it’s up to him to decide what happens afterward.”

Lewis, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world, speaks from experience. He was dethroned by Oliver McCall when he held the WBC title in 1994 and was later on the end of an even bigger shock when 20-1 underdog Hasim Rahman claimed the IBF and WBC belts by way of an unforgettable fifth-round knockout in Brakpan, South Africa.

Some have used that 2001 defeat, in particular, as a reference point for the latest significant upset in the history of British heavyweight boxing, Anthony Joshua’s defeat to Andy Ruiz in New York on June 1.

The Londoner touched down four times before the fight was stopped by Referee Mike Griffin as Joshua swayed on unsteady legs, leaning against the ropes in his own corner midway through the seventh round. Ruiz, meanwhile, jumped up and down with glee, in what is already one of 2019’s most iconic sporting images.

Just as Lewis did against Rahman eighteen years ago, Joshua has decided to go headfirst into an immediate rematch with a winter encounter now likely. Their initial fight contract permits it, and the once-beaten twenty-nine-year-old is desperate to get his WBO, WBA, and IBF titles back straightaway. He wants to get back to his throne.

But Lewis does not see this as a case of history simply repeating itself. In fact, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist believes Joshua is about to make what could be the biggest mistake of his career.

“If I was in charge of Anthony Joshua, I wouldn’t put him straight into the rematch. I wouldn’t do it because I feel like he won’t be ready in time.

“It’s a quick turnaround, especially after how the fight ended. It was like something is majorly wrong, I can’t guess what and I can’t tell you what it was. I think it was maybe a bunch of different things that I’ve identified, and until those problems are worked out, I wouldn’t put him in the ring again.

“You’re jumping back in the ring before you’ve fixed your problem. You better fix that problem before you jump in the ring. Some people have said that if he loses again, he’s done, and I would agree with that.

“I wouldn’t say he would have to retire, but he would just be another one of those guys who lost twice in a row, and he can’t afford to be one of those guys. He can’t afford to lose again. With him too, it would harm him.”

Lewis has been accused in the past of being too critical of Joshua. The suggestion is that the former great is somehow jealous of his compatriot’s success and subsequent public adulation.

As such, he treads carefully when pressed on the matter. When asked what advice he would give to the youngster should he receive a phone call from London tomorrow, Lewis smiles. “That’s a tricky question; I’m not sure I can answer that,” he says.

“Look, I always tell people it’s really hard to win [the title] and even harder to keep it. With Joshua, the belts went real quick. It was a mad night for the division and it seemed uncanny. It was like we knew what was supposed to happen, but then something else entirely happened. But here we are still asking what the hell happened! We still don’t really know.”

The key for Lewis, however, is that the required adjustments against Rahman were simple and easily addressed. A month after the defeat, he invited his trainer Emanuel Steward to Jamaica and together they established their plan to regain the world heavyweight titles. A fierce training camp in the Poconos followed before Lewis crushed Rahman inside four rounds. Not seven months had passed since their initial encounter.

“It was easy because there were a couple of factors involved in the first fight which we could rectify,” he adds. “The first was the altitude, which slowed down my whole game. Instead of boxing normally, my game was slowed down. Usually, I’d be like pop, pop; in that fight, I was like pop . . . pop. I didn’t want to get tired or to that point where I was gasping for air.

“Secondly, my mistake in the fight was holding up my hands wrong. I thought I had the punch blocked, but he hit me through the middle. It was a simple adjustment. But we are not talking about simple adjustments with Joshua. Just look at the nature of the defeat. I was hit by one punch.”

Even so, Lewis knows exactly how Joshua will be feeling right now. The beaten champion, he suggests, can win or lose the rematch with his mindset over the next few months. “What Rahman did was rekindle a flame that was dwindling inside of me as a result of being champion for so long,” says Lewis, who famously spent much of the build-up to the initial fight filming his part in Ocean’s Eleven. “I took my eye off the ball a bit; we all do the same thing. For me, I thought I was unbeatable, and my power and strength could not be matched. Even when he caught me, I was throwing my own punch to try and take off his head, but he caught me first.

“At no point did I consider losing the rematch with Rahman; there was no doubt in my mind. Go and look at the fight. He couldn’t touch me in that fight, not even one punch. I was too focused. Watch the fight: I was focused from the get-go. My pace was way different.

“As soon as I lost, already I’m thinking about getting my belts back, after the fight, I said, ‘My belts are just on loan,’ but Joshua hasn’t said that.”

He has, however, gone back to his family roots by spending time in Nigeria, where he has immersed himself in local culture and visited boxing gyms. Lewis, eighteen years ago, did his soul-searching on the very same continent. “Going on safari in South Africa helped me, helped chill me out,” he explains. “It’s not about forgetting about what happened it’s more like, yo, it puts everything into perspective.”

The broader context is that Joshua is no longer considered the number-one heavyweight on the planet. Some now have him as low as fourth on the list, with his fellow Brit Tyson Fury at the top. Deontay Wilder and Ruiz are the other big hitters.

But the self-styled “Gypsy King” Fury also knows about how hard it can be to retain such a lofty position, having dropped all three of the belts he famously won by beating Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 without ever defending them.

“Sometimes that crown can weigh too heavy on the head, easily,” Lewis adds. “Although we don’t talk about it, everybody goes through mental issues.

“Now, for me, he’s number one, but only by a dash. And he got that dash because he went to the man’s home country, went over the water and did what he did. He was going through problems mentally, weight problems, but then he elected to call for arms, go to war.

“He went over to Deontay’s country, totally out of his depth in the sense of fans and support and challenged the man. He did quite well, I had him winning, but it was just that last knockdown, you could argue, OK, a draw. But I felt that on the boxing side he won. On the power side, Deontay won.

“Does he have the ability to go down as an all-time great? Yes. I don’t like to cross eras I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, he would beat this guy from this era’ because to me it’s a disrespect to those guys in their era. But, for now, he seems incredibly difficult to beat. I think that he is leading the way when it comes to his own era.”

That can all change, however, when Fury and Wilder meet again, with a February 22 date said to be signed and sealed. In the meantime, Wilder must beat Luis Ortiz for a second time, and Fury must successfully navigate through an outing of his own scheduled for October. Joshua and Ruiz are expected to collide for a second time in either November or December.

“We can talk all we want now,” says Lewis, “But the thing with heavyweights is that it can all end with one punch, it can all change. You can never really be confident that one person is going to win the fight, especially when there are twelve rounds involved and one punch can take anybody out.

“And that’s the thing about the crown: once you’ve got it, everyone knows how hard you’ve worked for it. But everyone knows how easy it can fall.”

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