Lewis has lost most important fight of all
June 24, 2003
To paraphrase Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part III,” just when Lennox Lewis thought he was out, they pulled him back in.
All Lewis, the 37-year-old WBC heavyweight champion, had to do to retire with his legacy intact was walk away after his destruction of Mike Tyson in eight rounds last June. Lewis was on top of the world. He had beaten every fighter he had ever faced and had avenged every tie or loss he had suffered.
There was nothing left for him to do in boxing.
Forget fighting light-punching Chris Byrd, to whom Lewis gave up the IBF belt rather than face. Forget facing relatively untalented John Ruiz, to whom Lewis gave up the WBA belt rather than meet. All Lewis had to do was quit. After all, it had taken him 13 years to finally win boxing fans over.
So what did Lewis do?
He took a year to bask in his own glory. He partied hardy. He had to immerse himself in the lake that was his ego. That is, of course, until his ego — which must nearly be as big as the 6-foot-5, 256-pounder himself — wrote a check that his body would have to cash.
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No, Lewis couldn’t find it within himself to pull a move like Rocky Marciano and walk away from the game with his legacy intact. He had to learn from the example set by all the other heavyweight greats: James J. Jeffries, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Tyson and Evander Holyfield. He had to hang around the sport too long.
Lewis, who already has more money than he could ever spend, got greedy. He knew there was a huge payday out there for him with WBA titlist Roy Jones, whom Lewis outweighs by 60 pounds.
While Jones would continue to get his heavyweight sea legs under him by fighting Holyfield in October, Lewis could shake off the rust against overrated Kirk Johnson in an unsanctioned title defense. Vitali Klitschko, against whom Lewis was obliged to make a mandatory defense, didn’t have enough heart or skill to merit Lewis fighting him.
Twelve days before the Lewis-Johnson fight, Johnson pulled out with an injury. Lewis, getting older and already inactive for more than a year, magnanimously invited Klitschko to fill in for Johnson so all of that supposed hard work in training camp wouldn’t go to waste.
Saturday night, Lewis found out what the German army did in World War II: Don’t ever underestimate a Russian’s pride, or in Klitschko’s case, a Ukrainian’s heart. Yes, Lewis retained his title and turned Klitschko’s face into chopped, bloody shark chum. But it was a clearly out-of-shape Lewis who left Los Angeles not only with his face battered and bruised, but his pride and ego as well.
The same crowd that had soundly booed Klitschko before the fight, turned Staples Center into some kind of perverse Rocky movie, cheering the big man from the Ukraine who stood on the ropes, thumping on a huge chest that contains what Lewis said he lacked: a heart.
It was Klitschko who went home the people’s champ.
When the ringside doctor stopped the fight, Lewis sported a deep gash on his nose, two lumpy eyes and trailed 58-56 on all four scorecards. If it had been an accidental headbutt that caused the gash instead of a nice right hand delivered in the third round, Lewis would have lost his crown and his title as baddest man on the planet via a technical loss.
In one fight Lewis has lost all the respect it took him so long to gain. He has nobody to blame but himself
Lewis, now 41-2-1, with 32 knockouts, finds himself in a quandary. He can walk away now and forever lose the respect of the boxing world, or he can give Klitschko a rematch.
And make no mistake about it: Lewis will give Klitschko the rematch. He has to. Klitschko demands it. The people demand it. And Lewis’ ego demands it.
Lewis will come back in condition in five or six months and score a legitimate knockout of Klitschko. The big man with the big heart from the Ukraine has flimsy skin and clumsy legs. Lewis will use his potent jab more and land the same right hands he was missing Saturday against Klitschko.
But Lewis won’t ride off into the sunset after his victory. He won’t call it a career and return home to his mother, lap dog and tea. His ego won’t allow it. And therein lies the rub: Lewis is doomed.
The reason Lewis is doomed is that he’s already lost to an opponent only Marciano was able to recognize and defeat: his own ego. Marciano knew that ego, not pride, always wins. So he was proud enough to walk away 49-0, but most important, master of his own mind.
Lewis can’t do that. He will continue to go on. Even if he beats Jones — which is no longer a given — he won’t be able to resist the challenge of Wladimir Klitschko, who will be looking to avenge his older brother.
Lewis will make the same mistake against Wladimir that he did against Vitali, He will underestimate him. Lewis mistakenly thought Vitali had no heart because he quit against Byrd after tearing his rotator cuff in an April, 2000 WBO title fight. He will think Wladimir has no chin because hard-punching southpaw Corrie Sanders landed the same kind of knockout punch that Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman landed on Lewis.
That will be Lewis’ last mistake. Wladimir is more talented than his brother. He’s better on his feet, has quicker hands, and he’ll be fighting for honor and pride. Vitali showed Lewis what pride could do on Saturday. Lewis, whether or not he knows it, has shown what ego can do. It can spell doom.
Vitali Klitschko, Jones, Wladimir Klitschko — it doesn’t matter which opponent beats him in the ring. Lewis has already lost the most important battle — the one with his own ego.