‘I ain’t no fool’: Lennox Lewis on Fury-Usyk and offers of returns to boxing | Boxing

Lennox Lewis pauses thoughtfully when he considers whether his achievement in becoming the last undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, after he beat Evander Holyfield in 1999, means he should be bracketed alongside great names of the past from Jack Johnson and Joe Louis to Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. His answer, when it comes, is emphatic: “Yes, absolutely. I truly believe I belong in the same room as them.”

The 58-year-old Lewis’s reflections on the once glorious but now fractured history of boxing feel fresh just a week away from next Saturday night’s fight between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk. Unless there is a draw in Saudi Arabia, either Fury or Usyk will become boxing’s first undisputed world heavyweight champion this century.

Before Lewis breaks down an intriguing bout, which will be held in Riyadh, and identifies his likely successor, he talks in compelling detail about his two fights with Holyfield 25 years ago. In March 1999, after comprehensively outboxing Holyfield in their first unification match at Madison Square Garden, Lewis was robbed by a travesty of a draw which would be subject to a judicial investigation. He clearly won the rematch in Las Vegas nine months later to add finally Holyfield’s WBA, IBF and IBO titles to the WBC belt he already owned.

“I did feel the magnitude,” Lewis says as he remembers his emotions when fighting for the undisputed title. “I’d never met Holyfield but I saw this HBO documentary about him which said how great he was and he was the perfect champion. I’m like: ‘How can you call him that great and he didn’t fight me?’ I wanted to prove I was the undisputed champion and I said: ‘Holyfield’s never seen a fighter like me.’”

Lennox Lewis’s trainer in 1999, Emanuel Steward, reads the New York Post the day after his boxer’s controversial draw with Evander Holyfield. Photograph: Reuters

Lewis remembers that, before the first bout, “when I went into the ring, and I saw Holyfield singing a gospel song as he came out, I was thinking: ‘He’s not taking me serious.’ I wanted to show him that: ‘Yo, I’m real and he’s got somebody in front of him that’s taking him very serious. I’m not singing coming into the ring.’”

In the buildup, the normally relaxed and low-key Lewis had suggested that Holyfield’s seemingly devout faith could not obscure his messy private life. Was this a way of getting under his rival’s skin? “Absolutely, and it did,” Lewis says with a smile. “He admitted it.”

A riled Holyfield promised he would win by knockout in the third round. That claim, even now, makes Lewis exclaim in disbelief. “Preposterous. I saved my breath until that round and I was like: ‘Show me what you can do.’ But it actually winded him.”

Lewis easily held off Holyfield’s desperate assault and, as he says, “throughout the fight I felt in total control. But he actually made me a better fighter because Holyfield had more technical skills than other heavyweights. He needed them because of his size [Holyfield had originally been a cruiserweight]. But you know how he really made me better? Because he used his head [to butt Lewis]. There was no use crying to the referee so I had to make a mental change: ‘OK, this is the situation. Can you adjust?’ So I adjusted.”

Lennox Lewis (right) lands a big right on Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden. Photograph: John Iacono/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

He was far more skilful and powerful for most of the 12 rounds and so Lewis’s face was etched in disbelief when he heard that one judge, the disgraced American Eugenia Williams, declared Holyfield the winner while the British official, Larry O’Connell, scored it a draw. Only Stanley Christodoulou, the vastly experienced South African judge, got it right and matched the consensus of almost everyone else who watched the fight when he gave a clear decision to Lewis.

“I could not believe it was a draw,” Lewis says, “when the punch count was so overwhelmingly in my favour. I threw and landed so many more punches. I was crazy and telling my manager at the time, Frank Maloney: ‘Yo, they didn’t add it up right. Go check. There’s a mistake.’ I was in shock. But you know what took me out of my shock? The fact that everybody was saying: ‘You won the fight.’ All I wanted was for everybody to see that I’m a better fighter and that I’m the true heavyweight champion of the world.”

The result was such a scandal that Williams was eventually brought before a federal grand jury to answer questions about her links to Holyfield’s promoter, Don King.

I was in Las Vegas for the rematch in November 1999 and remember how battered and sad Holyfield looked after Lewis carved out a unanimous victory on points. Lewis’s pride, against all the odds, can still be heard in his voice today: “I’d gone through hills and valleys and potholes and I actually made it to the mountain top. It wasn’t easy as I had to do it twice and, before that, they were trying to keep me away by not fighting me or blocking me. There were barriers to stop me before I became the undisputed world heavyweight champion.”

Lennox Lewis celebrates at the final bell of his rematch against Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas. Photograph: Al Bello/Allsport/Getty Images

Almost 25 years later, and with his status as boxing’s last great heavyweight sealed, it’s timely to hear Lewis’s assessment of the imminent battle between Fury and Usyk in Riyadh. “You’re looking at two very good, very determined fighters, guys that have never lost [a professional bout]. We’re going to see, 18 May, who is the best in this era.”

Lewis is unequivocal in choosing Fury. “I believe the bigger guy, the better guy, wins. They both have good skill and Usyk has good movement, with good balance, and puts his punches together well. But he’s going up against a 6ft 9in guy and, for me, Tyson Fury is very elusive even if he is so big. If he makes you miss, he makes you pay.

“It’s an interesting matchup but I always say if two guys have the same technical skill, the bigger fighter wins because he can force his size on the other guy. It’s happened before where the smaller guy won but, in this case, Tyson Fury’s got lots of different weapons in his arsenal. He has shown in the [three] fights with Deontay Wilder he is aggressive and moves forward well. Those fights really showed his skill, his talent, his ring generalship. I would put money on Fury – as long as it is the 100% focused Fury.”

Tyson Fury is in a jovial mood at a press conference to promote his undisputed world heavyweight title fight against Oleksandr Usyk. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

In his last, near-disastrous fight over six months ago, Fury was floored and nearly lost to Francis Ngannou, the former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title-holder making his boxing debut. “If it had been me against Ngannou,” Lewis suggests, “I would go in there and show that boxing is way different to UFC. Fury should have gone after him and knocked him out. Anthony Joshua did that a few months later.

“But Fury was not at his best. He was way overweight and didn’t take the fight seriously. Joshua showed that boxing is different. He hit Ngannou with a very good right hand and it didn’t look good the way he fell. This is a dangerous sport, where we don’t play.”

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Would Fury at his best have presented Lewis with an exacting test? “Yes, because of his size. I’ve been watching him for a long time and he’s a good boxer. He is the one that shadow-boxes the most out of all of them. You can tell.”

What would have been his strategy against Fury had they met in Lewis’s prime? “That’s an interesting and really good question. But I’m a pugilist specialist and I don’t want to tell people how I’d do it. I don’t want anybody to use my information without me.”

Is Lewis convinced he could have beaten Fury? “Absolutely. Everybody’s got a flaw – you just have to find it. Holyfield was very effective when he boxed me, because he kept me turning. That put me off a couple of times but I found a way.”

He and Holyfield both beat Mike Tyson but Lewis is adamant he will support his old rival in July, when the by-then 58-year-old Tyson fights the YouTuber Jake Paul in a dubious but officially sanctioned bout which will receive massive publicity. “Absolutely, absolutely,” Lewis says in echoing endorsement of Tyson. “I’m looking forward to it because you’ve got to look at these guys as entertainers. The public love them and want to see them in action.”

Former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson (left), Lennox Lewis (centre) and Evander Holyfield are honoured prior to Tyson Fury’s rematch against Deontay Wilder in February 2020. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

But, knowing the damage that boxing can do, is Lewis concerned about the safety of a man closing in on 60 and a boxing novice? “I’m concerned for Jake Paul,” Lewis says. “Tyson still knows how to punch, as you can see when he’s hitting a bag. If Jake Paul gets hit by one of those punches, he’s going to feel it. I know Jake Paul doesn’t want to get hit.

“Tyson comes forward and he knows how to cut off the ring. It could be a matter of time, as how good is Jake Paul’s defence? I saw Mike a couple of weeks ago and he looked good. He was walking around without a shirt and showing off his body so he’s getting ready.”

Do hucksters still try to entice Lewis back into the ring? “Yeah, they do. But, as my friend says, I ain’t no fool.” Hopefully that means a rejection of any stunt of a comeback for an undisputed champion as significant as Lewis? He laughs. “I was seeing if I could catch you out there. For me, money talks, bullshit walks.” Does this mean he would consider an astronomical offer to make a return? “That’s what I’m saying. I’d 100% consider it.”

Lewis is still smiling when I ask if he works out regularly. “Yes, I do. I ran five miles this morning, swam a couple of lengths, 100m. Then I woke up and took a shower.”

Lennox Lewis displays his championship belts after defeating Evander Holyfield in their November 1999 unification fight. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

We laugh at his joke and agree that it matters far more that he became one of only three world heavyweight champions to retire while in possession of their title. Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano preceded him. “That mattered to me because setting goals and reaching marks is a big thing. When Manny [his last trainer, Emanuel Steward] told me to take that last fight against Vitali Klitschko, he said: ‘You’ll beat him and be known as the greatest in this era and the next.’ I’m like: ‘I’ll take it. I’ve been undisputed champion already. What’s higher than that?’ I thought that was a good challenge for me.

“Muhammad Ali was my hero and people always asked: ‘Why do you think he stayed in boxing too long?’ I looked at the aspect of why do all these champions come back? For me, the answer was money. I can understand because everybody that you meet [in retirement] says: ‘Hey, champ! When are you back in the ring?’ I’m like: ‘Yo, dude. I finished 20 years ago.’”

Lewis smiles one last time, his wisdom being as apparent as his amusement. “As my friend in showbusiness says,” he murmurs, “I decided to retire and leave them wanting more.”

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