LENNOX LEWIS will spend a few weeks enjoying the full significance of his eight-round masterpiece against Mike Tyson and then let us know whether or not he wants to box again.
Opinion among critics is divided, but he was so decisive a winner in Memphis, Tennessee on June 8, 2002, it will probably be harder for him to retire than go on meeting challenges – and picking up multi-million paydays – for another year or so.
Lewis knows it is a question of motivation. He has, in his own words, cemented his legacy by trouncing Tyson and, to some extent, has been flattered by that.
Like so many before him, Tyson talked a great fight, then found Lewis too bewildering, too mesmerizing a talent, and too big a puncher.
The man who was the best heavyweight of the second half of the 1980s looked 35 going on 55 as he meekly – too meekly – accepted his fate.
Even though in itself the beating of Tyson is not the achievement it would have been had they met in 1996, Lewis deserves to be measured against the all-time greats and deserves this time of great joy.
He is not to every boxing fan’s taste. Some people would have preferred him to be a more dramatic personality, to have greater extremes in his personality – in other words to be what he is not.
No man is perfect, and there are times when he has cut an unnecessarily remote and even arrogant figure. But while he can undoubtedly be cold and ruthless when he wants to be, there have been few sportsmen in any era who could have bettered him as a role model.
“I believe I offer respect, honesty and good chemistry,” he said. “I hope people look at me and say ‘That’s how I want my son or daughter to be’. It matters that they hold me in esteem.”
For Tyson, the picture is bleak. This fight should have cleared his immediate financial obligations and left him with some change. However, his extravagance means that unless he finds some way to alter his life, he will soon find other debts he cannot pay without fighting again.
The clause in the contract for this fight allowed for the possibility of a rematch, but did not demand it. Frankly, it would be an act of the bitterest cynicism to enforce a return.
Apart from the first round, when Tyson outworked Lewis, the one time self-styled “Baddest Man on the Planet” took a systematic pounding.
He was battered, cut up, broken down and knocked out. And long before the final, shuddering right hand pitched him on to his back, he knew he had no chance of winning.
Even as Lewis was talking to the world media in the Pyramid Arena, the smile almost bursting from his face, Tyson was enduring the torment of defeat in another part of the building.
Cradling his infant child, stitches in the cuts over both of his swollen eyes, Tyson said helplessly: “He was too big for me, too strong for me. I can’t beat him.”
Later, he cut a confused, depressed figure as he said: “I might just fade into oblivion. I’m just fortunate Lewis didn’t kill me. I don’t know if I can ever beat him if he fights like that.
“I might just go to New York and feed my pigeons on the roof.”
Tyson, who already sees himself as one of life’s victims, is in such a mess that he may now face a severe personal crisis. I believe he should have been banned from boxing, for his own good and for good, in 1997 when he opted out of the second Evander Holyfield fight by biting both of his ears.
I wrote at the time he no longer had the stomach for the business.
It has been five years since, and the poor man has merely descended further into turmoil. Boxing is not the answer to his problems, and it is my honest belief he should have been helped to move away from it, not drawn back into it by those who purport to care.
He may recover, eventually, but the likelihood is increasingly slim.
He needs money, of course, so he will continue to box.
I don’t remember a more pathetic sight than that of Tyson, who had relished the possibility of crushing Lewis’ skull and smearing his “pompous brains” all over the ring, grovelling to his conqueror minutes after the finish.
Tyson kissed Lewis’ mother Violet and said to Showtime interviewer Jim Gray, the man who had challenged him so sternly after the Holyfield bite: “I have known Lennox for 15 years. We have always been friends.”
Then he turned to Lewis and said: “The payday was great. Thank you very much.”
Tyson said, as he had after his six-round win over Brian Nielsen last October, that he had needed two or three more fights before taking on Lewis, and added to Gray: “He was just splendid, a masterful boxer.”
Again, to Lewis, he said: “If you can give me one more chance, I would appreciate it.”
The man who admitted before the Nielsen fight that since his return in 1995 he had got by on brute force and intimidation, knew his bully act had been ruthlessly exposed.
Lewis would have been especially pleased to see Tyson so extraordinarily tamed. The word pre-fight was that win or lose Lewis would not give interviews in the ring, but would leave immediately if there was the slightest
possibility of Tyson boiling over.
As it was he stayed on, and even added an impromptu Sky interview as he left. “I just wanted to stick to the game plan,” he said. “The first round I didn’t settle down enough.” Trainer Emanuel Steward had been asking him to take out Tyson from round three – “I could see Mike was fatigued and mentally beaten,” said Steward.
But Lewis said he had temporarily hurt his right hand and so went on with the softening-up process behind his spearing left lead until the pain eased.
He continued using the right well enough, thudding it into Tyson’s head, and mixed in hooks, crosses and uppercuts expertly.
“He took some terrific shots,” said Lewis. This was true. Tyson plodded through the punishment almost as if he was
experiencing some kind of personal retribution – as if he knew this was the moment he had to endure to cleanse himself, if not of the business, but of the “Iron Mike” persona that had wrapped itself around him like a parasite for so many years.
“When he bit me [at that New York infamous press conference], he got first blood,” said Lewis, who was paid more than $300,000 in compensation for that from Tyson’s purse.
“I got second blood tonight. I noticed he was ducking to my left. I wanted to catch him on the chin and I did that.
“A lot of people didn’t believe I was going to be able to win this fight,” he said. “They thought Tyson was the same as he was in the beginning, but I deal in reality not fantasy. I realised what I was up against.
“It’s been a great, long road, and I have definitely achieved what I wanted to do. This is the final fight for Lennox Lewis’s legacy, the icing on Lennox Lewis’ cake.
“There is no fight that is an easy fight because you have to deal with it in a mental as well as a physical way. He tried to intimidate me, but I had to show him I wasn’t going to be intimidated.
“I’m glad he was humble afterwards. A lot of my friends said I should go out and discipline Tyson, especially after the bite, and did that.”
Tyson’s co-trainer Stacey McKinley had been vitriolic in his verbal abuse of Lewis pre-fight, including a classless exhibition in which he promised to spit in the champion’s face.
McKinley’s disgraceful, expletive-littered speech at the final press conference (at which Tyson refused to speak) illustrated the kind of trash-talk bluffing going on in the Tyson camp. Lewis called them cartoon characters.
McKinley let his guard slip once to admit with a grin: “I have been eating good ever since I’ve been with Mike Tyson.”
Afterwards McKinley, like his employer, showed humility. “As of tonight,” he said, “Lennox Lewis is among the greats.” He betrayed a bizarre naivety about the fight, almost as if he and the rest of them had blustered their way through the weeks of training in Hawaii without any kind of logical game plan.
“I didn’t expect him [Lewis] to throw that many jabs,” he said, “Mike stayed in there as long as he could.”
Ronnie Shields, the trainer who had been brought in especially for this fight and who had been instrumental in the removal of Jay Bright and cheerleader Steve “Crocodile” Fitch, was loyal to his fighter.
“Mike could have quit at any time but didn’t. He fought and he was gracious after the fight. He’s not the animal that some people think. He’s a very good man. I don’t know what he’s going to do but I’m behind him all the way.”
The champion’s team had asked for Greg Sirb, the former head of the Association of Boxing Commissions, to be brought in from Pennsylvania to help out the local authorities, who were plainly inexperienced in dealing with an event of this size.
Nothing untoward happened, thankfully.
Talking of security, Memphis took this extremely seriously inside and outside the arena. On Beale Street, famous birthplace of the Blues, law enforcement officers were plentiful, even early in the week before the fans arrived.
Signs warned gravely, ‘No weapons of any kind, no potential weapons of any kind’. In a Pythonesque moment, Sky commentator Ian Darke had a pear confiscated.
Journalistically, it was an amusing week, capped by the cynic who declared in his preview “Tyson’s about to be buried in a pyramid by a Mummy’s Boy”.
As to the pre-fight jousting, Lewis won the Eric Cantona Bizarre Riddle of the Week award with: “I’m the lion who’s sitting on the perch, chilling. The hyenas are running around, messing with the lion’s flock of women. The lion gets up, he stretches and he shakes his mane.
“Then he goes after the head hyena, catches him and breaks his neck. The lion walks back to his perch, looks around, closes his eyes and goes to sleep again. I like being the lion. I like being the king of the hill.”
To Tyson belonged the One-Liner award. When asked after the weigh-in what he planned to do in the 48 hours before the fight, he said: “Pray he [Lewis] don’t die of a heart attack.”
The in-ring security was ludicrous, as was the attempt to divide the ring announcing work between Jimmy Lennon and Michael Buffer. Both were as professional as ever, though Buffer’s contempt for the think-tank which dreamed up the idea was thinly concealed.
The sight of Lewis and Tyson peering over the heads of the 12 yellow-shirted security men standing in a line between the two neutral corners was silly. They looked like neighbours squaring off over a garden fence.
Lewis seemed pensive as he left the dressing room, but settled more as he reached the arena. He stood shuffling during the preliminaries, then Buffer let rip with “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble”, the yellow shirts filed out, a moth fluttered around in the television lights, and the fight so many of us said couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t happen, began.
Tyson (16st 10 1/2lbs) landed the first jab, and looked to get inside. They traded jabs. Lewis backed Tyson to the ropes, landed a right to the body, threw an uppercut. Tyson missed with two left hooks, but not by much.
Lewis (17st 11 1/4lbs) bore down on Tyson’s back twice, held on. Another left hook from Tyson missed, but a stiff jab surprised Lewis and knocked him back. Tyson’s fans in the 15,327 paying crowd roared, a deep, bellowing noise. Tyson seemed to feel a big right to the body near the bell but won the round.
Referee Eddie Cotton told off Lewis for holding early in the second and generally began to get on his case. Tyson used his head inside, but was not warned.
A Lewis right uppercut connected and he spoiled as Tyson came back again. More uppercuts went in from Lewis and Tyson looked more circumspect.
Lewis jabbed, threw a good uppercut, then shoved Tyson off, and soon afterwards picked up another warning for holding. Over the second half, Lewis established the jab, rattling it into Tyson’s face, shortening the distance, lengthening it, tapping with it, then drilling with it.
On the inside an uppercut knocked Tyson back. Lewis had taken over.
Between rounds Shields told Tyson: “You have got to be on this man’s chest. You can’t let this man jab without throwing anything back.”
Tyson’s failure to respond to the jab, or the corner advice, would have been an immense disappointment to those who had believed the hype about his rolling back the clock one last time to his great years.
He looked dry and slow, with a haunted look in his eyes. By the third he was standing off and making Lewis’s life easier.
The third saw Lewis outbox Tyson behind the jab, which dictated the pattern and flow. Lewis moved to the side and shot home a countering right, too.
Suddenly there was blood trickling from a slicing cut over Tyson’s right eye. The jabs had done their work. Tyson’s skin, that once gleamed like tough, polished leather, had an old papery look. Lewis made him miss with a left hook, then took one and rode it. On the bell, Lewis let him have a hard right hand. In his youth, Tyson would have reared up and blasted back. He didn’t.
In the fourth the challenger charged in at intervals, and stood off again far too much. The jabs peppered him and damaged his nose. A right over the top made Tyson hang on. He seemed mentally tired.
Lewis hurt Tyson with a sharp right at close range, and pushed him over, letting another shot go that missed. Cotton took a dim view and penalized the champion a point. Tyson looked desperate by the fifth, and then damage appeared over his left eye, too. His face just wasn’t fight-hard enough.
In the Lewis corner after the round, Steward urged him to go out and finish the job, while Shields pleaded in vain: “Give me all you have got for one round.”
In the sixth Tyson looked a forlorn, sad-eyed figure, as if he felt all the troubles of his crazy life bearing down on him. He turned square-on as if he just wanted the whole damn thing over with.
Two or three times rights bounced off his head. He did land a solid left hook to the body, but throwing singles was getting him nowhere. He looked mesmerized by the left jab, which seemed to be rarely out of his face.
“There is no way this man should be in there this long,” screamed Steward at Lewis. “Let the shots go. This man ain’t dangerous any more.”
Tyson found a short right inside in round seven, but was almost immediately knocked back by a jab and right cross. Lewis repeated it, then Cotton warned him for using the elbow.
Lewis was playing with Tyson, moving up and down the gears. Tyson tried desperately, but it just wasn’t there any more, and all the time that jab nagged and gnawed at him.
He threw a left hook at the body, but it was a tired punch and drifted low. Near the end of the round a right over the top smashed into Tyson’s weary face and he sagged sideways. More rights rained down. The bell rang.
Shields implored: “You have to let your hands go.” As Tyson’s cutman Ira Trocha jammed swabs in his eyes, with blood seeping from his nostrils, he replied: “I can’t.”
He did attempt a charge at the start of the eighth, but Lewis kept him under control easily and drilled out the jab, three, four, five times. Tyson turned square on again and walked in, looking for a body shot, a big right, anything.
Then suddenly a left uppercut took it all out of him, and his legs sagged from the impact. He sank to his haunches but didn’t touch down, straightened up and Cotton, in error, gave him an eight count.
He fought back proudly, landed one uppercut of his own inside, then faded away again.
When the end came, Tyson’s left glove was by his waist as he began to punch. Lewis beat him to it with a ferocious right clean on the jaw. Tyson crumpled to the canvas and lay on his back, his eyes open but uncomprehending.
He put his right glove across them as if to block out light, reality. At five he began to respond to referee Cotton’s count, but five seconds later was still only trying to haul himself on to one knee.
For a split second Lewis had stood above him as Ali had done over Liston 37 years ago, then retreated to a corner to survey a wider scene. He knew it was over. We all did, even as Cotton tolled the count.
An era was done with, one legend smashed and another established. Where we all go from here is anyone’s guess.