LENNOX LEWIS was set to take on fighter Kirk Johnson at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, before the Canadian pulled out just 10 days prior to the event with a chest injury. Vitali Klitschko was added as a late replacement, coming into the fight with a record of 31-1 on June 21, 2003.
THE WBC heavyweight title was at stake, providing the Ukrainian puncher with an opportunity to make some real noise within the division. Klitschko had previously knocked out 31 of his 32 opponents in 33 fights. His only defeat was against the American, Chris Byrd, which was as a result of a shoulder injury that forced him to retire his WBO crown, despite being well ahead on points after nine rounds.
LEWIS appeared to be taking a considerable risk in agreeing to the fight, given the fact that he no longer needed to prove his worth within the game. The British boxer was rapidly approaching his 38th birthday leading up to the fight, facing a 31-year-old opponent who could also boast more than a two-inch height advantage.
HOWEVER, London-born Lewis was a firm favourite for the contest because of his past success and his record of beating better fighters than Klitschko throughout his 14-year career.
OVERWEIGHT and slow to get going, Lewis struggled in the opening couple of rounds, failing to connect with any troubling punches or land his typically reliable jab. Klitschko rocked him with a jab of his own, accompanied by a solid right hand. He rattled Lewis, but then failed to follow up on the encouraging combination.
IN the third round, the tide changed dramatically. Lewis landed a right-hand that sliced open a vicious cut beneath the challenger’s left eyebrow. He continued to work the cut, aggravating it at as much and in as many ways as possible. Seeing the blood begin to pour, Lewis knew that this was his opportunity to avoid an enormous obstacle and utilised every opportunity to open the wound further.
THE champ managed to do just that after the towering Ukrainian was stopped by referee Lou Moret on doctor’s orders after six rounds. Despite avid protestations, he was no longer able to see out of his left eye and deemed unfit to continue the fight.
CRITICS believed that Lewis had escaped from what would have been a very tough ending had the fight carried on and Klitschko not been so badly cut. The defending champion appeared heavy and seemed to tire early during the fight. Klitschko agreed: “I was well prepared. I punch him with every jab. I saw his punches come. He’s a good fighter… he makes a great fight. But I know I would have won.”
EMANUEL STEWARD, Lewis’ trainer, was quoted as saying, “When Lennox goes, I want him to be like Hagler and Marciano and not come back.” Steward got his wish, the win over Klitschko turned out to be Lewis’ final fight in what was an illustrious boxing career.
NEGOTIATIONS for a rematch were in the early stages, but Lewis decided to announce his retirement in February, 2004. Injuries ravaged Klitschko after this battle, but he returned in 2008 after four-year break to complete a 13-fight unbeaten end to his career. He relinquished the WBC title in 2013 so he could focus on politics.