FLASHY former welterweight contender Hedgemon Lewis, who failed in three bids for world titles, passed away on March 31 at the age of 74. Lewis was living in an assisted living facility in his native Detroit at the time of his death but spent much of his career based in Los Angeles with esteemed trainer and father figure, Eddie Futch. He would later follow Futch to Las Vegas, where he spent many of his later years.
Lewis missing out on the 147lbs world title can largely be blamed on the brilliance of Jose Napoles who, while at his peak, outscored Lewis over 15 close rounds in 1971. The silky but spiteful Cuban halted Lewis in the ninth round of their rematch three years later before the perennial contender was stopped in 10 rounds by Napoles’ conqueror, John H. Stracey, in 1976. He retired following that contest with a record of 53-7-2 (26).
Lewis’ fistic journey began in Detroit when he was a boy.
“I went to recreation centre in Detroit for swimming and got there late,” Lewis told Tris Dixon in the excellent book, Road To Nowhere.
“I was 11 or 12 and me and my friends would have nothing better to do than turn over trash cans and act like fools.
“The guy who was taking the swimming lessons ran and out and said, ‘Get your asses upstairs if you want to do that tearing up stuff. Go up there and work out. Ask for a guy called Duke Ellis.’
“Duke Ellis was damn near 90 but he had trained [former world heavyweight king] Joe Louis.”
Lewis impressed as an amateur though he would lose a bout to future Kronk founder and legendary trainer, Emanuel Steward.
Under the guidance of Ellis, Albert Smith and later Luther Burgess – who had been coached by Eddie Futch – Lewis made it to the semi-finals of the US Olympic trials in 1964. After winning national welterweight titles the following two years, Lewis ditched the vest and turned professional with Futch in his corner.
After his ninth bout, he joined the managerial group, Fighters Incorporated, that consisted of Dale Jackson, singer Robert Goulet, comedian Bill Cosby and actors Ryan O’Neil and Chris Connelly.
Though he initially resisted moving to Los Angeles – “I wasn’t ready to leave my mother. I was her only son” – he eventually made the move on the advice of Futch and it was there that his career really took off. Not a huge puncher, Lewis relied on exquisite skills off a piston-like left jab, vast ring intelligence – some observers even compared his fast hands and feet to Sugar Ray Robinson’s – and he was too much for all but the very best.
After winning 22 in a row, he was matched with Ernie Lopez in 1968 in the first of three fights with “Indian Red”.
“It was a pretty big fight at the time,” Lewis said. “He was tough, strong and could take a shot. He beat me twice, I beat him once and I scored the only knockdown of the three fights. But I got stopped twice and I beat him once on points.
“He was probably one of the toughest guys I faced. He was one of the biggest punchers and another was Jose Napoles. He was one of the best. He beat me twice but I thought I beat him the first time. I was not impressed with Carlos Palomino. We fought a draw [over 10 rounds in 1975]. I thought I beat him.”
Notable fighters Lewis officially beat included Billy Backus (twice), Ernie Lopez and Johnny Grant. Lewis was rightfully proud of his achievements which included paying for his sister’s education with some of his ring earnings; she became a teacher. Lewis went on to assist Futch in Las Vegas, where he worked alongside his mentor as a trainer.
He told the Las Vegas Sun, “I’ve done the best I could in boxing. I’ve had fun, I’ve had a ball. I got to travel and I met a lot of people.”