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Lennox Lewis, Frank Bruno and the tough road to glory

Lennox Lewis
Matt Christie compares Dillian Whyte’s journey to a world title shot to other British fighters, Lennox Lewis, Frank Bruno, Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, who went on to win the heavyweight crown

DILLIAN WHYTE has waited and waited in an era when patience is not a virtue, it’s unnecessary. Plenty of fighters have strolled, some even fallen, into world title shots while Whyte has battled a string of decent opponents to earn what is yet to come.

Beginning with a December 2016 points win over Dereck Chisora, Whyte has gone on to defeat Robert Helenius (pts 12), Lucas Browne (ko 6), Joseph Parker (pts 12), Chisora (ko 11), and Oscar Rivas (pts 12). Not quite Murderers’ Row but without question it represents the best heavyweight CV outside of Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder.

The run has not been without problems. Inside the ring one could make a case for Chisora winning their first encounter and Parker had Whyte out on his feet in the dying embers of their swashbuckling firefight. Outside, he’s battled with the World Boxing Council to enforce his title challenge, he opted not to rematch Anthony Joshua in a title fight – always claiming the offer to be lipservice – and the Rivas victory was tainted with a now infamous run-in with UKAD last year. Cleared in December the day before he outpointed Mariusz Wach, he is now preparing to take on Alexander Povetkin in another (on paper) tough encounter.

We compare Whyte’s march with other countrymen who were campaigning for world heavyweight title shots.

LENNOX LEWIS

THE 1988 Olympic super-heavyweight champion from Canada took a while to be accepted as the heavyweight contender from England. Born in West Ham in 1965, Lewis’ roots were in the UK and the path to world championship glory seemingly more straightforward here than in his adopted home.

Promoted by Frank Maloney, Lewis’ potential was obvious from the start. But he certainly didn’t have an easy ride en route to becoming the first British-born world heavyweight champion since Bob Fitzsimmons the previous century.

Lennox Lewis

– Gary Mason (w rsf 7, 1991)

Though already European champion (after thrashing Frenchman, Jean Chanet), there were plenty who thought that Lewis was going in too soon with British and Commonwealth boss, Gary Mason.

Mason, 35-0 and built like a tree trunk, was highly ranked by all sanctioning bodies and, at the very least, matches up to Dereck Chisora in terms of ability.

Lewis encountered several problems but came through a tense encounter in seven rounds.

– Mike Weaver (w ko 6, 1991)

By the time Weaver – a former WBA titlist – took on Lewis in an outdoor ring in Las Vegas, he was barely even a gatekeeper anymore.

Not a soul expected him to win. He was canny to the point of not being bombed out early but this was a one-sided mauling that Lewis finished in the sixth with a savage final blow.

All in all, though, it was a step back from the Mason test.

– Glenn McCrory (w ko 2, 1991)

Though this generated interest – McCrory trash-talked his way into this domestic clash and could boast being a former IBF titlist, albeit at cruiserweight – it was another fight for Lennox where he was an overwhelming favourite to win.

Lewis was in a particularly nasty mood. He dropped McCrory with a right uppercut before finishing the job with a right cross. Again, this was nothing compared to the threat Mason posed.

– Levi Billups (w pts 10, 1992)

After trouncing a washed-up Tyrell Biggs, Lewis took on the robust Levi Billups. Though dismissed by Michael Moorer in three, Billups found himself with a fringe world ranking after outscoring an ageing Bonecrusher Smith. The American did his job, survived the full distance and thus allowed Lewis to go 10 rounds for the first time. However, this was not exactly Whyte emerging from a crisis to defeat Joseph Parker. Nor were the subsequent hammerings of Derek Williams and Mike Dixon.

– Razor Ruddock (w ko 2, 1992)

This is arguably the toughest pre-title reign test of any British world heavyweight champion. Ruddock had KO’d Michael Dokes, Bonecrusher Smith, Greg Page and gone just under 19 rounds with a near-peak Mike Tyson. Many favoured Ruddock, who had beaten Lewis as an amateur and must be considered superior to anything Whyte has yet come up against, but Lennox made a mockery of such wisdom.

In one of the best performances of Lewis’ whole career he walked through Ruddock in two rounds in a final WBC eliminator. Riddick Bowe then famously ditched that title before it was awarded to Lewis by default.

THE VERDICT: That the Mason and Ruddock bout were genuine 50/50s against established world contenders going in (only Whyte’s win over Parker could truly be labelled as such) makes Lewis’ charge to the title an admirable one.

FRANK BRUNO

IN terms of celebrity and popularity in Eighties and Nineties Britain, Bruno was on a completely different level to where Whyte is currently. Critics have argued that due to his fame, Big Frank was gifted world title shots (he had four in all) but the Londoner didn’t exactly live a sheltered life when challenging the best of his era.

Following a 1984 loss to Bonecrusher Smith (that would have set up a premature challenge to the great Larry Holmes), Bruno was forced to rebuild.

Frank Bruno
John Gichigi/ALLSPORT

– Gerrie Coetzee (w ko 1, 1986)

Nobody can deny that Bruno truly earned his first shot at a sanctioning body title with this devastating KO. Only 15 months before, the South African was the WBA boss and though he lost that belt to Greg Page he had since defeated a still-useful James Tillis over 10.

Also consider that Coetzee, only 30, could boast a draw with Pinklon Thomas and a win over Michael Dokes in the not so distant past and one starts to realise why everyone got so excited by Bruno’s emphatic one-round victory.

– Joe Bugner (w rsf 8, 1987)

Following a brave but harrowing loss to Tim Witherspoon, Bruno feasted on James Tillis, an inept Chuck Gardner and a disinterested Reggie Gross.

Though it’s now easy to dismiss Bugner as an old man, his last three wins before taking on Bruno – outpointing Tillis, David Bey and Greg Page – arguably came at a higher level than Frank’s. But Bugner, cast as the enemy, was a big underdog in a fight that had been talked about since 1983.

Bruno bludgeoned Bugner to defeat in eight rounds to become the WBA and WBC No.1 and set up a shot at Mike Tyson.

– Pierre Coetzer (w rsf 8, 1992)

Bruno had to come back again after losing to Tyson in 1989. John Emmen -woefully overmatched – and Jose Ribalta – yonks past his prime – were dispatched before Coetzer was brought in to bring some credibility to Bruno’s quest for another title shot.

The South African was (dubiously) ranked highly prior to being exposed by Riddick Bowe before taking on Bruno. However, he proved his toughness and gave Bruno a decent scrap before being halted in eight.  

– Carl Williams (w rsf 10, 1993)

Williams was Bruno’s final test before he challenged Lennox Lewis but the American – like Ribalta and Coetzer – entered the bout on the back of a defeat. Talented and exciting but notoriously delicate against heavy punchers, Williams had given an up and coming Tommy Morrison a hell of a tussle before going down in the eighth.

He again showed his class against big favourite Bruno but was stopped in the 10th and final round.

– Jesse Ferguson (w ko 1, 1994)

Bruno’s magnificent effort against Lewis and lack of subsequent layoff (like those which occurred after losses to Witherspoon and Bruno) meant that his world ranking did not fall too much – unlike the three opponents he fought prior to taking Oliver McCall for the WBC strap.

Bruno’s quick win over Jesse Ferguson was the only one of the three worth noting (Rodolfo Marin and Mike Evans were the other two). The American had only been stopped twice since Tyson halted him in 1986 and, in his bout prior to Bruno, he gave Ray Mercer another difficult time, losing a split decision. Frank bombed Ferguson in one.

THE VERDICT: Though Bruno’s title shots came against elite opposition, he rarely strung together more than two consecutive wins against world class opponents outside of world championship competition.

TYSON FURY + ANTHONY JOSHUA

Whyte’s case for a title shot looks particularly strong when one compares it to the pre-title journeys of the current champions he’s aiming at. In fact, it’s impossible to pick out five opponents faced by either Joshua or Fury prior to winning the big one who could each be reasonably classified as contenders.

Though Joshua was moved well and quickly, Charles Martin becoming IBF champion was the irresistible bait for the Briton to move into world championship waters; ‘AJ’ found himself launched into a world title fight rather than campaigning for one for any length of time.

Fury, of course, had lost that IBF belt after failing to comply with the organisation’s strict demands regarding mandatories. But looking at his record before defeating Wladimir Klitschko to win that title (and the WBA and WBO straps) it’s easy to see why beating the Ukrainian was such a shock.

Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury

– Dereck Chisora (Fury w pts 12, 2011)

Fury’s clash with Chisora matched two unbeaten countrymen for the vacant British title but neither – though Dereck was flirting with both Klitschkos at the time – was recognised as a bona-fide world contender.

The bout was relatively entertaining and though Fury largely controlled the action, Chisora had his moments. The fight was seen by millions in the UK when it was broadcast on Channel 5 but it’s unlikely that anyone who witnessed the oft-scrappy affair would have predicted at the time that both men would go on to become long-term fixtures in the Top 10.

– Steve Cunningham (Fury w ko 7, 2013)

Cunningham was a former cruiserweight titlist who had proved his worth at heavyweight after deserving more than a split decision loss to another rising cruiser, Tomasz Adamek. But to say Cunningham was anything other than a vehicle for Fury would be a stretch despite the IBF sanctioning it as an eliminator.

But Fury did well on his American debut. Dropped in round two, he rebounded to pummel his smaller but more experienced rival to win by KO in the seventh.

– Dereck Chisora (Fury w rtd 10, 2014)

Since their first bout, Chisora had proved himself to be a contender at the top level and going into this rematch was on a fine run of form. So much so, that some even tipped him to get his revenge over Fury.

But on this night, Tyson – in a performance full of spite and intelligence – was faultless. Chisora was beaten up, he barely landed a punch of note and it was something of a relief when he was hauled out by his corner after 10 heavily one-sided sessions. Looking back on the career of Fury, this was the night when he too proved he belonged.

– Christian Hammer (Fury w rsf 7, 2015)

Hammer was Fury’s final test before he dethroned Klitschko. Like the others in this section, it would be a stretch to call the German a world class fighter but he saw his rating improve at a time when the dominance of the Klitschkos had left the weight class in something of a status quo.

Fury (who it would much later emerge failed a drug test after this fight) won at a canter but failed to convince many that in his next fight, he’d be the one breaking that status quo. It should also be noted that few heavyweights at this time were ‘cementing’ their position as leading contenders; the Klitschkos simply picked off everyone. Until Wladimir came up against Tyson, that is.

– Dillian Whyte (Joshua w rsf 7, 2015)

Ironic, perhaps, that Joshua’s only victory prior to fighting for a world title that could be viewed as anything approaching a high-level triumph was against the man now claiming to be ignored.

But the Whyte of 2015 was a different beast to today. Back then, despite the genuine grudge between them, Joshua was a big favourite to win. He survived a real scare early on, when he looked out on his feet, to steadily pound the resistance out of Whyte and spectacularly knock him out in the seventh.

In his next bout, Joshua destroyed the disappointing Charles Martin to win the IBF title.

THE VERDICT: Fury and Joshua cannot claim to have fought anything like the opposition that Whyte is currently beating before they challenged for world titles.

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