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Mr. Nice

Feb 10, 2004 5:31 AM

He was no Muhammad Ali, which is an accusation one can make against all fighters, but let’s not quibble about what Lennox Lewis was not. What he was, was plenty good enough to remain at the top of the heavyweight division for the better part of a decade.

Longevity does not equal passion, though, and Lewis will be forever admonished for his lack of fire in the ring and out. His own trainer, Emanuel Steward, continually berated him for "thinking" too much, for playing chess for gosh sake. Maybe in Russia they’d pay good money to see a 6-foot-5 Samson push pawns, but as Angelo Dundee said, "Lennox always disappointed me."

Ali’s trainer said "Lewis never gave the public what they deserved. He was strong enough to pick up the ring and throw it out of the arena, but he fought cautiously. He left me cold."

Pat Putnam, the longtime Sports Illustrated bard of boxing, agreed. "Lewis never lived up to my expectations, he was always content just to win."

Maybe the caution was based on Lewis’s awareness that his chin was not up to his other attributes. But as Larry Holmes said, "Lennox didn’t have the heart to take punches."

Ross Greenburg, the head of HBO Sports, Lewis’s main employer over the man’s distinguished career, said the London native — who learned how to box in Canada, for whom he won an Olympic gold medal in 1988, beating Riddick Bowe — re-defined the picture of heavyweight boxers. Lewis, like Bowe, were the New Breed, the super-sized big guys with people like the Klitschko brothers ready to step into their large footsteps.

Dundee, Putnam and the other detractors would point out, like Gene Kilroy of Muhammad Ali fame, that size matters more in other things. Dundee said little guys, like 185-pound Rocky Marciano or 200-pound Joe Frazier, would have managed to get under the 250-pound Lewis’s guard "and tear him up."

"Lewis couldn’t carry Rocky Marciano’s jockstrap," said Holmes.

Over in Britain, Lewis was a bigger attraction. His popularity was due more to adoring sportswriters than to the general public which found him (a) aloof and (b) more Canadian or Jamaican than English. It would not be too difficult to find so-called "experts" who would rate the first native Englishman to win a heavyweight crown in more than a century (you all remember Ruby Robert Fitzsimmons, whose solar plexus blow took the title from Gentleman Jim Corbett) right up there with Muhammad Ali.

Best of an era

I feel very strongly both ways. Lewis was the best of his era, and as his final trainer, Emanuel Steward, said, "You can’t fight in other eras." He was relegated to the riff and raff that was around. Yes, he beat Riddick Bowe, but that was before his time, before the American had the benefit of Eddie Futch in his corner. He beat Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson after their times.

He was knocked out by Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman — okay, the only two losses on a 42-2-1 record with 32 KO’s, and like the so-called "draw" with Holyfield, all avenged. But I can’t imagine an Ali or Joe Louis — now there was a Louis, even spelled his name better — or a Holmes losing to a Rahman, who has not won in six bouts since shocking Lewis in South Africa and who next month gets maybe $10,000 for fighting in some Washington D.C. ballroom. Those were Lewis’s defining fights.

But at the same time as not putting him in the same Top 10 I would reserve for better, if smaller fighters, like Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott, and never mind Jack Dempsey, Sonny Liston or Gene Tunney, I think Lewis would belong in a Top 25 or 30, and that anyone in that elite group would probably give anyone else a decent tussle.

Lewis, who was never trained by a Brit in his career, never was able to shake some of his amateur faults, though Steward came close to giving him some real balance and a decent jab.

No, Lewis may have been cold and calculating in the ring, unapproachable by public and media outside it, but he did not befoul the business, and these days, that can be considered a grand achievement.

He took his time making up his mind before announcing it in London that the hunger was no longer there. Fact is, at the age of 38, his physical skills were fading. He made Vitali Klitschko look like King Kong last June. In his mind, he beat Klitschko fair and square, would’ve knocked him out in another minute or two (I thought the fight was going in that direction, but it wasn’t over yet because one punch going in the other direction could have turned the tide again).

Money fell short

HBO, which would have preferred that Lewis "pass the torch" to their flavor of the month, in this case Dr. Vitali, didn’t come up with the money that would have compelled a man who probably earned more than $150 million already to stay around for another training camp.

So Lewis, who had delayed getting on with the rest of his life, is moving on. At the same press conference where he announced his retirement, he announced his engagement. Wife and babies and some quality beach time await. He deserves it all.

The problem is not where time will eventually put Lewis in the pantheons. It may take a few years before he is properly recognized. But it may take even longer before he is properly replaced. Look what’s out there. Don’t you want him to come back already? But as John Hornewer, one of his early advisers, says, "Unlike Emmitt Smith, Lennox ain’t going to the Cardinals."