Boxing: Lennox Lewis: Is he underrated or overrated?

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There was a phrase Lennox Lewis used to describe himself in the ring.

It is a label that tells you much about his approach to boxing and, given it sits on his Twitter bio today, the former heavyweight champions must believe it is still fitting.

Pugilist specialist.

In many ways, the phrase reveals why he was so successful and yet fails to receive the plaudits this three-time heavyweight world champion straddling the Millennium with a record of 41 wins, two defeats and one draw should deserve.

After all, this is a man who beat everyone he fought. His two defeats were avenged. And even the punches that relieved him of his senses and world title belts by Oliver McCall in 1994 and Hasim Rahman in 2001 were early shots that appeared to come from nowhere.

Lewis was never dismantled or even outclassed throughout his career. Perhaps the closest he came was in his last fight as he was trailing on all three cards when Vitali Klitschko was stopped on cuts.

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In the previous fight, he had taken out a fading Mike Tyson in the eighth round and, before that, had taken revenge over Rahman.

It was not the strongest career-end for a Hall of Fame heavyweight but Lewis did pull off a rare trick in the fight game, stepping away on his own terms. He had the legacy and money if not quite the respect he deserved.

Part of that may go down to his displaced upbringing. He was born in East London but moved to Canada when he was 12.

Lewis beat Riddick Bowe for the Olympic super-heavyweight title while fighting for his adopted country but returned to the UK for his professional career, blowing away decent domestic fighters like Gary Mason and Glenn McCrory before taking a major gamble against the dangerous, unbeaten Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock in a final eliminator for the WBC world title.

He won in two rounds but the holder was Bowe, who famously threw the belt in a rubbish bin rather than face his old foe.

The pair never did face each other, a huge loss both to boxing at the time and Lewis’ legacy. Not that he should shoulder any blame.

After two defences, including a victory over Frank Bruno, he was knocked out cold by McCall in the second round at Wembley Arena in 1994. He would gain revenge and his WBC belt three years later but, yet again, his triumph would be marred, this time through McCall’s refusal to fight after seeming to suffer a mental collapse in the ring.

Lewis went on to beat the best in the division at the time – Michael Grant, Shannon Briggs, Henry Akinwande, David Tua, Frans Botha and Andrew Golota – becoming the last fully unified champion in the process.

He was robbed a career-defining win when the judges scandalously declared his 1999 fight with Evander Holyfield as a draw. Though he won the rematch eight months later, once again something of the shine had been taken away.

Make no mistake, Lewis was so good that the fighting fraternity wanted to manage him or avoid fighting him. Predatory promoter Don King pursued him relentlessly but never prised him away from Frank, now Kellie Maloney.

Bowe’s sidestep blighted his career and his subsequent failures have left him labelled a ‘might-have-been’. Lewis was too determined, clever and controlled for that.

After losing to McCall, he employed the new champion’s trainer Emmanuel Steward. The fight guru made him a more complete box-fighter with a ram-rad jab and heavy yet sparingly-used overhand right.

This made him successful if not exciting and the Canadian accent rather jarred with a UK audience who had got behind Bruno in numbers during the previous decade.

That is why Lewis is utterly admired and appreciated but not loved. Partly because of circumstances beyond his control and partly because of the way he fought.

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His skillset lacked a one-punch knockout power or psyche to gamble for a spectacular finish when his measured, chess-loving mind knew the risk-reward ratio was best served by a safe points victory.

While Tyson’s reign was shorter and displayed a more limited array of boxing skills, his punch power brought fans to the sport and got them shelling out for pay-per-view fights.

Like Larry Holmes, the dominance of Lewis came directly after an enthralling era in the history of heavyweight boxing.

Still, the pugilist specialist governed his era and must be listed in the sport’s all-time heavyweight top ten.

But it is entirely understandable why he is not remembered with the reverence of others.

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