Tuesday 29 March 2011

Lennox Lewis: Striving for a Place in History

Lennox Lewis' four round destruction of Hasim Rahman in Las Vegas has given Lewis the twin satisfaction of revenging his loss to Rahman and garnered him a third heavyweight championship.


But whether this will enable him to take his place among the pantheon of all-time great heavyweight champions is quite another matter.


Rahman's knock out of Lewis, seven months earlier in South Africa, as unexpected and as shocking a defeat by a journeyman fighter of an incumbent champion as ever happened, will go down as one of boxing's great upsets along with James Braddock's win over Max Baer and James 'Buster' Douglas' knock out of Mike Tyson.


Yet, the suspicion is that Lewis, who is universally regarded as having taken Rahman and his training regime much too lightly in the earlier contest, was merely restoring the natural order of things by winning a title which he should not have lost in the first place.


Many have argued before the return bout that even a win against Rahman would not be enough to rank him among the heavyweight elite of the ages. Is this fair or foul?


In attempting to assess Lewis' reputation in the scheme of boxing history, it is useful to note that most great fighters and exceptional ones at that, do not appear to be granted the esteem and kudos which they deserve until well beyond their fighting careers. As with characters in history, the reputations of pugilists ascend and diminish with the passage of time.


'To historians is granted a talent that even the gods are denied -to alter what has already happened' goes a rather cynical adage.


And boxing is no different.


Peruse the corpus of decades old boxing journals and one is struck by the contrast in early estimations of fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson with contemporary schools of thought. Robinson tended to be ranked below the likes of Stanley Ketchel and Harry Grebb up to a decade and a half after his career ended.


A similar pattern appears with Ali. Even after his 'impossible' achievement of relieving George Foreman of his championship in 1974, one poll of 'experts' in the middle 1970's ranked Ali below Jack Dempsey.


The picture today, is vastly different. Few would fail to grant Robinson the accolade of the greatest fighter in history while only Joe Louis and occasionally Jack Johnson are ever ranked over Ali.


The measurement of greatness is ultimately a subjective exercise. Athletic prowess and techniques develop over the course of time and this is a quite pertinent issue where the heaviest division in the boxing game is concerned such that it becomes ludicrous to believe that Jack Dempsey could ever cope with a modern, substantively weighing and competent heavyweight.


The same goes for Rocky Marciano. (Does any sane, rational person truly believe that taking size and styles in to consideration, that Marciano could have beaten Sonny Liston?) So, one may turn to the criteria of being consistently the best in your era.


Here few could match Marciano. Still, subjectivity does not preclude an attempt at referring to objective standards. How we should ask ourselves does Lennox Lewis compare in relation to quality of opposition, power of punch, stamina, ability to absorb a punch and longevity of career?


Variously described as 'lackadaisical'. 'amateurish' and plain 'boring' Lewis' style does not lend itself to the panegyrics used to describe many a great fighter. Lacking the fire and relentlessly aggressive ploys of a Dempsey, the classical punch combinations of a Louis, the workhouse ethic of a Marciano or the improvisational brilliance of an Ali, Lewis' boxing methodology provides little for us to summarise into a clearly definable type.


But Lewis is more substantive a fighting character than many a heavyweight in history. Even the great Larry Holmes had a 'style' which taken alone was not particularly exciting to watch.


As a puncher, Lewis has on occasion, and not nearly enough for the liking of many who feel his bountiful physical advantages should have enabled him to better employ more frequent manifestations of forceful punching, displayed a ferocity that verges on the best one could hope a great champion could display. The destructions of Razor Ruddock, Andrew Golota and now Hasim Rahman attest to this.


As far as stamina is concerned many will remain sceptical at his abilities here given that he has finished many twelve round bouts fairly laggardly and open mouthed when the likes of Ali and Louis gamely completed the then mandatory fifteen round championship distance on numerous occasions. In respect of longevity, Lewis it should be said has done well. Plying his trade as a top echelon heavyweight for over a decade is no mean feat.


However, Lewis' knock out losses to journeymen mediocrities of the ilk of Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman serve as a serious impediment when one considers the issue of the fighter’s ability to take a punch.


Joe Louis was knocked out early in his career by a seasoned but far from aged former world champion Max Schemeling. Muhammad Ali was never knocked out period. And even if Larry Holmes spared him this indignity, Ali's stoppage loss to Holmes occurred when he was very well past his best and essentially in poor health.


The other serious drawback for Lewis relates to that criterion which is concerned with 'quality of opposition.' But here one must exercise caution before sailing to judgement.


The reason is quite simple: It was not Lewis' fault that he did not face the best at their best. Boxing politics, rape convictions and legitimate inferences that he was avoided at critical junctures by both Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson all conspired to deny Lewis the opportunity of stamping his authority on this era of boxing.


It is true that some great fighters famously never met.


Jake La Motta for one, never swapped blows with Rocky Graziano and Ken Norton never got it on with Joe Frazier. Yet, it may be argued that these gaps are nowhere as palpably gnawing as the lacunae that Lewis' reputation will endure in future historiography.


The only comparison which comes to mind concerns the non-fight between featherweight champions Azumah Nelson and Barry McGuigan. That omission was a symptom no doubt of boxing politics. (It should be noted in all frankness that Nelson would have being favoured to win that bout and that McGuigan, whom the Ghanaian took to referring as "she", was straightjacketed by his manager Barney Eastwood who did not fancy much his charges chances.)


It is difficult to see how Lewis can surmount this. Bowe, at one time a worthy looking champion who had lost to Lewis while as amateurs, rapidly deteriorated and is deep in retirement. Tyson, on the other hand, was felt by many to be in a steep decline even before his enforced absence from the boxing scene.


Lewis, it can be argued, is part of an 'unfulfilled' era; one that is, in which each of the participants by virtue of talent and potential might conceivable have come close to rivalling the earlier era of Ali, Frazier, Foreman and Holmes.


Indeed, the imagination marvels -and laments at the glories boxing has missed had circumstances allowed for Lewis to meet Bowe and Tyson when the former was at the peak of his game and the latter would still have being something at his peak.


As it stands, Lewis may have to settle for the consolation prize of the latter day Mike Tyson. It has been suggested that such a fight might while falling short of creating the legendary stature of a true great might anoint the victor with the lesser honorific of 'greatest fighter of his generation.' Where that leaves Evander Holyfield, twice a victor over Tyson and a disputed loser to Lewis in their return bout, is another matter.


Lennox Lewis should be lauded for his win over Rahman. It is always difficult to comeback. It took around seventy years of Marquis of Queensbury Rules boxing for a heavyweight champion to regain his title. During this time figures like Dempsey, Baer, Schemeling, Walcott and Charles all failed. He may go on to conquer Mike Tyson but the overwhelming consensus among the boxing's scribes and soothsayers appears to indicate that this would merely be a "salvaging" exercise.


One, that is, which will have no effect on his goal of being ranked with the likes of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. A three-time world champion he may be but with two seemingly needless losses on his record and the fact that his talent sojourns within the alphabet soup era and a time of meddling boxing politics, Lennox Lewis had all the odds stacked against him.


History it appears may judge him harshly for this.


(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2001)

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