Fight #38: Lennox Lewis vs. Vitali Klitschko, June 21, 2003, Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
Looking back, it is easy to see now that the 1990s were a golden age for heavyweight boxing, exceeded perhaps only by the 1970s in terms of both the depth of talent and quality of drama in the division. At the beginning of the decade, Tyson was the king of boxing, but his downfall opened the door for Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe in the middle of the nineties, and then Lennox Lewis by the end of the century. Beyond those four, you also had a range of other quality fighters: George Foreman during his autumnal comeback, Michael Moorer, Tommy Morrison, Razor Ruddock, and still more.
In my opinion, Lewis was the best of the lot, a tactically gifted fighter who also possessed, besides Tyson, the most powerful punch in the division. When he retired following this 2003 match against the Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko, he ended his career with zero unavenged losses. That is to say, every man who beat him was later defeated by Lewis in the rematch.
Watching this fight now, it is clear that Lewis-Klitschko marked the end of this golden era. Ever since Ingemar Johansson's loss to Floyd Patterson (fight #47 on this list), the lineal heavyweight championship had been held by a Black fighter. This had given rise to all kinds of racial complexes and neuroses in popular culture. In the late 1990s, a forgettable and regrettable movie called The Great White Hype addressed this directly, but it was most famously articulated in the Rocky franchise, which typically gave its hero, Rocky Balboa, a Black villain to conquer in the ring. The one exception to that was Rocky IV, which pitted Rocky against the Soviet Ivan Drago, cartoonishly played by Dolph Lundgren as a heartless machine who overpowered his opponents with raw strength, only to be undone by Rocky's quintessentially American heart.
In the lead to this fight, Lewis tried to portray Klitschko as a kind of 21st-century Drago, an unthinking brute who lacked the heart and ring intellect to beat a true champion like himself. Perhaps for this reason, the 37-year-old Lewis seems to have scarcely trained for this fight, coming into the bout at 256 pounds, heavier than for any previous fight during his career. That lack of fitness was immediately apparent in the first round, when the 6'7" Klitschko outworked the 6'5" Lewis with a left jab that he concealed by keeping his left hand low, firing it from angles that Lewis was unable to anticipate. In the second round, Klitschko picked up the intensity, landing a string of right hands that staggered Lewis, making it appear as if he might not make it out of the round. But Lewis fought back, landing straight lefts and left hooks that showed that he could at least keep himself in the fight with his power, even if his lack of fitness created serious doubt that he had any hope of going the 12 round distance with Klitschko.
After the second round, Lewis's legendary trainer, Emanuel Steward, gave the champion perfect advice. He told him, Klitschko "wants to fight. You're going to have to take it to him." In other words, you aren't going to be able to outbox this guy. You need to go to war if you want any chance of winning. Lewis did exactly as his trainer asked, and with the first meaningful punch of the third round landed a hard overhand right to Klitschko's left eye, which again, was unprotected because he was keeping that left hand low. Cognitively, Klitschko took the punch well, and was soon throwing back. But the blow opened a nasty (and I mean NASTY) cut just above his left eyelid. It was a long, deep, ugly gash, and it started spurting blood all over the ring within seconds. With the left side of Klitschko's face covered in blood, Lewis did what every good fighter would do, he exploited the injury ruthlessly, peppering Klitschko's face with hard jabs over and over and over again. Maybe "sweep the leg" is bad sportsmanship in fictional 1980s youth karate tournaments, but going after your opponent's injury is universally endorsed in professional boxing.
But despite all that, Klitschko continued to win rounds. He lost the third round from that hard right hand, but he won the fourth and fifth rounds, where he landed heavy right hands on Lewis repeatedly. By this point, Lewis, out of shape and out of breath, had no interest in trying to outbox Klitschko, and just decided to take his best punches and keep putting jabs on that left eye. Fortunately for him, Lewis's chin held up, although watching this fight live, you would have been completely unsurprised if Lewis had been knocked down at any point. He was tired, staggering, and losing the fight.
Except, of course, he wasn't. Getting one punch on that left eye was more valuable to Lewis than ten punches landed by Klitschko were for the Ukrainian, because each one brought the fight closer to its conclusion. Finally, after the sixth round, the doctor advised the referee to stop the fight, which he did. Because the cut over Klitschko's eye was caused by a punch and not a headbutt, it meant that Lewis won by technical knockout. But watching the fight, there is little doubt that if not for that cut above his eye, Klitschko was winning the fight (and he was, on all three judges' scorecards) and was much more likely to prevail than Lewis. After the fight was stopped, another fight nearly broke out in the ring, as Klitschko was angry with the decision and wanted to continue.
It was a good thing the fight was stopped. Lewis retained the title but never fought in the ring again. And Vitali Klitschko, who had lost once before in his career, never lost again, winning his next 13 bouts and gaining a piece of the heavyweight championship before retiring in 2012. Today, both Lewis and Klitschko are enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. And though few recognized it at the time, the era of great Black heavyweight champions came to an end with this fight. In a surprising and, perhaps for many, disappointing plot twist, the true Great White Hope turned out not to be a rambling, inarticulate Italian from Philadelphia, or a corn-fed farm boy from Oklahoma, but rather a highly-educated Ukrainian (Klitschko has multiple degrees) from the shattered former Soviet Union, whose father had been one of the commanders responsible for clearing up the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In fact, Vitali and his brother Wladimir (who we will also meet soon on this list) took such command over the heavyweight division during the next decade that the next time Hollywood needed an unlikely underdog heavyweight contender to put on the screen, it fashioned a Black fighter (in the 2015 film Creed). Go figure.
One other note on this fight: my daughter Ash Jones came into the room as I was watching this fight, and when I explained the narrative of the fight and what happened to Klitschko's eye, she quipped, "Well, like Dwight Schrute said, 'the eyes are the groin of the head.'"
Also, on the advice of the few people who are actually reading these long posts, I am going to be resuscitating my boxing blog, www.bellowslunchbox.com, and will be putting these posts over there, though I will also continue to post them here as well.
Anyway, here is the video of the fight!