On This Day: Lennox Lewis Bows Out With Victory Over Vitali Klitschko

One of the greatest heavyweight fights of this century shouldn't have even happened
08:00, 21 Jun 2023

Boxing careers rarely get the perfect ending. When they do, sometimes it wasn’t even planned to transpire that way. This was the case on this day 20 years ago, when Lennox Lewis waved goodbye to the sport with a six-round TKO of Vitali Klitschko. Given the trajectory of their respective careers, this WBC championship fight is arguably the most significant heavyweight clash of its era.

Lewis had handled his long-festering business with Mike Tyson a year prior. That one-sided, eight-round hammering of the once-fearsome ‘Iron’ Mike had seemingly ticked the final box on Lewis’ ledger. Having beaten Evander Holyfield at the tail end of the previous decade while racking up wins over luminaries like Shannon Briggs, Frank Bruno and David Tua and avenging defeats to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, it looked like Lennox’s race was run.

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But he decided against retirement, instead concocting a two-fight plan for 2003. He would fight Kirk Johnson in June before facing Ukraine’s former WBO kingpin Vitali Klitschko in December. 

Johnson was coming off a disqualification defeat to WBA champion John Ruiz. There had been controversy when referee Joe Cortez called the action to a close after 10 rounds due to low blows. Johnson appealed to the WBA, partly on the grounds that both Ruiz and Cortez were of Puerto Rican descent. With the WBA route blocked off, Johnson was instead greenlit to fight WBC boss Lewis.

But ‘Bubba’ would not make it as far as the ring. A chest injury in training saw the Klitschko plan brought forward. Just two weeks before the fight, ‘Dr Ironfist’ stepped in to replace Johnson. Both the replacement and Lewis himself, who agreed to the change, should be applauded for their bravery. 

With all due respect to Johnson, Klitschko was an altogether superior proposition. Meanwhile, the challenger had gone from preparing for a tune-up fight on the undercard to facing the best heavyweight on the planet. We live in an era where the best heavyweights are jeopardising fights over such minor issues as who the “A-side” is or a fraction of a percentage of the purse. But there’s a reason Lewis and Klitschko remain legends of the sport to this day. Taking such a tough fight on two weeks notice is part of that legacy.

In the early stages of their Staples Center clash, Lewis may have wished he never agreed to take the bout at all. As Klitschko thudded hard shots off the champion’s head, ‘The Lion’ must have imagined what it would have been like to exit the promotion when Johnson did. To have saved himself from the fists that would go on to dominate the division.

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Klitschko had come into the fight as the underdog, but the first two rounds looked decidedly like a changing of the guard. ‘Dr Ironfist’ was at his surgical best, punctuating his early dominance by rocking the champion with two hard rights and opening a cut on his eye. After six completed minutes, the 37-year-old Brit already looked like his race was run.

Lewis summoned an almighty, title-saving shot in the third session. A piercing straight right thrown off the jab left Klitschko with a cut of his own. The Ukrainian star seemed to need a moment to gain his composure. After having everything his own way, now he was breathing more heavily than Lewis. The reigning kingpin would take the round but cede the next as Klitschko caught a second wind. 

The cut worsened through round five, in a rough stanza featuring some holding and hitting from Lewis. The sixth started with Lewis on the back foot, getting clipped with a thudding right from his foe. But Lewis summoned the sort of moment that had defined his decade. The sort of turning point that had kept him at the top of the industry, standing alone as the best heavyweight of his era.

An uppercut from the gods, a punch that sounded like a gunshot and kicked like a sawn-off sent the back of Klitschko’s head into contact with his neck. A lesser man would have gone down. A human man would have gone down. But Klitschko, by this point with enough missing facial flesh to strengthen his already-striking resemblance to the T-1000, stayed standing. He finished the round. In that moment, Vitali laid the groundwork for an entire career. 

Lewis’ would effectively come to an end at the close of the round. With Klitscko’s eye a grotesque video nasty in action, the decision was made to stop the fight. The challenger protested. Given the bravery he had already shown, you can imagine he’d have kept fighting if his head had been stripped to the skull. But despite the desperation of Lewis detractors to stir controversy, it was a logical stoppage. Lewis retained the heavyweight championship of the world while Klitschko, in defeat, passed from hyped European hope to genuine world class talent.

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A rematch was mooted, with Lewis even initially agreeing to one. But, perhaps conscious that there was an element of fortune in his previous win, the Brit instead retired from the ring. You couldn’t argue with his logic, even if some tried. Show me another fighter whose last two bouts were victories over men the quality of Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko. The decision has endured, unusually for boxing, only strengthening Lewis’ original choice. Despite the odd rumour, Lewis has done what he always promised. Retired as champion with his faculties and legacy intact.

Klitschko would retire in similar circumstances. After knocking out Johnson in his next fight post-Lewis, he won the vacant WBC belt against Corrie Sanders. An injury would keep him out of the ring for four years but, showing the same spirit that kept him swinging in the face of Lewis’ uppercut, he returned to recapture the WBC title from Samuel Peter. Nine successful defences followed before he retired in 2012 to concentrate on his political career. Klitschko is now the Mayor of Kyiv. 

Boxing careers rarely get the perfect ending. Lewis’ final fight wasn’t even supposed to happen the way it did. And yet it could not have been a better way for ‘The Lion’ to bow out. Klitschko would then enjoy his own perfect ending almost a decade later. These two fighters got out at the right time. But they also crossed paths at the right time, in a fight we’re still savouring 20 years later.

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