After 44 fights, 41 victories, 32 knockouts and three heavyweight championships, on June 21, 2003, Lennox Lewis’ superlative-defying career came to an end in the midst of a literal bloodbath.
It’s strange looking back at a heavyweight landscape that had not yet been carved by the two, towering Ukrainian brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, who would define boxing’s marquee division to a generation but that’s what it was like in those first fledgling years of the noughties, a state of limbo where popular champions of boxing past were beginning to fade away from the sport and the new crop of potential heavyweight torchbearers were doing little to excite the masses.
When Lewis, one of the very best heavyweights to ever lace-up, signed on to fight the older of the two Klitschko brothers at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, Vitali, or the more ominously monikered ‘Dr Ironfist,’ he probably hadn’t envisioned it would be his last dance in boxing. To many, Lewis included, Klitschko was merely a stepping stone to a much more lucrative sequel with Mike Tyson, whom Lewis had cemented his heavyweight supremacy against a year prior.
After a sole defeat to Chris Byrd in 2000, Klitschko had strung together five consecutive wins and appeared to be a considerable distance back up the comeback trail when pen was put to paper on his bout with Lewis, but the question marks still remained. That defeat to Byrd three years earlier had bludgeoned his confidence and many believed, perhaps foolishly given what we know he would go on to achieve, that Vitali didn’t have the minerals for prizefighting.
“He doesn’t have the mentality of a champion,” blasted HBO’s Larry Merchant. These doubts were the fuel Klitschko needed to ignite a fire within himself that would leave even 4/1 favourite Lewis questioning his future in the ring.
The fight itself was a savage spectacle, with six rounds of unadulterated carnage shared between the Brit and the Eastern European. There was no doubt that the fight had, in just under 20 minutes, dragged Klitschko into new realms of pain and discomfort. Lewis meanwhile, later acknowledged that the Ukrainian had indeed been the toughest opponent of his career.
Lewis, a mighty 6ft 5in tall, is rarely dwarfed by an opponent but with a two inch height advantage, Klitschko found great success in manoeuvring the ‘smaller’ man into the path of his right hand in the first round. In the second, still brimming with confidence, Klitschko landed the first big shot of the night, a straight right that forced the sluggish champion to hold.
Undeterred, Lewis kept moving forward and the fight kicked up a gear, starting to look every bit like a heavyweight classic. Merchant, on colour commentary for HBO, likened the scenes to arguably the most thrilling boxing match ever, claiming what was unfolding was: “Gatti-Ward at the highest level.”
In the third stanza, the fight quite literally took an ugly turn, especially with regards to Klitschko’s once chiselled face. At the start of the round, Lewis’ trainer, the legendary Kronk master, Emanuel Steward told his charge to take the fight to his Ukrainian aggressor, which Lewis duly did, landing a devastating right and opening up what would be a fight-changing gash over Klitschko’s left eye.
Klitschko bravely fought on but the damage was done, his face looking more and more like a bloody Picasso as the seconds went by. Emboldened by the damage he’d caused, Lewis went to work on Vitali’s eye, opening up the gash further and the fight looked like it could be halted at any moment.
By the sixth and final round, blood was flooding out of Klitschko’s left eye like the elevator in The Shining. Both men were entirely spent, Klitschko was still landing shots on Lewis but, with little in the way of power, Lewis just kept coming. It wasn’t the Briton’s finest night in the ring, and ‘The Lion’ looked as equally spent as his opponent, but, finding the courage of the animal he’s aptly named after, he managed to muster up enough energy for one last thundering uppercut, which sent Klitschko’s neck snapping back grotesquely.
Grit, courage and determination are three key ingredients for any world-class boxer and Vitali Klitschko had that in buckets. Not only did he survive a blow that would have dropped a number of top heavyweights, he actually finished the round strongest. He would not return for round seven.
Unfortunately, the fight wouldn’t reach its natural conclusion, after the ringside doctor adjudged that the challenger’s gruesome injury was beyond salvaging - a disappointing, but entirely fair call. At the time of the stoppage, each of the three ringside judge’s scorecards had Klitschko two points up. Vitali Klitschko, the man who apparently didn’t have the heart for boxing, had just given Lennox Lewis fits and proved at the same time that no one should ever question his courage.
Attention immediately turned to a rematch. Yes, Lewis had taken that all important ‘W’ in the first bout but nobody was convinced - what would have happened if it wasn’t for the cut? Any dreams of a second fight with Mike Tyson seemed distant, with the latter embroiled in a legal dispute with Don King. Lewis vs Klitschko II seemed like an obvious home-run.
Alas, it wasn’t to be with Lewis announcing his retirement in February, 2004. Whether he would have retired if he hadn’t been dragged into such a brutal war with Klitschko can be disputed but the outcome of a second fight between the two remains one of boxing’s biggest ‘what ifs?’
Controversy aside, this fight was a momentous occasion in an otherwise dull period of heavyweight boxing. A throwback to heavyweight classics of days gone. Lewis and Klitschko, now both long retired, are considered two of the finest heavyweights of the modern era and this changing of the guard fight in 2003 is the perfect example of why each is so beloved.