"Really, the question we were trying to explore in the film was: who do we examine as our heroes?"
The heroes in question, in the new documentary Lennox: The Untold Story, are ones of a very particular kind: heavyweight boxing champions. Although the film is interested, to some degree, in the graft and prowess that make a boxing champ, the more pertinent question seems to be: what makes the public cleave to certain figures and adopt them as heroes, while holding others at an arm’s length?
Lennox Lewis burst onto the professional boxing circuit after winning gold at the 1988 Olympics for Canada. The doc, co-directed by Rick Lazes and Seth Koch, takes us through Lennox’s life and career with a starry lineup of commentators, including friend-turned-rival-turned-friend-again Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, and - strangely enough - Dr. Dre, who executive produced the film and provides the voiceover. This quiet, polite gentleman boxer would go on to become the first British heavyweight champion in a century - and one of only three champs to retire as the reigning WBC champ. And yet, as co-director Rick Lazes tells The Sportsman, his recognition is not at the level it should be, "Not as many people know who Lennox Lewis is, despite the fact that he had a great work ethic and kept his nose to the grindstone."
Raised by a Jamaican immigrant mother in between London and Kitchener, Ontario, Lennox’s upbringing was littered with minor spats and trouble with the police. While the West Indian community in London were beset by run-ins with racist cops that frequently ended in violence, Canada seemed to be relatively calm by comparison. There, when a teenage Lennox got himself into trouble, local policemen did something that would prove pivotal in the young man’s life: take him to their boxing gym. "It’s an interesting juxtaposition, given how everyone is so conflicted right now, especially in America, about the role of the police," Lazes points out. "But Lennox trained in a police gym, and because he never had a father in his life, some of the police kind of took him on as their own."
With his 6’5 build and long, loping reach, it didn’t take long for him to catch the eye of trainers: Lennox was a consummate athlete. Yet the doc suggests a sense of outsider-dom to Lennox, who came into his own in Canada and belonged to the Canadian Olympic team, but was born in London and was British by birth. And while his Britishness made some North Americans assume he was an effete tea-drinker who posed no real threat, the fact of his Canadian connection also made him somewhat distant for a homegrown British fanbase.
On top of this, there’s also the fact of Lennox Lewis as a person: he’s not a bragger by nature, and the doc posits him as almost superhumanly unruffled - at least in public. The boxing fan seems to appreciate the showboater and the big personality - a la Frank Bruno, a perennial loser much adored by the British public - much more than the man who gets on with his job and does it well.
Stuck between worlds and often underestimated, the fighter seemed to turn inward, showing discipline and resolve even in the face of a highly-contested 1999 draw with Evander Holyfield. The ref clearly had prematurely called the fight, most likely under the influence of promoter Don King, but even still, Lennox remained remarkably calm. You’d think the fighter would have cause to be angry, but Lazes demurs. "In the 20 years I’ve known Lennox, I’ve never seen him raise his voice. He doesn’t show any resentment at all. What’s really important for Lennox is winning; that’s the ultimate vindication," he says. With only one draw and two losses on his professional record, Lennox would come back to avenge each one with a triumph.
Some of the best material in Lennox: The Untold Story touches on Mike Tyson and the strange friendship between two polar opposites of the heavyweight division. The pair had been friendly since they were teens at the 1984 Olympics, but the relationship seemed to have soured somewhat by the time of their hotly anticipated showdown, culminating in a press conference scuffle and a rather famous public meltdown on Tyson’s part. "Tyson maintains then and now that it was all showbiz, that he always had a warm spot for Lennox and his mother. Lennox always controlled his own career, but Mike...kind of let other people lead him astray," remarks Lazes.
On interviewing Tyson for the film, he adds, "I was impressed by how introverted and sensitive Mike was to the issues between them." The doc features a surprisingly emotional speech from Tyson to Lennox at a recent party held at the Friar’s Club in New York; Tyson seems not to hold his opponent’s vicious right hand knockout in 2002 against him.
After a last win by TKO over Vitali Klitschko in 2003, Lennox retired at the top of his game, settled down with his family, and has mostly not courted publicity. He helps to train underprivileged children in boxing gyms for various charities, but, true to his character, he’s not one to shout about it. As Lazes says, "He never really was that interested in promoting his name and notoriety."
Humbleness is an unusual trait in heavyweight boxing. In Lennox: The Untold Story, that humbleness is seen as both a stumbling block to the celebration Lennox rightly deserves - but also his great unsung virtue.
Lennox:The Untold Story, is available now on Amazon Prime