A fabulous enigma

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Some time soon, almost certainly within the next year, Britain's world heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis, will walk away from the ring. There is doubt about the timing, only because arranging a fight with Mike Tyson, which would provide Lewis with a last hurrah worth a minimum of £20m and a historic final flourish to his career, is proving only marginally less problematic than brokering peace in the Middle East.

Some time soon, almost certainly within the next year, Britain's world heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis, will walk away from the ring. There is doubt about the timing, only because arranging a fight with Mike Tyson, which would provide Lewis with a last hurrah worth a minimum of £20m and a historic final flourish to his career, is proving only marginally less problematic than brokering peace in the Middle East.

One point, though, is beyond doubt. Whenever the 35-year-old Lewis goes, he will leave as he came, which is arguably more enigmatically than any man who ever rose to prominence in sport's oldest, hardest game.

He is, even his worst critics are beginning to concede, a rather fabulous enigma. Lewis is the mummy's boy who combines an unswerving gentleness outside the ring with a ferocity inside it that has recently become chilling. Everything about him, his motivation, his true patriotic allegiance, even his sexuality, seems to invite doubts. But as he continues to augment his reputation as a masterful champion, the debate just passes him by.

This week in Las Vegas, where tonight he defends his title against David Tua, a fierce-punching Samoan, he responded to an ear-splitting Polynesian war cry from his challenger with the news that his mother Violet had been cooking him "dumplings filled with love". It brought a familiar glazing of the eyes of the fight crowd, but, unfazed, Lewis added, "I'm proud to call myself a mother's boy. Who gives you more in life than your mother?"

In the case of Lewis, the point has a biting relevance not just to his wealth and his fame, but to his very existence. As a young West Indian immigrant nurse, Violet was advised to have an abortion when abandoned by her lover, a car worker and fellow Jamaican. "I was desperate," she recalls, "but the moment I held my baby Lennox in my hands I knew I had made the right decision." Now, she lives in a splendid house in Kitchener, Ontario, where she moved for more profitable work before sending for the 11-year-old Lennox, who had been left with relatives in east London.

Though Lewis is by a wide margin the most successful British fighter (the first undisputed world heavyweight champion since the expatriate Bob Fitzsimmons beat Gentleman James J Corbett in Reno at the end of the 19th century), he has never quite matched the popularity of Frank Bruno, whose comic personality covered huge cracks in his boxing ability.

Lewis shrugs: "Maybe I haven't had Bruno's common touch, but I hope one day it is recognised that I brought quite a lot of credit to the country and that I was a worthy world champion. I'm not really bothered what they put on my headstone, but that would do."

A less contained character might have railed against the lack of appreciation he has received on both sides of the Atlantic.

While the British media have been mostly cool towards Lewis, in America he has suffered relentless hostility. The best of the criticism was that he was bland and withdrawn and thus incapable of adding lustre to the title that remains, in the right, compelling hands, the richest prize in sport. The worst was the accusation by a Boston sports writer that Lewis had a "broad yellow streak running down his back".

It was a travesty of judgement. Lewis had been rigorously avoided by the American Riddick Bowe, a Lewis victim at the 1988 Olympics who went on to win the undisputed heavyweight crown. Even the ferocious Tyson paid Lewis several million dollars in "step-aside" money a few years ago rather than defend his title. But Lewis has taken his revenge on the American media quietly enough over recent years. This week an American boxing writer asked, "Is that a touch of grey showing on your sideburns, Lennox?" The champion replied, "No, it's platinum."

But still there are questions about the nature of a man who, under five years of prompting by the Detroit-based Emanuel Steward, one of boxing's best trainers, has largely outstripped his sport. One of the most persistent of them concerns the possibility that he is gay. Despite denials by Lewis - and mockery of the idea by his close friends - The Sun chose to pose the question last year, just a few days before the most important fight of his career, with Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden. They also invited readers who knew anything of Lewis's love-life to call in. It was a fruitless trawl. But again, if Lewis was angry he did not erupt.

His most public show of emotion came the following week in New York, when his fight with Holyfield, for the undisputed title, the great goal of his sporting life, was declared, outrageously, a draw. Tears - of both anger and bewilderment - came to his eyes, and on a bleak limousine ride uptown he said, "Deep down, I worried that they would do something to me here, do something to steal what I was due, but not this; I couldn't have believed they would have done anything as bad as this."

Even though there was still criticism of Lewis - he was accused of excessive caution when he appeared to have Holyfield at his mercy in the fifth round - the American media were virtually unanimous that the scoring was a disgrace. "It stinks", screamed the banner of the New York Post.

The pressure of media - and public - opinion made a rematch inevitable, and six months later Lewis won the crown, though with a less majestic performance than the one he had produced in New York. But Lewis had got to the mountaintop at last and, in his first defence of the title, against Michael Grant in April this year, he unveiled withering power to destroy a much-trumpeted but inexperienced challenger.

At ringside in New York was a beautiful local model, Aisha, whom Lewis had met at a promotional shoot. Within Lewis's circle, Aisha is being tipped for matrimonial status. One of Lewis's friends said this week, "Aisha is a big part of Lennox's life, and the feeling is she is here to stay." Not only has she dazzled the champion; she has also impressed Violet. Quite a few girlfriends, including Lewis's high-school sweetheart in Ontario, a cheerleader named Marcie, did not survive the piercing gaze of the mother who once warned: "Watch those girls, Lennox; a lot of them will be after your money."

There is quite a lot to get after. Estimates of his ring earnings alone range between £70m and £80m. He will earn another £7m tonight, and there is - it now seems likely - Tyson to come.

This week Lewis was, for the first time, talking seriously about life after the ring. "I have made my investments carefully and I'm really enjoying an increased role in my affairs in and out of the ring. It is very satisfying." Lewis has recently wrested back much of the control of his career from his promoter, Panos Eliades, a London liquidator currently harassed by charges of defrauding the Government. Lewis's first venture was an investment in a trade school in Hackney, east London, for youngsters who had slipped through the education system, and though the venture failed, he retains the building, which houses a boxing gym, and the affection of the young East Enders who invariably mobbed him when he visited. He owns three gyms in Canada and is considering opening a London restaurant specialising in "island food".

Lewis owns a large home in north London but prefers the climate of Miami and his mother's Jamaica, where he is building a mansion - a delicious prospect for Violet, who left the island as a penniless young woman. As a little girl in Port Antonio, Jamaica, she witnessed the carousing of Errol Flynn and considered it behaviour from another planet. Now she still seems a little bemused by her son's munificent sporting universe. When he praised her cooking this week, she turned to a friend and said a little anxiously, "Do these people know what dumplings are?" But even with the arrival of Aisha, Violet's place in Lewis's affection seems secure. When he was asked about his "braided" hairstyle this week, he said, "They are not braids; they are locks. It's eight years since I've had a haircut. I've developed a Solomon complex, but it's all right because when I started to grow the locks my mother didn't like them. Now she says she wouldn't recognise me without them."

That, at 35, Lewis still cares about his mother's opinion on how he wears his hair may suggest a somewhat unformed personality, especially in someone who can reasonably claim, as Tyson used to on a daily basis, to be the "baddest man on the planet". But it shouldn't obscure the reality of a ferocious will. If Lewis is unfailingly polite, his self-belief has never been compromised. Firmly, he turned down the blandishments of boxing's ultimate manipulator, Don King, once checking out of a hotel when he heard the promoter was about to arrive in town.

When he suffered the one defeat of his career, a shock knockout by the ill-considered Oliver McCall six years ago, he went into the mountains in Jamaica and nursed his wounds, before declaring, "I will win it all back - and more."

His extraordinary determination was noted by Lewis's first trainer in Canada, Arnold Boehm. The trainer was shocked one day when the teenaged Lewis stepped up to the leader of a bothersome gang who had been hanging around the gym and knocked him cold with one punch. "There was something in Lennox that was so strong, it could be quite scary," recalls Boehm. "I had to tell him that he had great strength, great power, and that it required discipline. I remember him asking to drive a van I had. He didn't know how to drive but he got behind the wheel, and I had a picture of him driving across Canada, wrestling the gears, learning all the way."

Lewis's current trainer is emphatic in his opinion that he is working with the most gifted heavyweight since Muhammad Ali. "If I am sometimes disappointed with Lennox," said Steward, "it is only because I know better than most what he can do."

Tonight, that talent will be investigated more seriously than at any time since the climactic victory over Holyfield. Tua, who is seven years Lewis's junior, stands just 5ft 10ins, seven inches shorter than his opponent and with a much inferior reach, but in many ways he is reminiscent of the young Tyson. He has immense courage and great power. He has also proved himself capable of a deep stamina in a career that has just one defeat - an unlucky one - against 37 mostly volcanic victories. But Lewis looks at him with his usual unblinking eye. "People ask me", he says, "if I'm distracted by the Tyson business, or the idea that soon I will have to decide about retirement. But I just point to David Tua. He is planning to knock my head off. That's enough to make me concentrate."

That was pure Lewis. He is enigmatic, no question, but also pragmatic. It is pragmatism armed with courage and natural dignity and beautifully marshalled power. That, and an unfailing desire to make Violet Lewis as proud as the mother of the frontiersman Jim Bowie, the hero of the Alamo. When told of her son's demise, Mrs Bowie said, "Jim may be dead, but I'll wager they found no wounds in his back."

Even the American boxing writers now agree that the back of another fighting mummy's boy is equally unblemished.