Lennox Lewis had hinted that he would spring a surprise when he announced his retirement in London yesterday and, sure enough, there he was talking about his engagement to his long-term girlfriend Violet Chung. Maybe you could just detect a touch of mischief from the big man. All down the years of his fight career, he had zealously guarded his private life, and one of the more wearying obligations was to deny that he was gay.
The suggestion invariably provoked some mirth among his close circle of friends, but Lewis was always straight-faced. Although he felt it shouldn't matter to anybody but himself, from time to time he announced that, despite being happily classified as a mother's boy, he was a confirmed heterosexual. Mostly he did this with good behaviour but on one occasion his patience was severely stretched.
It was before the fight of his life against Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden in 1999. Lewis was at work in his Pennsylvanian training camp when he was visited by Colin Hart, doyen boxing writer of The Sun. Hart, a grown-up man in matters of the world, apologised, but said he had been ordered to ask the old question again. Lewis responded amiably enough, said that though it was nobody's business but his own, he was not gay.
Courtesies preserved, Hart proceeded to the more pressing matter of how exactly Lewis was going to knock eight bells of hell out of Holyfield. It was hard to say who was more appalled, Lewis or Hart, when it was learned that, back in London, The Sun had published the interview but placed alongside it a plea to readers to supply any information they had on Lewis's love life. A lucky reader would receive the prize of a crate of brown ale. Eventually, a grovelling apology was sent to Lewis by the sports editor of The Sun.
Yesterday that paper spoke extravagantly of the glory Lennox Lewis had brought to the British ring. It is perhaps far too pretty to think they did it with just a sliver of remorse.