The Debate Over the Historical Status of Lennox Lewis

18.06.06 - By Zachary Q. Daniels: Rating fighters historically can be a tricky business, filled as it is with determinations that inherently are subjective; that is, based upon the value assigned to various factors by individual observers. Because of this, controversy often results, as what one person considers critically important may be minimized or disregarded by another. One of the most notable cases of this phenomenon in recent years is the debate over the historical status of the last unified heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis.

That Lewis belongs among the upper tier of heavyweight champions is not at all controversial. Virtually every one agrees that he belongs among the top 15-20 heavyweight fighters since the initiation of the gloved era in the late 19th century. The debate arises over where. Some contend that he is clearly in the top ten, and even among the top five of all time. They emphasize the longevity of his reign, the number of his defenses, the dominance he showed over some of the fighters he faced, and the fact that he beat every man he ever faced at least once. Some also point to his retiring as champion as an argument for the high status they assign him. Others dispute this, suggesting that Lewis belongs somewhere between numbers 11-15, or even in the 16-20 range.

Regardless of where he is rated, there is no questioning that Lewis did have one of the more lengthy reigns in heavyweight history, and had more defenses than many of the top tier champions. As with many subjects in boxing, however, there is some controversy among observers about the exact length of his reign, and therefore the number of defenses. If one counts his reign as champion as beginning with his capture of the linear title from Shannon Briggs in 1998, it was approximately 5 years, including the seven month interruption by Hasim Rahman in 2001. This would result in his having nine defenses of the title, including the unsuccessful defense against Rahman, and the controversial draw against Evander Holyfield in 1999.

Some, however, suggest that he only truly became the acknowledged champion when he unified the title against Evander Holyfield in late 1999. This would result in a reign of approximately 3 years, and 6 defenses, one unsuccessful. Very few argue that Lewis' holding of the WBC title in 1992-94 and 1997-98 should count in such calculations, but were this to be included it adds 3 years and 5 defenses to the above totals.

Even if one looks at only his holding of the undisputed title from 1999 forward and his defenses of it from this point, Lewis still has a reasonably impressive title reign, defending against a group of quality fighters such as Michael Grant, David Tua, Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko. Critics of Lewis would certainly point out the flaws of some of these fighters, such as Grant's chin, Tua's over-reliance on his power, or Tyson's age - but those who trumpet Lewis's status often counter with the argument that these were the best available challengers at the time.

If one looks at Lewis's defenses of the linear title, then Lewis's fights against Zejlko Mavrovic and his two fights against Holyfield have to be taken into consideration. Whatever one thinks of the unheralded Mavrovic's worthiness as title opponent, the fight is not generally considered to be among Lewis's best performances. The draw against Holyfield is considered to be one of the worst decisions of all time, and although critics point to Holyfield age and ring-wear, at the time he held two of the three major titles. The second fight was closer, and while some observers called the fight for "The Real Deal," the majority - and the judges - feel that Lewis won a clear, if close, decision.

While Lewis's holding of the WBC title is not considered by most to constitute a "legitimate" title reign in the sense of his being "the" recognized champion, the fact is that - as a result of this, from 1992 forward - Lewis faced almost exclusively the top available fighters from this time forward until his last fight in 2003. His opposition in this period included such notable fighters as Razor Ruddock, whom, in perhaps his most impressive performance, he demolished in two rounds; former titlists Tony Tucker and Frank Bruno, who if past their best were still considered among the better fighters around; the hard-punching, if glass-jawed Tommy Morrison; and dangerous, if flawed, contender Ray Mercer, albeit somewhat controversially. None of these men will make any "all-time" lists, but they were certainly legitimate opponents in an era that has come to be considered among the better in heavyweight history.

All of this certainly establishes that Lewis is among the "A list" heavyweight champions, and certainly, in the view of this observer, make him a clear top 15 all time heavyweight. But is he truly among the five or ten greatest of all time, as some suggest??? Those who argue otherwise point to several important aspects of Lewis's career that the above account does not address. Perhaps most notable are his two early rounds KO losses, to Oliver McCall in 1994, and Hasim Rahman in 2001. While these are Lewis only losses, they also give him the dubious distinction of being the only top level heavyweight champion who was stopped in the early rounds while he held a version of the title - something that critics consider to be a serious disqualification for top ten consideration. These critics suggest that these losses show that Lewis did not have a particularly strong chin, or the "heart" to rise from the canvas and go on to win a fight - while supporters argue that these were hard punches that would have knocked anyone out.

Those who argue for his elevation to this level also assert that the McCall stoppage was premature, and that his preparation for the Rahman fight inadequate. Critics suggest that the stoppage in the McCall fight was appropriate and that whatever his degree of preparedness for the Rahman fight, he was taken out in a few rounds by a fighter who is hardly among the better fighters in heavyweight history.

Another argument made to argue that these losses should not have substantial impact on Lewis's historical rating is that he "avenged" both losses in rematches. This argument has more force with regard to the Rahman victory, which was an impressive one-punch knockout delivered in devastating fashion, but has less force with regard to the McCall fight - where a drug-addled McCall, who probably should not have been allowed to fight in his mental condition, essentially quit in the 5th round.

Another argument that critics make regarding deficiencies in Lewis's record that should result in his being rated just outside the top ten is his failure to face the other three top fighters of his era - Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, and Riddick Bowe - when they were in the heart of their careers. While Lewis faced Bowe in the amateurs, for a variety of reasons he never met him in the pros. His advocates assert that this was because Bowe avoided him, while critics suggest boxing politics and financial factors were the more likely reasons. Lewis of course faced, and beat, both Holyfield and Tyson, but versions who most argue - particularly in the case of Tyson - were past their sell date, thus reducing the importance of these fights in indicating Lewis's superiority over these fighters at their best. Supporters likewise try to put the blame for these fights not happening on Holyfield and Tyson, while more critical voices argue that this is essentially irrelevant and speculative

What will the "consensus" historical rating of Lewis ultimately be??? Hard to say, but there are historical precedents for his continuing to be rated along the higher degree of the "appropriate range" - and there are arguments for his eventual rating settling down to what some consider a more reasonable ranking, just outside the top ten. Certainly, Larry Holmes provides an example of a heavyweight fighter whose assessment has improved in the years since he has retired, while Jack Dempsey or Sonny Liston perhaps provide examples of champions whose historical status has fallen somewhat.

Certainly the improving reputation of the era in which he fought may eventually justify a top ten placement for Lewis - as will his lengthy tenure as one of the 2 or 3 best fighters of the era, along with Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. Some will suggest that his retiring as champion should be considered a plus, although it is questionable how this contributes to the overall significance of his achievements. The eventual status of some of his opponents who have yet to complete their careers may also have an impact in improving Lewis's status as well.

Others contend that the generally acknowledged mediocre state of the heavyweight division immediately after his retirement has resulted in his accomplishments being over-inflated, and that when a new dominant champion emerges - Lewis, as the last "great" linear champion, will be put more in proper perspective and that this will result in a more realistic appraisal of his status and evaluation of both his strengths and weaknesses. Some also suggest that, as with Rocky Marciano, too much is made of his retiring as champion, and that this is basically irrelevant to what he did in the ring. While it may reflect unusual good judgment, they say, it does not demonstrate that he is any "better" a fighter than the many great fighters who have fought on as their abilities declined.

Ultimately, where Lewis is rated historically depends critically - as all such ratings do - on the relative weight assigned to all these various factors, and undoubtedly others. Those who see the KO losses to McCall and Rahman as extremely significant - and consider his victories over Holyfield and Tyson to be of minimal significance as a result of their age and declining skills - will rate Lewis outside of the top ten. Those who minimize these deficiencies, and point to his relatively lengthy reign and number of title defenses in a quality era, will argue for his placement in the top ten. Like most historical debates about sports figures, it is unlikely to ever be completely resolved or agreed upon by all, and in all likelihood no truly "correct" or objective answer to the question of Lewis's - or any other fighter's - historical rating exists.

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Article posted on 18.06.2006

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