An Honest Appraisal and Analysis of Lennox Lewis’s Boxing Style

20.10.06 - By Stuart Cornwell: Lennox Lewis is sometimes thought of as a master boxer, a scientific boxer-puncher, a heavyweight fighter of great skill. The basis to his boxing style though was always his raw strength, terrific size and punching power. In fact, his tendency to adopt a drawn out, chess match approach to his fights was often frustrating to watch. Often he seemed to stop far short of unleashing the heavy artillery and passionate intensity necessary - not only to vanquish his opponent most convincingly, but to thrill and excite the crowds who gather to see top heavyweights do battle.

That is not to say Lewis could not be utterly ruthless when he had his man in serious trouble - he exhibited a killer’s instinct on more than a few occasions - but too often he seemed content to paw away with the left hand like a well fed lion mauling the remains of an unwanted carcass. Lewis’s methods, however unattractive, were vindicated by the fact that he almost always won.

In 44 professional contests he only lost twice, and in rematches against both of the men who beat him (Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman) he registered a win. So - and it has been noted countless times among those who support Lewis’s claim to greatness - it can be said he beat every man he faced. Considering that on many occasions he was in fact facing men who were genuinely among the world’s best, and that his tenure as a world-class fighter (be it as champion or as a contender) spanned over a decade, such a remarkable fact about his record cannot be dismissed as mere trivia.

A lot of Lewis’s boxing did involve ugly stuff - the leaning, clutching, and pulling on the opponent that is so common among heavyweights in this day and age, the stuff that generally turns viewers off the big men. In this respect, he appeared as the best of an average bunch, the strongest hulk in a sea of mediocrity.

He never received a reputation as a dirty fighter, as did his contemporaries Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, yet his repertoire was indeed complemented with a fair sprinkling of dubious moves. He sometimes held his opponents’ heads in place, pushing down on the back of the neck and slamming in an uppercut - this was how he finished his fight with big Michael Grant, and the same tactic proved effective at times against Tyson. Pushing and pulling was often the mainstay of his fight strategy, backed up by intermittent thunderous punching and a calm and relaxed demeanor.

Lewis knew his forte was his physical size and strength, and he knew how to use those attributes effectively. He knew how to be the boss. At six-foot-five and around two-hundred-and-forty pounds - and with seemingly tremendous strength, even for a fighter of that size - he was well aware of how to use his physique to his advantage. Even men who were as big as him, or bigger, were usually out-strengthed and manhandled - only men of similarly herculean composition, such as Holyfield and Frank Bruno for instance, seemed unperturbed by this overall brute strength. And most of those who could cope with this strength could not take his punching power (Bruno, for example).

Some observers were impressed by Lewis’s left jab, but that particular weapon in his arsenal has been somewhat overrated. He pecked away at an off-colour Holyfield fairly well in their first encounter but never rocked him with the jab as George Foreman and Riddick Bowe had done. At his best he could snap back the head of his opponent or stop him dead in his tracks but he needed flat-footed square-on plodders such as David Tua, Hasim Rahman (in their second fight) and a washed-up fighter formerly known as Tyson to do so.

Frank Bruno had a better jab than Lennox Lewis and managed to out-jab him for the best part of their fight, until Lewis pulled out a fight-changing left hook in the 7th round. Once struck by the hook Bruno characteristically crumpled, brave but bolt upright and out on his feet, hands unable to defend himself, too confused to buy time going down or clinching. If Bruno had been made of sterner stuff he would probably have been Lewis’s master, but Bruno was what he was ; and ultimately Lewis was the better fighter. Other than Bruno, there was Vitali Klitschko and Ray Mercer who also troubled Lewis with the jab more than he troubled them with the same punch - and neither Klitschko nor Mercer were among the most polished jabbers of all-time.

Lewis had a great reach, quick hands and good power - as such he was quite capable of executing a stiff jab against some of the less-skilled sitting ducks he encountered, and could jab on at least equal terms with most of the better-schooled professionals. But comparing his left jab to those of Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali, (two modern heavyweights who demonstrated jabbing as a sublime art-form), as some enthusiastic observers have done, seems outrageous. Lewis had a decent jab not a great one.

A particularly unattractive tactic that accompanied the jab was the pawing left, or a limp flapping of the left arm, used presumably as a measuring tool for a follow-up jab, or else as a spoiling tactic and stalling device. I daresay it proved effective at times. Muhammad Ali himself used something similar at times (more a static fully extended arm than a pawing one), but this was not Ali at his best - and just because many consider him the greatest of all heavyweights it does not follow that every trick he showed was a great one ; when he tried it against fighters like Joe Frazier and Ken Norton it was promptly swatted away. Larry Holmes only used the extended left arm to measure up for his right and to keep his opponent at bay, and only when hurt or under serious pressure. Holmes - probably the king of the jabbers in the last thirty years - never pawed with his left either. Lewis’s own use of the pawing left, a half-hearted gesture of a jab, rarely seemed calculated or necessary. Too often it seemed to be in place of a real jab.

Lennox Lewis was at his best when brutally displaying his strength and punching power. Knockouts of Razor Ruddock (TKO2), Michael Grant (KO2), Shannon Briggs (TKO5) Andrew Golota (KO1), Francois Botha (TKO2) and Hasim Rahman (KO4) rank among his best wins. None of the aforementioned were particularly proficient technique fighters but they were all big, strong and dangerous. They were not all great fights, and in most of them the clean accurate power-punching was interspersed with much cumbersome movement and untidy scrappiness, but the sheer force of the punches landed cannot fail to impress. When it comes to bludgeoning displays of power Lewis rates highly. The best performance among those explosive nights was the one when Lewis regained his title from Rahman. Lewis moved well that night and scored well with several telling jabs before he landed a lightning bolt of a right cross to put Rahman down and out for the count.

When it came to pure boxing Lewis could deliver impressively against limited opposition. He won a shut-out victory over the squat left-hooking David Tua, keeping at long range the entire twelve rounds and moving intelligently around the ring. But there was nothing flashy or sublime in Lewis’s technique that night, just a certain awareness that the short-armed heavy-legged Tua could not reach him that night.

A better showing of his boxing ability was his performance against Evander Holyfield the first time they met in ring combat. The judges’ verdict that night (a draw) was a disgrace, as Lewis had surely won ten of the twelve rounds, nine at the very least, and was the victim of an outright robbery. Of course it must be said that a most complacent and unintelligent version of Holyfield showed up that night (not to mention that Holyfield, 36 then, has been on an almost unremitting dip in form ever since), but the way Lewis handled a still multi-dimensional fighter that night was without question his most impressive moment. It was not a perfect performance - Lewis’s over-cautiousness crept in in the 5th round when he had Holyfield on the ropes and failed to fully open up, wary of Holyfield’s legendary ability to battle back from the brink - but is was a commanding one.

When compared to the greats it cannot be said that Lewis was a master boxer or a defensive wizard or an outstanding exponent of pure skill and technique but he was competent and thoughtful in his approach ; he never lost sight of the fact that boxing was the sweet science. The type of boxing skill Lewis possessed was not the deft touches and subtle tricks of pugilistic genius but a good sense of timing, strategy and awareness in the ring ; the overall confidence and command of fight situations we call ring generalship. He was a competent ring general and a cool-headed operator.

Of course, on a fight-to-fight basis, it is the winning that matters, and the criticisms concerning style that are usually levelled at Lewis - the criticisms levelled here for instance - can often be excused on the grounds that those unappealing qualities were in fact the very tools that won Lewis so many fights. An excess of caution, a reluctance to engage in a shoot-out, a readiness to retreat, the slow-paced coasting, the untidy leaning and ugly bludgeoning style - necessary evils in achieving the right result ? Perhaps. The last three rounds of his fight with Tyson (KO8) seemed an unnecessary prolongation to my eyes, and indeed to those of Lewis’s trainer and cornerman Emanuel Steward, but the cautious mindset perhaps won Lewis more fights than more consistently robust efforts would have done.

Yet paradoxically, great careers taken as a whole are not readily defined by the ratio of wins to losses. The greatness of fighters such as Thomas Hearns, Evander Holyfield and Muhammad Ali, to name but three, was confirmed and symbolized in their most magnificent losing efforts as much as in their wins. By throwing caution to the wind, standing their ground and rising to the challenges of an all-out war, despite it proving not to be the wisest move or the most correct strategy on the given night, added more than a degree of glory and greatness to the way they will be remembered. This is why many see Lennox Lewis as something less than a true all-time great fighter.

Article posted on 20.10.2006

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