Fifteen Years On: Recalling the bloody, brilliant and controversial Lewis-Klitschko war

It was 15 long years ago this month (June 21) when heavyweight greats Lennox Lewis (established at the time of the fight as such) and Vitali Klitschko (who would go on to achieve greatness) met in what turned out to be a ferocious battle; one with everything – bombs landed from both sides, switching momentum, blood and guts and a nasty edge. Well, this classic almost had everything; the sole lacking ingredient being an important one: a conclusive ending.

As a result of the result, as much as we saw blood and gore, huge bombs landed, heart and courage on the line, the biggest post-fight talking point by far was that of how we absolutely needed to see a return fight. As we all know, the rematch never came.

Heavyweight king Lewis, then aged 37 and coming off an apparent career-ending, legacy-solidifying KO win over Mike Tyson, decided to roll the dice one more time. Originally set to face Canada’s Kirk Johnson, Lewis ended up having around a week to get ready for late replacement Vitali Klitschko (Johnson pulling out injured).

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Challenger Klitschko, then aged 32 and best known to most for “quitting” against Chris Byrd three years earlier, was eager to show the world he was a real fighter. Coming off five straight wins since the shoulder injury defeat to Byrd, Klitschko was about to give the boxing world a thrill.

Lewis, coming in at the heaviest weight of his stellar career, came out fast, yet he appeared to have no real game-plan. Later, Lennox said he wanted to drag Klitschko, for whom he seemed to have no genuine respect, into a bear-fight. The challenger was more than happy to comply. Bombs were exchanged from the offset and one of the wildest, most unskilled and ferociously entertaining heavyweight slugfests this side of George Foreman-Ron Lyle broke out.

Lewis tested Klitschko’s chin, Klitschko tested the champ’s chin. The two wrestled, tested each other’s sheer strength and willingly fought a street fight. Klitschko, hungrier and in better condition, eventually crept ahead on all three cards. Lewis, open-mouthed and struggling, soon had to dig deeper than ever before. After shipping some stunning shots in a fantastic second round, Lewis tore open a cut over Klitschko’s left eye in the third. It wasn’t long before the wound became an horrific one, arguably the worst in heavyweight championship history.

Klitschko, unfazed by the gruesome damage, fought hard, maybe even harder than he had earlier in the fight. Lewis, appearing to have emptied his tank, cracked Vitali with a perfect right uppercut in the sixth round, yet the challenger took the hydrogen bomb and did not flinch. Now who would win? Who would prevail in the sugfest that had now shifted into a battle of attrition? We know today that we never got an answer.

Klitschko, despite fierce protestations, was pulled out after the sixth-round had ended. The crowd went wild – and firmly piled into Klitschko’s corner, cheering his efforts – and both fighters exchanged words. Klitschko asked Lennox for a rematch, the champ appeared to agree to one. “You promise?” Klitschko asked, before jabbing Lewis’ shoulder with a couple of shots. By his own admission, Vitali obsessed over a rematch for years; wondering constantly what we all wondered: could he have beaten Lewis, the “strongest” fighter he had ever encountered?

But as we know, there was no part-two, no sequel, no satisfying conclusion to this great fight with the inconclusive ending. Who would have won had the two greats met when Klitschko’s savage facial injuries had had time enough to heal? We will never know.

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Looking back today, it is quite ironic that both Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, lost their most exciting, thrilling fight: Vitali to Lewis and Wladimir to Anthony Joshua. As for Lennox, he was perhaps smart indeed to resist the urge to face Klitschko for a second time. Lewis knew then that he would not just be battling an intensely determined Vitali, but the undefeated king of all boxing as well – Father Time.