Almost a quarter of a century ago today, September 24, 1994, a big heavyweight upset took place at Wembley, the scene of so many great nights for British boxers. This was not one of them.
Lennox Lewis, still a relatively new champion, was making his third defence, and so far during his five year pro career, Lennox had gotten away with fighting while using his still raw, natural talent. At this time the legendary Emanuel Steward had his eye firmly on Lennox. Steward knew how Lewis could be beaten, and Emanuel also knew how to prevent him from losing. He later said how he was almost desperate to become Lewis’ trainer, and get his hands on him and mould him into the fighter he believed he could become.
Oliver McCall was a tough, but unpredictable and unreliable fighter. He was known as a veritable headcase by some figures in the sport for various reasons. It wasn’t hard for those in the audience to figure out for themselves that “The Atomic Bull” was kind of different. One only had to see the bizarre way he entered the ring to fight – he was in tears. Clearly Oliver McCall was somewhat unique. However, he could also be a dangerous puncher. He was not a fighter to take lightly when prepared correctly. And this he was tonight, by none other than Steward.
A successful defence was expected by practically everyone beforehand and Lewis, defending the title in the country from which he hailed, was a big betting favourite. His hometown fans were about to witness a huge heavyweight upset.
The first round came and went without any hitches for Lennox, as he just shaded an eventless round. Back in his corner he listened to instructions from his then trainer, Pepe Correa. Then, in round two, barely half a minute in, McCall unleashed the punch Steward had worked on incessantly with him in the gym. Steward had noticed how Lewis was vulnerable to right hand counters and gave McCall orders to throw one with all his might whenever Lennox left himself open after throwing his own shots.
The plan worked perfectly as McCall, with his eyes closed, caught Lewis flush with a huge right hand that connected on his wide open chin. The champion crashed to the canvas and though he beat the count the referee – the little known (at the time) Jose Garcia – waved the fight off. McCall was the brand new WBC heavyweight champion of the world.
There were protests immediately afterwards from the Lewis camp about a premature stoppage and though some agreed with the criticism of Garcia’s handling of the bout, it was too late now. Lennox’s crown had gone. So too had Pepe Correa’s days as his trainer. Lewis didn’t have far to look for a replacement.
Steward later said how he knew Lewis was the better fighter, it was simply a case of him being poorly handled. He would now go to work on polishing Lennox as a fighter and making him realise all the potential he had. As we know, Steward did a fine job, and Lennox – after being made to wait an agonisingly long time for another chance at the title – went on to become the all-time great we all rate him as today. He avenged the loss to McCall (in an absolutely surreal fight) and then went on to unify the titles with a win over Evander Holyfield. In so doing, Lewis finally achieved everything Steward knew he was capable doing of all along.
But the night of September 24, 1994 belonged to McCall (and Steward).