When we talk about boxing legacies you will be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that Lennox Lewis’ career footprint is anything negative or questionable. But it might be fair to say that there was still some unfinished business regarding his closing fight with Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko in 2003.
Klitschko was drafted in at short notice after original challenger Kirk Johnson pulled out with a torn chest muscle which occurred during a sparring match in preparation to face the giant Brit. The two fighters were originally going to face off sometime later down the road but the showdown had been bought forward. Klitschko took his opportunity with everything he had, managing to land huge power punches and making Lewis miss during the early rounds. However, two gashes over his left eye developed along with some swelling which encouraged Lewis to target and make worse. By the end of the 6th round the ringside doctor stated that the wounds were too severe and Klitschko was pulled out of the contest, giving Lennox a TKO victory.
Although he briefly expressed interest in a return match, Lewis retired in February of 2004. Klitschko went on to capture the WBC crown and enjoyed two reigns as the holder of that organisation after temporarily retiring in 2005 and returning in 2008 with the WBC awarding Klitschko “champion emeritus.” Lennox has kept to his word, never coming back out of retirement despite offers. Vitali has always talked of his desire to fight him again but he never did get his wish. And neither did the fans.
So, it begs the question – what the result have been any different had they gone at it for a second time?
Throughout his tenure as WBC champion, Klitschko never really improved his game and neither was he ever in circumstances after the Lewis fight that forced him to reassess his fighting style. No other opponent could ever upset him that much. Lewis had to make some major adjustments after his knockout loss to Oliver McCall but stayed under the tutelage of Manny Steward until the end of his career, even after being knocked out for a second time by Hasim Rahman in the 5th round in 2001. So it is unlikely we would have seen anything different bought to the table by either combatant, which would have been good for us because it is likely that we would have seen another great heavyweight match.
It is a little bizarre to me that Lewis never had the motivation to face a challenger as great and as tough as Vitali considering that other contenders at the time probably would not have given Lewis as interesting a fight. Did Lennox know something we didn’t? Did he think he was lucky to get the victory in their original fight?
Boxing is about 80% mental and 20% physical, so a fighter’s state of mind is quite profound. It is doubtful that Klitschko’s confidence would have waned in light of the outcome of the 2003 modern classic. He knew he gave his opponent the fight of his life.
Did Lewis think the same?
The location of a bout sometimes matters but Vitali has travelled to England before when he fought and stopped Herbie Hide in 1999, so there would be no use for Lewis to try and gain home advantage.
We will never know for sure if anything convinced the former undisputed British heavyweight champion to think twice about taking on Klitschko again, although it is fun to ponder the various possibilities that may have swam through his mind. We have explored the mental aspect of the rematch, so what about the physical side?
How would the fight have played out had it become a reality?
At almost 38 years of age when he fought Klitschko, Lewis would have been kissing 40 had it taken place at the back end of the following year. He certainly wouldn’t have been getting any younger or better. But the ring smarts would still have been there as well as the power of his crushing right hand. Klitschko’s power would have always been a danger for every second the fight would have lasted. Lewis would have been intelligent enough to have been mindful about that because power is usually the last thing that a boxer loses.
I can envision Lennox focusing on that left eye, hoping that the tissue surrounding it would have been somewhat weaker than before. His jab would have continuously been spearing at that area. But he’d be also contending with Klitschko’s jab and trying to avoid his big right which is territory that is unfamiliar considering he was used to dishing his own. Regardless, Lewis’d be trying to make the fight a chess match while his adversary would have been piling on the pressure.
It’s a hard call, but with Lewis getting a proper eight week training camp this time and having the opportunity to study Vitali’s fighting approach in more detail I would pick him to stop Klitschko somewhere around the 9th. Possibly by cuts once again or after being worn down by a more accurate Lewis, who would be sharper with his punches than before.