37 years of age and Lennox Lewis had nothing left to prove. He’d been the undisputed champion, avenged his only defeats and, while his era was low on greatness, he’d fought the best out there. But Lewis liked to compare himself to a fine wine improving with age and he wasn’t going anywhere. A year earlier, he’d turned one of the most anticipated heavyweight fights of all-time into a rout, with an utter domination of Mike Tyson. He believed he had plenty of years left at the top. By the end of the night, he thought differently.
Seconds in, Lewis reaches in with an overhand right. It’s a sharp start but there will be precious little else sharp about Lewis in these opening rounds. The diminutive Lou Moret gets an early workout, the ref straining to pull apart the grappling giants again and again. In those moments when they’re not in each other’s arms, Klitschko lands a couple of decent rights. On a good night, Lewis’ jab plays on repeat but tonight sightings are rare. The first round finishes with both fighters hurling wild loopy rights that miss big but hint at the excitement to come.
Vitali Klitschko, 4-1 outsider, an injury stand-in with an impressive record that no-one took seriously, takes control early in the second. A huge right snaps Lewis’ head back and leaves the Brit clinging on. A shock early finish seems very possible. Lewis tries to rally towards the end of the round but continues to take a barrage.
If there’s a coherent thought going through Lewis’ spinning head, it’s the realisation that he’s got this horribly wrong. He said he could have Vitali for breakfast and his brother for lunch and now the Ukrainian has him on toast. This has the familiar look of one of the oldest tales in boxing: ageing champ ruthlessly dethroned by young pretender. Is it Father Time or too little gym time that’s left him in trouble? Lewis’ belly is the best proof of his failure to take Klitschko seriously. He’s heavier than he’s ever been. The only time he was nearly this heavy, he ended up on his backside in Johannesburg, staring up at a celebrating Hasim Rahman.
Just when it looks like Lewis hasn’t the body to compete, he responds. He comes out for the third firing, jab, jab, overhand right and Klitschko, scrambling to defend, looks wide-eyed surprised. Then Lewis lands a crunching right hand which tears open a gash over Klitschko’s left eye. Klitschko responds with a big right of his own before Lewis throws a hammer of a jab. This is wild breathless stuff, the kind of all-out action fight that’s a collector’s item amongst heavyweights.
Early in the fourth, the pair fall over. Lewis has his arm locked behind Klitschko’s head, leans into him, they wobble and then over they go. A moment of comedy and then back to the carnage. Two smart defensive fighters and neither are offering any defence. It’s unlikely either would have planned for a war but with Klitschko’s sight and Lewis’ energy both fading, they have to go for it. Lewis, with all the nous one would expect from a veteran, is ruthlessly targeting the growing wound. Sound strategy but ugly viewing, more brutal to watch than the meanest of knockouts.
Finally, Lewis starts to display his technical mastery in the fifth. A left hook is followed by some solid upper cuts before a right rocks Klitschko. After receiving a couple of heavy shots himself, Lewis sags casually into the ropes to have a bit of rest. Lewis takes more punishment in the sixth but then unleashes a monster of an upper cut. In the final ten seconds of the round, the two of them settle into a clinch and stumble around the ring, exhausted. Lewis slumps into his corner.
The doctor has been a keen observer in Klitschko’s corner and has seen enough. When the stoppage comes, Klitschko charges from his corner, roaring “No, no, no!” and the arena is all boos. He’s distraught because he’s given so much, he’s ahead and his opponent is evidently shattered. Doctors, however, can’t care about scorecards. Klitschko can barely see and the sixty stitches required afterwards show it was not only the correct decision but may even have been a near miss from a life-changing injury.
It was the last time we saw Lewis in a ring. There was plenty of talk of a rematch but Lewis, perhaps chastened by how close he’d been to defeat, chose retirement (Klitschko said it was Lewis’ mother’s decision). Not much of a farewell for a rare great heavyweight of a mostly dismal era. When a member of his entourage triumphantly lifts the belt into the air, the boos rise in volume. Lewis, exhausted and knowing this crowd isn’t going to be won over, doesn’t celebrate. It’s not a dignified way to go but then it’s more dignified than leaving horizontal.
Klitschko revels in the crowd’s acclaim, repeatedly goes to the corners to soak up cheers. The man who was supposed be too robotic and cold for American crowds is the night’s hero: “Right now, I feel like the people’s champion.” His performance showed not just courage but also the stubborn determination that comes with having a point to prove. Three years earlier, he’d retired with injury while ahead against Chris Byrd and had been dubbed as soft. Lewis had said that night proved Klitschko didn’t have the “heart of the champion.” After the fight, Klitschko was quick to declare “I showed everybody I have heart.” Lewis had surely been convinced.