The debate will rage on for decades, or at least until a new Mike Tyson comes along – but for me, Lennox Lewis kept his head where all others have since failed as he dealt with some stern opposition during his hey day.
The British fighter had a superb boxing style, centre of the ring, stay behind the jab, don’t get hit (or hardly get hit) and had a knockout battering ram of a right hand that would have floored any fighter if it landed flush.
Since the glory days of the 70’s with Ali, Foreman and Frazier, there have only been a handful of great heavyweights; Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson (of course), Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield and maybe the Klitschko brothers in the last few years.
So you have to have Lennox right up there after his victory (or victories) over Holyfield, (which ever way you see it), Bowe refusing to fight him, the Tyson knockout, Michael Spinks’ upset victories over Larry Holmes and the somewhat debated win over Vitali Klitschko that may have warranted a return.
The only man really that has a claim is a mid eighties “Iron” Mike, but with his mental collapse at the end of the 1980’s and subsequent incarceration – not to mention his biting antics and prolonged career fighting for the money. All that has brought him back a peg to leave Lewis at the top of the tree by career and professionalism alone.
There is no doubt that a peak Tyson would have given Lewis real problems and if they fought ten times at their peak, I believe Tyson would have probably won seven out of the ten by spectacular knockout.
Looking at the overall picture though makes me look at the way Lewis handled himself outside the ring, the fact that he beat every man he faced in the ring. Add to that Lewis’s style, size and boxing ability and I believe that would place him above Tyson in overall career, rather than by just assessing their peak abilities.
Larry Holmes against Lennox would probably have been the toughest match-up with both men similar in size and both having a superb reach with their pummelling jabs. Larry could well be the closest out of all the heavyweight legends mentioned and I have no doubts that some people would have no hesitation in placing him above the ‘Pugilist Specialist.’
Those doubters will obviously look at Lewis’ knokcout defeats to McCall and Rahman and the controversial defeating of Vitali Klitschko in 2003 and rightly so, but two of those were one punch wonders and by the time he fought Vitali, Lewis was almost 38 and had been out of the ring for a year after winning the most longed-for bout of his career against Tyson.
Holmes also started losing bouts around that age too against Spinks twice and Tyson himself, and kept fighting a lost cause later in his career – whereas Lewis got out at the very top with his full dignity intact.
Larry had some good victories, but most of them were against old fighters – maybe not in age, but fighters who had a lot miles on the clock in Ali, Norton and Shavers to name three. Maybe his best win came against a young Tim Witherspoon, although ‘Terrible Tim’ didn’t go on to set the division alight, meaning Holmes at his peak was also never tested.
Lennox had not had a real challenge since he fought Evander Holyfield for the second time in 1999 and had been knocking out second-rate fighters like Michael Grant and Francois Botha by the time a proper challenge came his way against Klitschko and even then he had already peaked and was on the way down.
To come through the challenge against a young Klitschko when his back was against the wall the way he did and to see what the big Ukrainian has gone on to achieve since, it should only cement further the legacy that the man was hoping to achieve from the outset.
In my personal opinion, Lennox has to be rated as the best world heavyweight champion since the great Muhammad Ali and the division has been a lot worse off since the big man hung up his gloves.
The debate though will still rumble on.