Very few fighters end their careers at the right time. On a cold wintry day in January 2004, Lennox Lewis was asking himself, 'Is this the right time?’ His rise to prominence had an inspirational tone. Born to a single-parent mother in east London, in 1965, he had endured a difficult childhood that included a five-year separation from his mum, to whom he remains very close, while she built a new life for herself in Canada. Mother and son were reunited in Ontario when Lennox was 12. He went on to win, for Canada, a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and, fighting under a British flag, to become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The high point of his career was an eight-round demolition of Mike Tyson on 8 June 2002. But since that fight, Lewis had entered the ring only once, beating Vitali Klitschko on cuts in June 2003. Klitschko had been ahead on points at the time of the stoppage.
One month later, on 6 February 2004, Lewis retired from boxing. 'I am announcing the end of an important chapter of my life and the beginning of a new one,' he told a press conference in London. 'During the past 23 years, I have set a number of goals for myself and I'm proud to say that these goals have been achieved. Now I am ready to set new goals and start a new career for myself outside of the ring.’ Since that day in New York, he has traded the heavyweight championship for the dual role of husband and father. Lennox's partner in life is Violet Chang, who was born in Jamaica but grew up in New York. 'V' is a college graduate and former beauty-pageant winner. She and Lennox met six years ago when Lewis was on holiday in Jamaica. They were married on 15 July 2005.
'The time was right,' Lennox says of their wedding. 'It was a great feeling. It made my family life complete. It was like, together, we can take on the world.’
'I enjoyed the time I was a fighter. I'm glad I had that experience. The last few times I was in training camp, I told myself, "I'd better take all this in now because there will only be a few more of these in my life.” Lewis recalls five fights with particular fondness. The first was against former WBO champion Ray Mercer at Madison Square Garden in 1996. Mercer, an Olympic gold medallist, was a bull of a man with a straight-ahead, no-finesse brawling style. 'Sometimes it's not enough to just box,' Lennox says. 'Sometimes you have to fight.' Lewis-Mercer was one of those times. In the late rounds, Lennox went toe-to-toe in the trenches with Mercer and prevailed on a narrow decision. Then came two fights against Evander Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. The first, on 13 March 1999, was declared a draw, to the outrage of the media, most of whom were sure that Lewis had won. Eight months later, Lewis and Holyfield met again; Lewis was awarded a unanimous decision.
'After that, I'd point to my rematch against Hasim Rahman [in 2001],' he offers. 'He won the first time we fought. That I'd lost to him the first time made knocking him out all the sweeter. One thing I learnt in boxing is that defeat, properly handled, makes a person stronger. You can't walk in the rain without getting wet, and you can't be in a boxing ring without getting hit. From the day I started boxing, I knew there could be only one winner for each fight and there was always a chance I could lose. Winning and losing are on the same page in my book, and you have to accept them both. Twice in my career, I slipped [Lewis's other defeat was a 1994 loss to Oliver McCall]. But both times, I came back and beat the man who beat me. I'm proud of that. It was important for me to avenge those losses.’ The final encounter on Lewis's list of his most meaningful fights is his destruction of Mike Tyson. That bout ended with Tyson lying on the canvas, blood streaming from his mouth and nose and from cuts above both eyes. 'I had to fight Tyson,' Lewis says. 'If I hadn't, no matter how much I accomplished, no matter how many other fights I won, there would have always been people who said, "Yes, Lennox was good but he never could have beaten Tyson."'
Emanuel Steward, who began working with Lewis after the fighter's loss to Oliver McCall and stayed with him through to the end of his career says 'Mike definitely didn't want to be in the ring with Lennox. And I'll tell you something else: very few fighters in history could have beaten Lennox that night. I make my living by producing winners. That's what I do, so I know what I'm talking about. But the key in boxing isn't the sculptor; it's the marble. And Lennox was a fabulous fighter to work with. All great fighters have bumps in the road, and he had a few himself. But, in the end, he did what he had to do. He was a great fighter.’
Since Lewis retired, his quality has only been further underlined by the mediocre quality of fighters since. The situation was best summed up by former heavyweight great Joe Frazier, who said recently: 'I really couldn't tell you who the champ is right now. It puzzles me.’ Lewis says: 'There's a certain satisfaction when I look at the heavyweight division today. It feels good, knowing that people have come to understand that I was the last true heavyweight champion.' But in the next sentence, he adds: 'I feel bad for the sport.' Yet he declines to criticise the limitations of the present champions.
'The era of Lewis, Tyson and Holyfield is over,' Lewis says. 'We know that. But boxing is hard enough without other boxers coming down on you. It always surprises me when boxers speak ill of other boxers. We have reporters coming down on us. We have fans coming down on us. Boxers are a family. We know things about boxing that other people don't. We understand that, even when we win, we lose a little of ourselves every time we get in the ring. We don't need to come down on each other. We should protect each other. So I'll just say that it takes physical gifts, hard work, commitment and luck to get to the top in boxing. Each of the top heavyweights today has been successful in his way. Anyone who gets into a boxing ring deserves credit for his courage.’
Meanwhile, the world has come to understand that Lewis's retirement was for real. 'Boxing is a happy part of my past,' he says. 'But I don't miss it. It's a hard sport. Boxers are trained to exploit their opponents' weaknesses. It's survival of the fittest. We hit you on your wounds. One bad move and the game can be over. I got out at the right time for me.’ And so, at the age of 40, Lewis is on to new challenges. 'You can only do things for so long,' he says. 'Then you get too old or you grow out of them and you move on to another stage in life. Boxing was a big part of my life, but it was never what I defined myself by. I'm the same person now that I was when I was boxing. The only difference is that my goals have changed. Instead of trying to be the best fighter in the world, my goals now are to be the best father I can be, the best husband I can be, and to make a difference in the lives of some of the less fortunate people in the world.’