Lennox Lewis vs the top heavyweights of the 70s, 80s & 90s
07.01.08 - By Jim Dorney: Since the controversial Lennox Lewis vs. Vitali Klitschko fight in June 2003, most boxing fans agree that the heavyweight division has been in a state of disarray, with many fighters crowned champion, but not one overall dominant one who has unified the title & defended against the best.
Article posted on 08.01.2008
Equally, a large amount of fans agree that Lewis was the last true dominant heavyweight champion, especially after his highly-anticipated fight with Mike Tyson, which despite the hype, proved to be somewhat of a mismatch, pretty much once & for all destroying the myth that Tyson was ever really much of a threat since his two defeats to Evander Holyfield.
In terms of the 70s, 80s & 90s, there were a number of great heavyweight fighters & champions, but the ones who really surfaced to the top & proved dominant champions could be argued to be the following:
I concede they were other great fighters & champions during these decades, but my criteria for choosing the above elite fighters were either holding the generally-acknowledged unified championship for a number of years, defeating one or more legendary fighters (see Riddick Bowe, Joe Frazier & George Foreman, who weren’t title holders for as many years within the defined decades) or both (see Ali, Holyfield & also arguably Lewis).
Lewis had the opportunity to fight both Holyfield (twice) & Tyson in the pro ranks, and Bowe in the amateurs. Bowe refused to fight Lewis in the pros, famously throwing his belt into the trash in a somewhat bizarre statement about his thoughts on the governing bodies. Bowe is actually the fighter whom I was most undecided about including within this list, but given my criteria & his three great fights with Holyfield, I felt he had to be on there.
Clearly Lewis never had the chance to fight either Joe Frazier or Muhammad Ali at their primes, and whilst it wasn’t unfeasible that he could have been matched with the comebacking Foreman of the late 80s & 90s, most boxing fans agree that the 70s Foreman was by far the more fearsome proposition of the two.
Larry Holmes, whilst still fighting in the 90s when he could theoretically have been matched with Lewis (and to his credit, being the first fighter to beat Ray Mercer, who in my opinion gave Lewis his toughest winning fight) was still an ageing ex-champion by then, whose best days were in the mid/late 70s & early/mid 80s.
Tyson, out of all of these fighters, peaked the earliest in his career, and his prime period was also arguably the shortest. By the time he lost to Buster Douglas in February of 1990 his best days were already pretty much behind him at the tender age of 23. Whilst he would go on to beat some good fighters after that (the best of those in my opinion was Donavan ‘Razor’ Ruddock, although Frank Bruno, Alex Stewart & Andrew Golota deserve an honourable mention - I’m ignoring the fact that the Golota fight was changed to a NC after Tyson testing positive for marijuana – In fact, I think that would more than likely have hindered Tyson than helped, but apparently not! He was clearly winning & Golota was on the way either to a knockout defeat or one of his patented self-destructs) he never really showed the same fire of old, at least not with any consistency.
In this article, I’d like to entertain the notion that Lewis in his prime (at which time I’d argue would be around the 2000 version that annihilated Michael Grant) would have gotten his chance against the primes of the other highlighted fighters. For their primes I’ll with the following:
Joe Frazier circa 1971 - the version that beat Ali in the ‘fight of the century’
Muhammad Ali circa 1971 - Also the ‘fight of the century’ version
George Foreman circa the 1973 version the destroyed Frazier
Larry Holmes circa the 1982 version that beat Gerry Cooney
Mike Tyson circa 1988 - it’s got to be the version that ravaged Michael Spinks in 90 seconds
Evander Holyfield circa 1993 in his victorious rematch with Bowe
Riddick Bowe circa 1992 - the version that beat Holyfield first time out
Lewis vs. Frazier
This is (in my opinion) probably the worst match-up style-wise in the list for Lewis. Versus David Tua Lewis was able to stay on the outside & pot-shot all night long, but Frazier is a very different animal to Tua. Frazier’s hit just as hard if not harder, never tired & was very effective at wearing his man down. The only time he was ineffective was the two times he fought George Foreman, who is stylistically very different to Lewis. Lewis would not back down easily & would use his strength well, targeting Frazier’s bobbing head with overhand rights & clubbing hooks to the body, but I reckon this would play out similar to the Lewis vs. Mercer battle, with Joe getting, and deserving, a close decision verdict in a bruising war.
Result – Frazier beats Lewis by majority decision.
Lewis vs. Ali
Whilst I expect this will throw a proverbial cat amongst the pigeons, I think Lewis beats Ali at least 6/7 times out of 10. Ali never faced an opponent who was as good a boxer as Lewis with the same amount of power and adaptability. Foreman had as much power (perhaps a little more, but not much) and Ali was able to win the tactical battle, but that wouldn’t happen with a fighter as intelligent and determined as Lewis. Ali would undoubtedly win rounds & catch the eyes of the judges at times with blurring flurries, but on the whole Lewis would keep him at the end of his ramrod jab most of the night, throwing in a liberal amount of right crosses & the occasional uppercut in close. Ali’s great chin & fighting heart see him through to the end, but he ends up taking the worst beating of his illustrious career in the process.
Result – Lewis beats Ali by unanimous decision.
Lewis vs. Foreman
Styles make fights, which is why Foreman managed to beat Frazier so easily twice out, yet then lose to cuter boxers like Ali & Jimmy Young. Foreman had great assets – huge power, a great chin & he was as intimidating as hell – but that wouldn’t get him a victory against Lewis. I could see Foreman having some successes early on as Lewis got the measure of him, maybe even a knockdown, but Lennox would not get drawn into a brawl with Foreman & would dictate the fight with his jab. Foreman is not very effective on the outside, and, like other intimidating fighters before him (e.g. Sonny Liston) would get very discouraged as the fight continued. Lewis continues to pile on the punishment, throwing all of his arsenal at big George, and getting himself tagged a couple of times in the process as he leaves his hands too low. Eventually Foreman can stand no more and gets stopped late on, probably in the tenth or eleventh round.
Foreman himself admitted that he thought he would never beat Lewis. He knew that style-wise the match up was all wrong for him & that Lewis’ strength, power & technique would overcome his assets.
Result – Lewis beats Foreman by late TKO.
Lewis vs. Holmes
This is an interesting one. Both these two are great boxers with awesome jabs. For once, Lewis would be facing a guy with an arguably better jab than his own. Lewis has more knockout power, but Holmes has the better chin – He’d need it.
Holmes wins the battle of the jabs in the early rounds and maintains the control of the centre of the ring, but Lewis still has some success with blistering combinations to the body & head. As the fight progresses into the middle rounds, Lewis adapts his strategy, deciding to try & slug it out with Holmes. Holmes wisely tries to keep Lewis off him, and has some success in doing so, but in the later rounds too often ends up in the corner & on the ropes covering up and taking a pounding in doing so. In the final round Holmes elects to stand & trade with Lewis due to his concern of how the judges might perceive his style as being too negative – he regrets it and comes off the worse of the two in the exchanges.
The crowd can feel the tension as the judges pass the scorecards. The scores are predictably close, but Lewis wins a split decision, much to Holmes’ outrage. Whilst Holmes was the victim of a couple of dubious decisions against Michael Spinks, this is not as controversial & most fans & boxing writers are in agreement with the decision.
Result – Lewis beats Holmes by split decision.
Lewis vs. Tyson
We all saw how Lewis vs. Tyson played out, but Mike was way past his prime, and although Lewis fought a near-perfect fight (despite referee Eddie Cotton showing some disgraceful bias against him) he was also probably just past his best.
Tyson was a force of nature in the 80s, and at his best I believe could have knocked any heavyweight in history out. That said, he was carefully matched against opposition that played to his strengths on the way up, and still had some difficulties against the better boxers he fought – See his fights against James ‘Quick’ Tillis & Jose Ribalta for more details. Lewis hit far harder & had much better skills than these guys. Given how short his prime was, we didn’t really get to see him against that many elite fighters – Michael Spinks was a great boxer but was scared to death against Tyson, and afterwards correctly predicted that if a fighter with good skills & a punch could keep their cool Tyson could be beaten. I’m not saying that Lewis would have beaten every time out, but I reckon 7 times out of 10 Lennox outboxes a prime Tyson - the other 3 times out of 10, Lewis gets iced in the first 3 rounds. Lennox takes some torrid shots on the way, and maybe tastes the canvas once or twice in the early going. After surviving the first few rounds though, Lewis’ accuracy & defensive skills start to come though & Tyson loses his cool, going for broke & playing into Lewis’ hands.
Lewis lands some enormous bombs in the middle rounds & Tyson looks on unsteady legs. After a last-ditch effort in the eighth round, Tyson gets caught with a picture perfect uppercut/cross combo & gets knocked out by an overhand right that he doesn’t see.
Result – Lewis beats Tyson by knockout.
Lewis vs. Holyfield
The key difference between how this would play out versus their actual battles is that Holyfield’s reactions are faster & his combination punching is more effective. However, Lewis is by far the harder hitter & is on devastating form. It’s a give & take fight, and by compubox numbers is reasonably even, with Lewis landing a little more overall (230 of 710 vs. 205 of 714 for Holyfield) and controlling more of the clinches. Holyfield fights a brave fight but is outgunned & overpowered by Lewis, whose jab he ends up eating a little too frequently. Evander displays his trademark courage, seeing it out to the final bell in a competitive but comfortable points victory for Lennox.
Result – Lewis beats Holyfield by decision.
Lewis vs. Bowe
Whilst Frazier would be a nightmare for Lewis, I predict that Bowe would be a dream. Bowe had great skills & a good punch, but generally lacked the discipline required of a great fighter, with the exception of his fights against Holyfield.
Losing to Lewis in the Olympics so emphatically probably did for Lewis & Bowe ever meeting in the pro ranks. Both fighters changed as their professional careers progressed, but Bowe never appeared to want any part of Lewis. Let’s entertain the notion that they didn’t meet in the Olympics & there was no prior history between them however.
The way I see this playing out would be similar to Lewis vs. Ruddock. Lewis would be aware of the danger his opponent represented, and that would motivate him to a destructive performance. The first round is largely uneventful as both fighters feel each other out. In the second, Bowe lands a good right-left combo, and goes in to capitalize, but walks onto a huge Lewis overhand right. He goes down like a ton of bricks, and somehow makes it to his feet by the count of 9. Not much time is left in the round & Bowe makes it to the bell, but has fear in his eyes. As the third round starts, Bowe is on the retreat, trying to jab Lewis off him, but Lennox can smell blood & is looking to finish it. An uppercut on the inside and a one-two does it. Bowe remains on the canvas for a while after the count, just conscious but unable to get up.
Result – Lewis beats Bowe by knockout.
This is how I see these match-ups playing out. Of course the results are debatable, but I believe Lennox Lewis has to be acknowledged as one of the greatest heavyweights in history. He was the complete package – Big, strong, skilful & athletic, and had a great boxing brain, which combined with an excellent temperament made him extremely difficult to beat.
When he did lose to McCall & Rahman, it was more down to Lewis’ arrogance & lack of focus – By rematch he beat them both easily, and he was winning both fights before getting KOd – In short, Lewis lost more to himself than the other fighters.
Lewis could be beaten, but when he was focussed on the task in hand, I’m not convinced that any heavyweight in history could do it twice. I’ve conceded that I think Frazier would have given him fits, but in a rematch, I think Lewis wins. Likewise any of the other fighters on this list if they won first time out. Being a great fighter is not necessarily having an undefeated record – It’s being the best, and I believe a strong case can be made for Lennox Lewis being the best heavyweight in history.
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