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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 00:31 GMT
Lewis: From playground jibes to world champion

Victory within sight: Lewis' bout with Holyfield in November
For someone once regarded as an under-achiever, Lennox Lewis can now boast quite a success rate in the field of sporting achievement.

It doesn't come much more impressive than being undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion, after all.

And the 34-year-old recently added the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year trophy to his collection.

Lewis reflected on his battles over the years as he spoke of his "trials and tribulations" when he picked up the award.

The ecstasy of being on top of the world
It is certainly true that despite his stunning success, the 6ft 5in world heavyweight champion has found it hard to win respect.

That is all changing now - and his place among Britain's sporting greats is assured.

Lewis spent the first 12 years of his life in West Ham, London, before moving to Canada because of family circumstances.

He was immediately the butt of jokes on the school playground because of his thick cockney accent and took up boxing to defend himself against future jibes.

Gold medal aim

Lewis v Holyfield The sequel
His size and skills made him an immediate success and he represented Canada at the 1984 Olympics, where he was beaten in the quarter-finals by eventual gold medallist American Tyrell Biggs.

He resisted the chance to turn professional, continuing his amateur career with the aim of winning a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

lennox lewis
It has taken years of hard work for Lewis to reach the pinnacle of his sport
That goal was achieved courtesy of a second stoppage of another American, Riddick Bowe.

The two would become big rivals, although they would never actually meet again in the ring.

Lewis declined a number of offers to begin his professional career in the US, and instead chose the relatively unknown English promoter Frank Maloney as his manage, while another unknown, John Davenport, was named as his trainer.

His first fight was a second round stoppage of British veteran Al Malcolm.

From there, Lewis continued his career on a fairly low key level, meeting a string of unknown opponents until signing for a fight with fellow Briton Gary Mason.

Revenge for Olympic defeat

The bout proved to be a crossroads for both men; Lewis won in six rounds to confirm himself as the country's leading heavyweight, while Mason retired.

The quality of his opposition significantly improved after that fight, with Lewis defeating former world champions Glenn McCrory and Mike Weaver and avenging his only Olympic defeat with a third round knockout of Biggs.

He also changed his trainer, bringing in Pepe Correa, a former cornerman of Sugar Ray Leonard.

Now BBC viewers have made him their sportsman of the year
By October 1992, Lewis was ready for the upper echelons of the division, and signed for a fight with Canadian Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock, the man who had swapped punches for 19 rounds with Mike Tyson.

But Ruddock's reputation counted for nothing, as Lewis disposed of him in two rounds, and was subsequently awarded the WBC version of the heavyweight title.

He was to successfully defend his title on three occasions over the next two years, including a stoppage of Frank Bruno.

Yet in each fight, he appeared at times bored and lethargic, and his American critics maintained that fights with the likes of Bowe or Holyfield would result in severe beatings.

That theory appeared to be vindicated in September 1994 by a second round loss to journeyman Oliver McCall, a fighter who had never beaten a top-ranked opponent.

Team Lewis regrouped, firing Correa and bringing in Emmanuel Steward, trainer of more than a dozen world champions at the famous Kronk gymnasium in Detroit, Michigan, and ironically the man that had masterminded McCall's win over Lewis.

Tougher opposition

The road back from the McCall defeat was not easy - many in the American fight game had been dismissive of Lewis since he turned professional, and were more than happy to turn their back on him once he had tasted defeat.

It became necessary, therefore, to match Lewis against tougher opposition than he had faced when champion.

Tommy Morrison, Lionel Butler and Ray Mercer, all top 10 contenders, tasted defeat at the hands of Lewis, and by February 1997, another title shot came his way, although ironically, it was against McCall.

But this was a different McCall to one he had previously faced, one who had recently come out of drug rehabilitation, and when the referee stopped the bout after five rounds, it was because the American simply refused to fight back.

Lucrative prize

After that, Lewis made four defences of the WBC title, and although untroubled during those, he still lacked the recognition of men like Holyfield, Tyson or Bowe.

His management recognised this, signing for his fight against Evander Holyfield in March and accepting the shorter end of the purse money, in the hope that a Lewis win would bring them more than the single most lucrative prize in sport.

But the fight led to controversy as it was declared a draw when most observers believed Lewis should have been awarded victory.

A re-match - in Las Vegas in November - was announced and it was then that Lewis was crowned undisputed heavyweight champion of the world with a unanimous points decision.

The triumph meant he had become the first British undisputed heavyweight champion since Bob Fitzsimmons 100 years ago - and also that his critics had been well and truly answered.

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See also:

04 Nov 99 | Lewis v Holyfield The sequel
Rematch in Vegas
Links to other Sport stories are at the foot of the page.