When legends collide: how Lennox Lewis triumphed over Mike Tyson

In this abridged extract from his book A Ringside Affair, celebrated journalist James Lawton remembers the epochal 2002 collusion between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson in Memphis, Tennessee. Read the article and click through the gallery to relive that epic night   

Tyson versus Lennox Lewis on a bank of the Mississippi at an arena known as the Pyramid may have been an afterthought of boxing history but then some fascination is proofed against the passage of the years. Here, much of it was no doubt attached morbidly to Tyson’s continued capacity to outrage the sensitivities of polite society, a knack of his that he proved was still in full working order when the fight was announced in New York six months earlier.

First, he bit Lewis’s leg. Then he drew a $56 million lawsuit from WBC president José Sulaimán, who hit his head on a table and was knocked unconscious in the subsequent mêlée. There were other inconveniences. The Nevada Athletic Commission, despite the departure of Jim Nave, voted 4–1 against licensing the fight in Las Vegas. California, New York and Texas also said they would draw a line at serial cannibalism.

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For Lewis fighting Tyson, and beating him in any ring at any time, was still integral to how he wanted to see himself at the end of a career that in so many other ways was now fulfilled. It would also be [a chance] to re-engage a phenomenon that had threatened to break him when he was still a boy. His first boxing trainer, Arnie Boehm – who set him on the road to his Olympic gold when he arrived at the police gym in Kitchener, Ontario, as a gangling young immigrant from England – had taken him down to Catskill to spar with the teenaged Tyson. He remembered the occasion vividly as a statement of his protégé’s extraordinary determination. Tyson, who was more physically mature, dominated and hurt Lewis in their first session, and Boehm’s instinct was to immediately shepherd him safely back over the Canadian border. But Lewis was defiant, returned to the gym to face Tyson and gave a much better account of himself.

Over breakfast in Memphis one morning, Lewis looked out at the wide river glinting in the sunshine and said, yes, it was true that victory in this fight would probably mean more than any of the others. It would give a sense of his being close to the end of a journey that, for all its frustrations and cul-de-sacs and the two defeats he had been able to avenge, had finally given him all that he had sought. ‘Since those few days in Catskill I’ve always had Tyson in my sights,’ he said. ‘He has always been on my mind. I have always wanted to say that I fought and beat everyone that mattered. It is late, now, the fight should have happened five, even ten years in the past, but it didn’t, and all I've been able to say is, “Maybe one day it will be me and him in the ring again like when we were still kids, maybe it will happen.” Now it is happening, and I've never been so ready.’

Yet, so long after his venomous peak, there was still the mystique of Mike Tyson. Even Lewis’s now-devoted trainer, Emanuel Steward, conceded that – while he believed Lennox Lewis had moved into a higher class, that he was demonstrably fitter and stronger than Tyson – there was something in this fight that, more than any other in his life, had been disturbing him in the night. He said, ‘I haven’t slept too good. I'm more nervous about this fight than any I’ve been involved with. Mike Tyson didn’t get to where he is, being as small as he is, without being a very good fighter. And I think he will go to the top of his game and use whatever he has left in this fight. Either guy could land a big punch in the first ten or 20 seconds and the fight could be over. I do worry about Tyson cold-cocking Lennox. Anyone fighting Tyson who doesn't worry about this is crazy. So, yes, there is a possibility Lennox will get hurt, and we have discussed this. You don’t beat Mike Tyson easy.’

Steward had his apprehensions, no doubt, and the odds-makers had Lewis a surprisingly narrow 2-1 favourite, but he also agreed that if Tyson had any serious chance it would have to come at some early flashpoint. Indeed, the sound of the bell for the end of the first round might well signal that his last chance had already come and gone.

Before the fight, Tyson did not disturb the warm summer nights beside the Mississippi. There was none of the rampage that he had produced so vigorously in New York. He was clipped, surly in response to routine pre-fight questions. He looked like a man brooding over these moments, which would do so much to shape the rest of a progressively chaotic life. He said, ‘I know what is at stake here. I know what I have got to do. Lennox Lewis is a good champion but he has never faced anyone like me before. He is stepping into the unknown.’

Tyson came rushing across the ring, throwing hooks and clearly hoping to conjure some of the old terror

No one could deny that Tyson had explored uncharted territory more thoroughly than any contemporary rival, but it was the certainties that had to be worrying him most, the certainties of power and reach and confi dence that had been restored so impressively by Lewis the last time he had stepped into the ring.

Plainly, Lewis had brought all of it to Memphis. When he came into the ring, one split by a screen of security guards assigned to keep the fighters separated before the sound of the first bell, he had the demeanour of a champion of the world. Tyson no longer prowled with a look of venomous intent, the kind that so long ago froze the blood of a fine champion like Michael Spinks. He stood blinking under the television lights like a man considering his fate as his past raced before his eyes.

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As Steward predicted, Tyson came rushing across the ring, throwing hooks and clearly hoping to conjure some of the old terror. He threw hard from his familiar, crouching position and he did enough to take the first round. But he had wanted so much more. He had needed to invade both the body and the psyche of Lewis in the way he had 20 years earlier in the gym in Catskill where it all began. All he had done, though, was state his presence, and when Lewis returned to his corner he showed no trace of intimidation. Indeed, his body language framed the question: Mike, is this the best you can do?

It was. He maintained a show of business in the second and third, but his speed of foot and hand was winding down at dismaying rate. And as Tyson ebbed, and threw his last significant punch in the second round – an arching hook that Lewis absorbed comfortably – you had to begin to wonder if this was indeed the last time you would see in the ring the man who, for 15 years, had been the dark but most magnetic force in his sport.

In the third round Lewis’s control was nearing the absolute. He set the first blood flowing on Tyson’s face with a jab and a right hand that brought a cut over his right eye.

The final question was formed the moment the fight was made, and now, in the fourth round, when Tyson struggled to muster the last of his power and his breath, when he had to will his every straining fibre into the effort of throwing a punch, we were about to get the answer. How would Mike Tyson take his beating? Would he unfurl a white flag like so many of his beaten, overwhelmed opponents? Would he go quietly, resignedly into his dark night? No, he would take whatever had been stored up for him, as he always said he would when he looked to the future and anticipated some of its worst possibilities.

Lewis delivered it without mercy. If he had been criticised for being too passive when Oliver McCall fell apart in the ring they shared, there could be no such charge now. By the sixth round Tyson was bleeding copiously from cuts over his eye, on his face and in his mouth. In the eighth he was defenceless. Lewis hit Tyson with a cluster of uppercuts and then a crashing right to the chin that sent him down. There were 35 seconds left in the round but as referee Eddie Cotton, who it had been feared by the Lewis camp would do all he could to protect Tyson’s cause, started the count, nobody needed telling, and least of all the man on the canvas, that it was the end.

In what might have been a forlorn desire for some fleeting privacy, Tyson had his right hand over his face throughout the count to ten and then he slowly moved it to his side. Revealed was the beaten, blood-smeared face of the fighter who had, in another life, provoked a thousand fears with one sidelong glance.

Now, maybe for the last time, he had some post-fight rituals to perform, which he did, given all his circumstances, with remarkable amiability. He embraced his conqueror and kissed Lewis ’s mother, Violet. ‘I am happy for him and I’m thankful of the chance he gave me,’ he said. ‘He knows I love him and I hope he gives me the opportunity to fight him one more time.’ Lewis did not rule out the possibility of a rematch but, as it would be for the rest of the world, it seemed to be low on his priorities. He was more concerned with the signifi cance of this victory in the long sweep of his career.

‘This guy bit me,’ he said, ‘and he was going to get some discipline. After the fight, he apologised to me and said I was a masterful boxer and that he admired and respected me. Mike at 19 ruled the world but, like a fine wine, I came along later and I’m the ruling man.’

A Ringside Affair is available via Bloomsbury. Enter the code RINGSIDE17 to get 20% off