Tuesday, June 11, 2002
Because size matters, Lewis could be best ever
By Max Kellerman
Special to ESPN.com
Are you happy now? You have his head. The barbarian king is no more. Lennox Lewis showed up and so did Mike Tyson and both fought just as we have come to expect in recent years.
The Fight Was A Mismatch
It was a mismatch in size. Lewis, the leader of the new breed of super-heavyweight, nearly six and a half feet tall, nearly 250 pounds, a wing span over seven feet from fingertip to fingertip. Tyson half a foot shorter, 15 pounds smaller, his wingspan shy of Lewis' by a foot.
It was a mismatch in skill. Lewis, sharp from a decade of successful contests against the best big men in the world, his movement automatic, his body responding from muscle memory programmed through dedicated year-round practice. Tyson, dull from set-ups against no-hopes, his movement unsure, his body no longer the servant of his mind.
It was a mismatch of eras. Lewis dominates the current heavyweight division -- his biggest wins having taken place in the last three years. Mike Tyson dominated in the late-'80s. His prime was nearly 15 years ago.
Tyson Was Special Despite Deficiencies
My Friday Night Fights nemesis and good friend Teddy Atlas has described Mike Tyson as a game loser, and that may be an accurate description. He has also accused Mike of being a front-runner and a quitter, and many, including this writer, have made the same accusation. But before Lewis-Tyson, Teddy picked Mike to knock out the heavyweight champion of the world in one round. Teddy will argue that the only reason he did so is because Mike is a puncher, and Lennox has shown a fragile chin. Bottom line: Teddy picked Mike to win the heavyweight championship of the world 16 years after the first time he won it and against a much larger, more active and relatively dominant champ. And this is because Teddy knows that Tyson had great ability.
I can hear Ted now: "Max, he always had ability, but lacked character." And of course Mike did not have the will to win of an Evander Holyfield or Muhammad Ali or Rocky Marciano. He did not even have the honest discipline of a Mickey Ward or a Junior Jones or a Harold Brazier. But he generally showed up in fighting condition, and always fought aggressively. As for his character, he has been off of his feet three times in his career, and three times he has risen when the referee picked up his count. He had Buster Douglas on the deck for 14 seconds, he was throwing punches back at the moment the first Holyfield fight was stopped, and he took more titanic right hands from Lennox Lewis than he had any right to before he finally went down.
Sonny Liston was great in spite of his character flaws and so was Mike Tyson. Some guys have too much ability to deny them their Hall of Fame credentials, even though their wills can be tamed by men who have more self-esteem. And it does not take a whole lot of self-esteem to have more than Mike Tyson.
"I'm going to make you respect the barbarian king," Tyson said in an interview before the fight. We absolutely must respect his ability to absorb punishment. He took about 80 right hands to the head over seven and a half rounds of fighting before he was finally taken out. And these were vicious uppercuts and overhands delivered from one of the most devastating right-handed punchers in the history of boxing.
You don't think Lennox has historical power in his right fist? OK, who has ever hit harder? George Foreman? Maybe in his first incarnation, when he had more snap on his punches, but then the 1973 version of big George checked in around 220. Lewis has him by nearly 30 pounds. Ernie Shavers? The champ has him by nearly 40. Foreman and Shavers hit harder for their size, but they were significantly smaller.
Lennox Lewis Too Big for Most Heavyweights in History
And that is precisely the point. This is the era of super-heavyweights. Sonny Liston, at a little over 6-1, 210 pounds in his prime, is credited with ushering in the modern age of
large heavyweights. Muhammad Ali, the first dominant champion of that modern heavyweight era, was also a little over 210 at his best. He stood a little under 6-3. Both Liston and Ali would be giving up over 30 pounds to Lewis.
History will record Riddick Bowe, skilled at 6-5 and over 230 pounds, as the first super-heavyweight champion. If Liston ushered in the modern heavyweight era, then Bowe ushered in the post-modern one. And Lewis is the first dominant post-modern champ.
Lewis-Liston? Lewis-Ali? Match Them Up
Liston was a banger and could box, and would have a shot at Lewis' somewhat fragile chin. Ali did not have the punching power of Oliver McCall or Hasim Rahman (Lewis' two kayoers). Ali was a far more talented fighter than Lewis, but he simply did not compete in the same weight division as the current champ -- not really.
Size Counts -- For A Lot
Think I am getting hung up on size? Does Naseem Hamed, an all-time, one-punch featherweight banger, hit as hard as welterweight champ Vernon Forrest? Forrest is 20 pounds larger than Hamed. Could you imagine junior middleweight Oscar De La Hoya beating light heavyweight Darius Michalczewski? Oscar is a far more talented fighter, but Darius is 20 pounds heavier. Hamed does not hit harder than Forrest and De La Hoya would lose to Michalczewski. And you know it.
Just like you know that this Lennox Lewis, despite his occasionally exposed chin and at times cautious ring temperament, is a tall order for any fighter you can mention. In the history of boxing.
Where Lennox Fits In
Of course, when comparing fighters from different eras we should really be more concerned with how they each fared in their own eras rather than whom we think would win in a head-to-head matchup between them. Lennox Lewis' win over this Mike Tyson may not move him up the ladder of all-time heavyweight greats, but it does not need to for Lennox to be called a great heavyweight. Before the Tyson fight he had already established himself as one of the 14 champions in the history of the division who, based on how they fared in their own eras, stand out from the rest.
In chronological order of their title reigns, the Big 14 are: Jim Jeffries, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's Friday Night Fights.