To the British, who haven't had a world heavyweight champion since Ruby Robert Fitzsimmons won the title in 1897, Lennox Lewis's arrival last Saturday night was like the sweet promise of rain after nearly a century of drought. Following a seemingly endless march of mediocre heavyweights, from Phainting Phil Scott and Henry Cooper to Brian London and Frank Bruno, our cousins across the pond have finally found a genuine contender.
A 2-to-1 underdog at Earl's Court arena in London, Lewis needed only three minutes and 46 seconds to dispose of Razor Ruddock and lay claim to a shot at the winner of the Evander Holyfieid-Riddick Bowe title light in Las Vegas on Friday the 13th of November.
The outcome Saturday night—it was actually early Sunday morning in England—was no fluke. Lewis, who won the 1988 Olympic super heavyweight title by stopping Bowe in the second round, dropped Ruddock with a crushing right hand near the end of the first round, then knocked him down twice more in the second. Thai was all the damage referee Joe Cortez needed to see; he waved the fight to a halt 46 seconds into Round 2, without even bothering to count past four over the fallen Ruddock.
This was the same Ruddock who had lasted 56 minutes, 22 seconds while losing two fights—one by decision, the other by a controversial TKO—to former champion Mike Tyson. Tyson punished Ruddock both times and broke his jaw in their second meeting. Lewis inflicted nowhere near that sort of damage, but feeling the weight of British boxing history, he was in a far greater hurry to get his job done.
Perhaps because it was Halloween, the 6'3", 231½-pound Ruddock, a slugger, came out disguised as a boxer. His failed attempts to hold Lewis off with pawing jabs apparently left him so confused that he forgot everything he had learned in 31 fights, including how to duck.
Unlike Fitzsimmons, whom the Brits embraced even though he considered himself Australian and never fought in England, the 27-year-old Lewis has had a difficult time establishing a national identity. He was born in London but left for Toronto at age 12, and he won his Olympic medal as a member of the Canadian team. Before the Ruddock bout, even though 15 of his 21 pro fights, all wins, were in England, he was still regarded as a Canadian. It wasn't personal; after too many lackluster outings against poor opponents, the Brits were not convinced that he could fight. Lewis accumulated 18 KOs in those 21 fights, but they came against nonentities, such as Glenn McCrory and Jorge Dascola, most of whom couldn't stay upright against a 15-mile-per-hour wind. Lewis also languished in his countrymen's affections because of the Brits' weird love affair with former Commonwealth champion Frank Bruno, a nice enough fellow who can't fight a lick.
An accomplished boxer and probably the best defensive fighter among all the world's heavyweights, the 6'5", 227½-pound Lewis also proved himself to be a puncher in his brief encounter with Ruddock. Only his jaw remains a question, because no one has yet been able to hit it, which is hardly his fault.
Lewis's double-barreled skills add luster to a division that, since Tyson's incarceration, has sadly dwindled to Holyfield, Bowe and a bunch of old fat guys in short pants. Still, if Bowe wins next week's fight in Las Vegas, it is possible that he will try lo duck Lewis. Bowe's strategists are said to be eager to have their man meet George Foreman in a bout that would put millions of dollars in the bank. But Bowe-Foreman is probably not going to take place. Foreman has signed for three fights between January and next fall, and Bowe is not likely to be one of the opponents. In addition, Jose Sulaiman, the WBC president, decreed that Lewis (or Ruddock, if he had won Saturday's fight) would get the next title fight—or else. In the event that Bowe defeats Holyfield and signs to fight anyone else, the WBC will proclaim Lewis its champion by default.
After all those decades of frustration, the British might be happy to take a heavyweight title any way they can get it, but they would much rather sec Lewis win it in the ring and, better still, win it from an American. In any case, not since Lexington have the Brits felt this confident going into a fight.