Just because Lennox Lewis likes to play chess doesn't mean he's
particularly mysterious. Probably there have been boxers before
him who enjoyed board games. Even heavyweight champions. It's
the other stuff that makes you wonder: the way he looks up
during sparring (in the middle of an exchange!) when a stranger
walks into his gym, the way he scatters papers around his
mother's apartment just so she'll have something to clean up,
the way he steadfastly refuses to display his brilliance in the
ring, even when his sport--or the fight he's in--is desperate
This is an article from the Nov. 15, 1999 issue
Nobody knows him, not for sure. Friends think they do, but they
don't. As a kid growing up in Kitchener, Ont., Lennox was
nicknamed the Scientist for his calculating ways. "I remember,
first day of football practice," says childhood pal Courtney
Shand, who serves as Lewis's strength and conditioning coach. "I
guess we're 13. They're handing out the equipment, but Lennox is
standing way off across the field, his back against a tree, just
checking everybody out. That's the kind of guy he is."
That's the only kind of guy he is? What about the time Lewis,
driving his Mercedes through London to meet a woman, was cut off
in traffic and, after venting some road rage, had his car set
upon by bat-wielding thugs? Lewis returned, dressed like a ninja
and seeking vengeance upon his assailants, and threw a tire
through a window. "He did that?" says Shand. "Wow." Pause. "Well,
you have to understand, that's not the kind of thing Lennox would
ever talk about. Did he tell you that story? I didn't think so."
Shand shouldn't be surprised that he's been left in the dark.
Lewis doesn't give you much more than is necessary, either in the
ring or out. It makes him enigmatic and a little frustrating. His
talent and his size--he's a magnificently proportioned 6'5"--make
him the most formidable heavyweight of his era. Yet, at the
advanced age of 34, he has a resume that is astonishingly slim.
He's got a 34-1-1 record. And since he regained the WBC title, he
has defended it five times, but his performances (when he's had
worthy opponents; he has been ducked a lot) have been
distinguished by excessive caution.
In Lewis's most recent fight, last March 13, when he and Evander
Holyfield finally collided to unify the three-headed championship
(which they'll do again this Saturday), he was so spooked by
Holyfield's reputation for being dangerous when hurt that he was
reluctant to wade in and finish Holyfield off. The draw imposed
on Lewis by the judges was outrageous, of course, but Lewis
should never have let the fight get close enough for it to
Outside the ring Lewis is equally puzzling. You can't even decide
where he's from. He was born in England and raised in Canada, yet
he seems to enjoy living in Jamaica most. It's a joke, really: He
glides from accent to accent, talking Bob Marley or Masterpiece
Theatre, whichever serves his protective coloration best.
Increasingly, as he's come to enjoy fame, he's made public
appearances. But he enjoys a privacy unheard of in this day of
He's sure a tough and nondescript interview. Requests for
sit-downs tend to involve a discouraging amount of negotiation.
Yes, Lennox would love to meet with you, but his scalp specialist
must be flown in from London. As far as pictures go, are you
familiar with the work of Richard Avedon? Lennox would like
Richard as the photographer. When he's cornered in his camp, in
one of those honeymoon resorts deep in the Poconos, he warily and
surprisingly submits. "Was it somehow on his own terms?" an old
acquaintance of Lewis's asks afterward. Well, now that you
mention it: Lewis had originally agreed to talk after an
afternoon workout, pushed it back until after dinner, postponed
it until breakfast and then, just as things looked bleak, sent an
aide to pick up the surprised reporter for the semioriginal
after-dinner session. The old acquaintance laughs.
That Lewis turned out to be genuinely good company during the
interview, talking freely and not like somebody about to enter
the witness protection program, is almost beside the point. His
first instinct, in and out of the ring, is personal safety.
Nothing's exposed, left to chance. Nothing's done on any terms
Exactly what Lewis is protecting is anyone's guess. It may turn
out, as he insists, that he's not very complicated at all. "I saw
that movie about the Rat Pack," he says. "What I remember is that
it made Dean Martin out to be an enigma. But what it was, there
was no angle on him. It made me think, I'm like that. If the
media didn't know I played chess, there'd be no angle on me at
all." He thinks about that. "What if I took up trombone? Would
One more angle wouldn't hurt, although it's more than enough just
to see Lewis in his natural state: calculating, yes, but a little
playful. Yet who sees that, and how often? "He's quite a
practical joker," says Harold Knight, an assistant trainer.
Nobody, though, can recall a practical joke. Still, everybody
insists that Lewis can be tons of fun. Head trainer Emanuel
Steward, who came on board in 1995, remembers partying with Lewis
on a trip to London. "He picked me up at midnight, and we got
back at 10 the next morning," he says. "And the women! My god!"
That's all reassuring. Mostly, though, Lewis is invisible, and
the only woman in his life that anybody knows about is his
mother, Violet. (Girlfriends are hidden, to the point that his
sexuality has been publicly questioned; friends howl at that
idea.) Violet's the one who sacrificed to raise him. Born in
Jamaica, settled in London, she moved to Canada with Lennox when
he was seven. Soon after, however, she sent him back to live with
her aunt in London. When he was 12 Lennox rejoined his mother;
she had been working in a Styrofoam factory and could finally
afford to raise him in modest respectability. Lennox, fatherless,
flourished under Violet's care; he was by his own admission
something of a hooligan until he was transported to Canada and
became a schoolboy star at basketball, football and track. He
remains a mama's boy.
The term is misleading in his case, because he has long since
secured an adult independence. But Violet, perhaps the only
person Lennox truly trusts, remains a fixture at all of his
training camps, cooking for her son and his top aides and
ministering to the entire camp. "She knows when you're depressed
and just what to say," Shand says. "And she tries to keep Lennox
cheered up, too." Like how? "Well, Mom's always telling him to
get out of his room, watch a movie or something. He spends a lot
of time in there, thinking, I guess." About what? "I don't know."
One thing Lewis has been thinking about lately is Holyfield, who
flummoxed him before their first fight by predicting a
third-round knockout. "He had me fooled," says Lewis, almost
admiringly. "A good trick. I would have hated for that prediction
to come true."
To that point Lewis had never been in anything but what he calls
"mediocre fights." A proper caliber of opposition was denied him,
to boxing's shame, when Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson wriggled out
of matches. While Lewis must take the blame for his Sept. 24,
1994, knockout loss to Oliver McCall and for several other
less-than-spectacular showings, it is more boxing's fault than
his that he wasn't acclaimed the preeminent heavyweight much
Lewis says his poor resume was responsible for his failure to
dismantle Holyfield. He was a bit cowed by the magnitude of the
event. "All the energy in a bout like that is against you," he
says, "and it's hard to ignore." Still, he thought he won easily.
Steward, who likes his fighters to knock people out, wasn't
enthusiastic about Lewis's tactics, but he recognized that Lewis
was trying to give a recital, "show the world his superiority,
not for eight rounds, but for 12." Lewis says he's since been
persuaded that he can show the world his superiority much more
quickly. "What happened to the Sweet Science?" he asks wistfully.
"Well, this time it will be different. I'll take more chances."
Hardly anybody believes that. Lewis, the Scientist, is far too
calculating just to let loose, to be ruled by anything except
caution. This is not to say he lacks heart, or desire, or
competitive spirit. Lewis has those in abundance. He's even mean
on occasion. But at crunch time, Lewis begins thinking things
through, and the violence he seems made for is reduced to a
series of chess moves.
Example: In 1992, after beating Holyfield, Bowe baited Lewis at
ringside. Lewis told USA Today, "My thoughts were violent, but I
analyzed the situation and...I was thinking, This man just went
12 rounds. It would look bad if I knocked him out on TV."
He's always thinking. Sometimes it's comical. John Hornewer, who
was Lewis's attorney until 1996, remembers the two of them being
in Violet's apartment in Kitchener. As they were leaving, Lewis
said, "Wait," and began mussing the place up, throwing papers
around. He told Hornewer if he left it too clean, she'd worry.
"He was thinking about her," says Hornewer. "Always thinking."
But another time, after his Mercedes was trashed, Lewis was
thinking along altogether different lines. Hornewer was in
Lewis's house just outside London when the fighter returned from
the confrontation, and he saw Lewis go a little nuts. The
ruffians who'd cut him off had then lured him into an alley in a
trailer park and attacked his car with bats, breaking the
windshield and leaving the champion a little bloody about his
precious scalp. Hornewer watched in amazement as Lewis plotted
his revenge, dressing all in black and setting out for the
trailer park later that evening. Lewis drove there with Hornewer,
crept into the night and pitched a tire through the window of a
trailer that, he believed, belonged to one of his assailants. He
was only mildly disconcerted when, in the backlit kitchen, he saw
a woman instead of one of his attackers. "He felt a little bit
bad," says Hornewer, "but he also felt they all had it coming.
Still, it was typical Lennox. He's not about to jump out of his
car at the moment, in some fit of temper. He takes his time, gets
Lewis, who admits to the escapade, laughs at his own prudence.
"You could say I surveyed the situation," he says. "No matter
what my mother thinks, I do watch a lot of movies."
This caution, picked up from James Bond films or somewhere else,
obscures traits that are more celebrated among other heavyweight
boxers than they are in Lewis. Unnoticed is the fact that he's a
determined worker, a lifelong worker. Friends from high school
remember that every day after practice for whatever sport was in
season, Lewis--who started boxing when he was 12 because kids
continually made fun of his British accent--always marched
straight to the gym, to spar, to punch the bag, to skip rope.
Also, like Holyfield, he is childishly competitive. Holyfield's
camp remembers going bowling with the fighter and not being
allowed to return until Holyfield won. Similarly, Lewis's friends
are never stunned when, in the midst of losing a chess match, he
rises and accidentally upsets the board.
For all those qualities, however, there is not in Lewis the
usual heavyweight recklessness. There isn't that certain kind of
foolhardiness that, with big men in a small space, sometimes
causes spectacle. There isn't that wild and senseless
conflagration of spirit that generates history, or at the very
least a great fight. Lewis might never produce that. He may be
too smart to produce that. He will win, because he hates to
lose. But he won't give anyone any more than is necessary to do
just that. The rest he keeps to himself, selfish beyond regret,
safe in his own skin.
rematch. "I'll take more chances."