Terry Dooley talks to the Director of ‘Lennox Lewis: The Untold Story’ Rick Lazes and lends his own, unique take on the heavyweight great’s career.

A boxer’s career is hard to gauge in retrospect, especially in the age of BoxRec where you can pull and pick apart even the finest resumes. The career of Lennox Lewis (41-2-1, 32 KOs) is especially difficult to appreciate unless you lived every moment of it with him.  

Painted as the calm, cool and collected counterpoint to the manic moods and mayhem of Mike Tyson, Lewis spent a crucial period of his career as an outsider. After his two-round defeat to Oliver McCall in 1994, he was something of a nomad for a time as Don King wielded the strings of the heavyweight division and had given Lewis a simple message: “You are either with me or against me.” 

Lewis himself adds to the mystique, often coming across as opaque in interviews and fielding some questions with the dead eyed look of a chess player. When he does open up somewhat, you get glimpses of the man behind the boxer and these glimpses pop up throughout Lennox Lewis: The Untold Story, a documentary co-directed by Rick Lazes and Seth Koch, yet you are still left with a sense that we are only see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Lewis the man.  

What we do get, and when it works best, is a great run through of his career that can help introduce latecomers to what he means to his fans and reminding the ones who were always there that it was a beautiful rollercoaster of a ride. With the beauty applied after the fact when he beat Mike Tyson in 2002 and we could all finally relax in the knowledge that we had picked the right horse. 

Boxing Social caught up with Rick Lazes to discuss the film and the impact that they hope it will have on the Lewis legacy. A documentary director also must act as editor, producer and virtually a jack of all trades, and this was the case with this one. “It was a fascinating project with so many different sources of information: we interviewed family, friends and other people — I was very much involved in all aspects of it,” he said.  

“I didn’t know how big a job it was when we started. We didn’t have a script and we had a lot of archival footage, so I spent months and months travelling the world with Lennox. We’d go to Jamaica, Canada, London, Miami — I basically followed him around engaging with him to see what his life is like. 

“Once the Pandemic kicked in, we had shot all the video and were onto the editing process and working with Dr. Dre for the narration from distance. Dre was amazing, by far one of the most creative, disciplined and humble stars I’ve been involved with. He spent days perfecting the narration. He would write stuff for the narration and even influenced some of the other interviews we did for the film. He wanted to get into Lennox’s personal life and personality.” 

“It was a labour of love, yes,” he replied when asked how hard it had been to pull it off. “It started off as a two-year project that turned into a five-year one. The more we learned about him and his life the more intrigued we became about him and the people around him. He showed discipline and belief throughout his career, and it still shows to this day.

“It was kind of a jigsaw puzzle as we had to piece a lot of elements into one coherent whole,” he added. “We wanted to also explore how we view our champions. Why is Tyson a household word and some people outside of boxing haven’t heard of Lennox despite the fact he beat Tyson, [Evander] Holyfield, [David] Tua and [Hasim] Rahman?” 

Lewis’ glorious career is captured in ‘The Untold Story’.

A common complaint about Lewis was that he was born and spent time in London as a child, was moved to Canada by his mother when she went over to find work over there, although he did have to wait for her to send for him, has a strong affinity with Jamaica and spent years fighting in America as well as popping over to South Africa for a routine defence against Rahman in 2001 that turned out to be a disaster as he was knocked out in five. Some fans felt that all of this, coupled with his personality, made it hard to invest in him. 

On the other hand, I believe it was George Foreman who said that the “Heavyweight champion is a king without a kingdom” since the King can only hold court once or twice a year, and often in different places. If you buy into that notion, then Lewis was the perfect champion for increasingly cosmopolitan times.   

“Lennox is truly an international individual,” Lazes concurred. “He has multiple relationships and links to places and people, so that is a fascinating part of his story. It also meant that we did a lot of travelling. To an extent, he was never fully accepted by Americans even as undisputed champion because he was seen as a Brit. Plus, he won the Gold for Canada. But I find him to be very personable, very gregarious — although sometimes he can be very private. Once you get to know him and his family, they are very engaging.” 

Despite picking up work as a pundit with HBO, the network was not always kind to him. His last fight was a clean, bloody win over Vitali Klitschko — the heir apparent — yet if you listened to the post-fight analysis you would have been forgiven for thinking that he had lost.  

Yes, he was behind on the cards, but he dogged his younger opponent out, hit him in the face and opened up cuts — it is what is known in boxing circles as a technical knockout. Despite this, the post-fight interview focused on the fact he was behind on the cards and whether he would serve up a rematch to Vitali. 

It was clear to most that this would be his last fight, he retired the following year, so it is no wonder that Lewis had an incredulous look on his face when spitting out, “Look at what I did to his face!”, by way of an explanation to people who should have known better.  

There are still boxing fans out there who argue that he “lost” because he was behind on the cards. He didn’t. The fact of the matter is that losing to Lewis is the best result on Vitali’s record. Lewis was overweight, demotivated and my heart sank when he came out that night because his legs looked leaden, yet he showed the same belief he had throughout his career.  

“That was the icing on the cake,” recalled Lazes. “The last fight after beating Tyson and Holyfield. It was his last big challenge as Klitschko was a fantastic boxer and athlete, so it was a big win for Lennox. Lennox was never given his credit when reigning as heavyweight champion. We hope this film reminds people that he was one of the greatest heavyweights of all-time. 

“I was there when he lost to Rahman. It was amazing the next day as he took us all out on safari, and he was confident and adamant that he’d reclaim his belts — and he did. No matter what adversity he’s faced, he always comes back confident and I’ve never seen him down. Look at the first Holyfield fight for that and what he was up against. He was always fighting to get the judgement despite Don King and the politics of boxing.” 

The rematch with Rahman had a backdrop of pure boxing drama. The negations seemed to change almost weekly. If they had taken place in today’s world of Twitter the boxing accountants out there would have to wear rubber pants as they would cream themselves daily, maybe hourly. 

Obviously, it was an upset win for the ages that would have prompted many to write off Lewis’s chances against Tyson. A vivid memory of the night was going to the kitchen while my housemate, a massive Tyson fan, celebrated by telling me Lewis was “Over” and playing an Oasis song (I can’t recall which one, they all sound the same). Still, and despite it happening late in Lewis’s career, I remained convinced that he would beat Rahman then do Tyson. 

Then it all really started to kick off when some of Rahman’s camp downplayed the rematch clause. It seemed that Lewis was about to be elbowed into the wilderness for a second, much more damaging, time. It seemed things couldn’t get any worse. 

Enter Don King. Or Don King and one of his classic tricks, to be precise. A promoter who defined the era of greed, King knew how to sign fighters by praying on their various weaknesses or vices. King’s way of getting to Rahman wasn’t elegant, but it certainly did the trick.  

The new champion was now the subject of a bidding war between HBO and IBF. Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post reported that offers of $14 million and $16 million were tabled. Legend has it that King met Rahman in a diner to offer life-changing money. Verified counter reports stated that King met Rahman by mistake in a New York restaurant and offered him a duffel bag full of $100 bills, which came to $500,000 when they were counted out, and a cheque for $4.5 million. Rahman was 28-years-old and had a family to support. Guess what he decided to do? 

It was also a riff on how King had got Muhammad Ali to drop a lawsuit back in the 1980s. George Kimball recalled for The Irish Times that the lawsuit was for $1.2 million. King put $50,000 into a bag, sent it to Ali’s handlers, and the legal action was dropped and the bag handed over once the deal had been signed off. 

By now, Lewis fans were all over the place. Then various outlets started to report that King was lining up neither Lewis nor Tyson, instead he wanted to offer Rahman a first defence against Brian Nielsen for about $5 million before getting either John Ruiz or Evander Holyfield. Then the lawsuits started flying about, about six of them according to Kimball. Lewis, though, trusted his team, stood firm and knocked Rahman out in spectacular fashion to regain the titles that he declared had been “On loan!” 

“That was the main drama, the tension of whether he’d get the chance to fight Rahman again,” said Lazes. “He believed he would beat him, but those around him were worried about that. Don King bought him two Land Rovers, I think, to try to sway him to sign him in the past, but Lennox never considered it. He controlled his whole career and was happy doing that. 

“In fact, the real juxtaposition between Tyson that you see in the film is that Lennox controlled his career and Tyson’s was controlled by other people. There was always that insecurity of depending on other people like Don King where Lewis always spoke for himself.” 

You can also tell when someone has looked at Lewis’s long-gestating rivalry with Tyson in retrospect as they point to the moment in 1996 when Lewis took step-aside money to facilitate Tyson’s WBA unification fight against Bruce Seldon. Lewis was the WBC’s mandatory challenger so was offered over $4 million to allow Tyson-Seldon to happen. Tyson later ditched the WBC belt and Lewis rematched McCall for it. 

The argument that this was somehow a duck on Lewis’s side is deeply flawed as Lewis had no choice at that time. King was still a formidable force, albeit fading, in boxing. I recall reading in Boxing News just how difficult it would be to make that fight at that time, and King had no intention of risking one his cash cow. Ever the pragmatist, Lewis stepped aside, retained his mandatory position and won the long-term argument. 

When they finally met in 2002, Tyson took his beating like a man and was complimentary of Lewis in the aftermath. In fact, there is a moment when he reaches across to wipe a bit of sweat away from Lewis’s cheek, almost like a parent wiping away their child’s tears. It was an oddly poignant moment, one indicative of the respect Tyson had for Lewis and maybe even a sign that he suspected he should have taken a leaf from Lewis’s book.  

“Mike did do that, yes,” said Lazes when asked about Tyson’s affection for Lewis. “When I met him and did the interview it was very interesting as Mike was very emotional and introspective about Lennox. He talked about how he loved both Lennox and Lennox’s mother, Violet, and toasted them both at a Friar’s Club Roast in 2016. He also spoke about how their careers were so intertwined, they were almost blood brothers. Lennox was always confident he would do the job.” 

It is hard to imagine how Lewis would have cut his cloth in today’s social media maelstrom. One quote that stood out for me is when someone, maybe John Ruiz, was calling for a shot against Lewis in the aftermath and Lewis was asked to respond. He told a story comparing himself to a lion resting on his perch being bombarded by flies. He concluded by saying: “When a fly is near the lion, the lion just swishes his tail.”   

“I think he always did feel like the lion in a kingdom,” said Lazes. “To this day his kids have lions painted on the walls. He has three wonderful kids, a beautiful wife, and he’s devoted his life to his family and helping underprivileged kids. He has a training camp in Jamaica that he runs to show them how to be disciplined and to focus on important thing like their education. He’s extended that camp to Canada and the US to establish his League of Champions around the world in the future. His wife Violet is also heavily involved” 

It seems that when trying to figure out Lewis, all roads run to his mother, also called Violet. She was ever-present in his camp, a vocal presence at ringside and the first person he handed his WBC title to after knocking out Rahman. He would sometimes face ridicule for this closeness. One pre-fight prediction for Lewis-Tyson was that: ‘Tyson is about to get buried in a pyramid by a mummy’s boy.’  

Well, this particular mummy’s boy achieved all he could achieve in boxing and, unlike many, walked away and stayed away just at the right time. “He’s always had the support of women, starting with Violet, who would go into camp with him to cook for him and support him,” said Lazes. “Hopefully, people now see his story and that some boxers are disciplined, behave in the right way and make their mother’s proud of them.” 

LENNOX: THE UNTOLD STORY – Available now via download and DVD.

@Terryboxing