Rarely in sports do we celebrate injuries. But at the conclusion of a modern heavyweight classic at Staples Center in Los Angeles, every boxing fan was thrilled that Kirk Johnson had injured a chest muscle two weeks out from his challenge of champ Lennox Lewis, opening the door for Vitali Klitschko.
The elder Klitschko brother, regarded as highly suspect at the time due to his injury-induced surrender against Chris Byrd three years earlier, was in fighting shape because he was slated to take on Cedric Boswell on the undercard, and a week-and-a-half before fight night, the opponent switch became official.
"It was definitely a different assignment than fighting Kirk Johnson," HBO commentator Jim Lampley recalled. "To take it within 11 days of the fight suggested Lennox's level of confidence-slash-arrogance at that point in his career. Despite his preeminence, despite his greatness, Lennox was still trying to get to a higher level of being embraced by American audiences and American media, so for him to postpone a fight in Staples Center in Los Angeles at that time wasn't an option to him; this was a showcase for him."
It wouldn't remain a showcase for long, thanks in part to Lewis' conditioning.
"My shape was, I would say, 70 percent," Lewis admitted to HBO.com. "And I only had like four days of sparring with a guy that was over 6'5". There wasn't really time to prepare for a guy with long arms."
Nevertheless, Lewis' confidence that he could handle the task on short notice was shared by most of the boxing world. That's how dominant Lewis appeared coming into the fight. Even at age 37, the Brit seemed to face no serious threats in the heavyweight division, especially after Wladimir Klitschko had been wiped out by Corrie Sanders a few months earlier. Lewis had been inactive for a career-long 377 days since knocking out Mike Tyson, and he weighed a career-high 2561/2 pounds. He was attempting to become the third-oldest heavyweight champ ever to defend the title, and yet he remained a 41/2-1 favorite at the opening bell.
Obviously, the oddsmakers underestimated Klitschko, who had everything to prove in this fight after being slaughtered by the American press for quitting against Byrd with an insurmountable lead on the scorecards.
"Believe me, it was very painful to listen to the opinion of experts after Chris Byrd fight. Nobody take me serious after that, all boxing experts tell, 'Big guy with no heart,'" Klitschko said. "Lennox think the same. So I have to show my skills against him."
Even though some viewed Lewis-Klitschko as a mismatch, it had turned into a major event, drawing 15,939 to the Staples Center. HBO utilized Bob Costas in a separate upstairs booth, a feature typically employed only for pay-per-view events.
The first round was awkward and tense, as the two giants feinted, hugged, and scored with occasional jabs. The challenger probably edged the round, but he didn't exactly have Lewis quaking in his boxing shoes or fight fans smelling an upset.
In round two, that all changed. Forty seconds in, Klitschko scored with a good right hand. Thirty seconds later, he cracked Lewis on the chin with a perfect straight right, and the champ grabbed him. Lennox flashed that self-conscious smile he would so often break out when buzzed, and Klitschko's confidence quickly grew. Lewis walked into several stiff jabs, and in the final minute, the behemoths were slugging it out, both doing damage. The L.A. crowd gasped with each thudding powerpunch, and in the final 10 seconds, it was Klitschko doing all the landing, sending Lewis stumbling back to his corner at the bell.
"This particular fight, I wasn't in there to box. I was in there to try and knock him out, because I really wanted the icing on the cake for my career," Lewis reflected, suggesting the early struggles were all part of the plan. "I didn't give him no respect, I didn't think he had the power to knock me out. I just wanted to wade through him and make him feel my power. When they say, 'Oh, he was leading on points for the first three rounds,' well, I wasn't trying to win the fight on points. I wanted to knock him out."
Little did Lewis or Klitschko know, the punch that would ultimately lead to that precise ending was coming just a few seconds into round three. Lewis landed a right hand on Klitschko's left eyelid, and his glove scraped across the Ukrainian's face in such a way that a hideous gash opened almost immediately. Klitschko wasn't discouraged-he came back with a triple jab and then a heavy right hand as he blinked the blood away-but Lewis was inspired to step up his attack as well. "[Lewis] sees the blood and he's not going to be deterred now," HBO analyst George Foreman observed.
When Klitschko returned to his corner, the cut was utterly sickening, housing two Q-tips with room to spare. A stoppage by referee Dr. Lou Moret right then and there wouldn't have been unreasonable.
"To be honest, I could feel I have cut, but when I saw the fight on video after, it look horrible!" Klitschko told HBO.com. "But in the fight, I can't see that. I did not know how horrible it was."
So Klitschko, determined to make the most of this title shot and this opportunity to prove he wasn't a quitter, soldiered on. According to CompuBox statistics, he out-threw Lewis 66-27 in the fourth round. He was winning the fight backing up and pot-shotting the champ. And he was arguably ahead four rounds to none.
In round five, however, control began to shift to Lewis. He opened the round with a right uppercut, long a staple of the Lennox Lewis offense, then landed a left hook. With Klitschko holding and tying up Lewis' left arm, the champion fired off eight consecutive right hands to the ribs. But Vitali battled back, wobbling Lewis with a series of left jabs and hooks. As he went back to his corner, however, Klitschko's left eye was a mess. Again, an argument could be made to stop the fight. But Klitschko wasn't going to surrender.
"Never I take so much punches in a fight. Never I feel so horrible after the fight," Klitschko said. "But I proved my skills against strongest man in the world. If Lennox Lewis have baseball bat, he can't knock me out. I was ready to give everything for world title to win the fight. A couple of punches was very hard, I feel that. Uppercut he was landing on my chin, I was feeling my feet coming up in the air. He took all my weight in the air with uppercut, but it doesn't work. His punches were landing, but it did not work."
Lewis kept landing in the sixth, by far his best round of the fight. A searing right uppercut 50 seconds into the round did damage, leading Klitschko to hold on - and keep holding - for about 30 seconds. With five seconds left in the round, Lewis landed another crushing uppercut on an already-wobbly Klitschko. The bell rang, and Lewis, positioned right in his own corner, collapsed heavily on the stool.
The general interpretation was that the under-conditioned Lewis was exhausted. But Lennox disputes that adamantly.
"Larry [Merchant] said, 'Oh, he's slumped on his chair!' Please. This is something I need to set straight," Lewis said. "In boxing, what you do, when it gets late in the round, you make sure that you're closest to your corner, so that when the bell rings, you get to sit down and get more rest. Your opponent has to walk all the way across the ring and then sit down. He's losing valuable time. So I did that, I jumped on the chair quick, I wasn't tired. It wasn't a situation where I slumped on my chair. That's so preposterous! I used my experience."
Whether Lewis was running low on gas or not would soon become immaterial. On the ringside doctor's advice, with Klitschko's cut only getting worse, Moret waved off the fight.
A heartbroken Klitschko angrily screamed, "No! No!" Sensing he'd won over the crowd with his gutsy effort, Klitschko, who led 58-56 on all three scorecards, started parading around the ring with his glove in the air, prompting overwhelming cheers.
Needless to say, Lewis wasn't among those who had been won over.
"Vitali's jumping around like, 'What are you stopping it for, I would have won the fight,'" Lewis said incredulously. "What are you talking about, man? Dude, you want to lose an eye?"
"I went into Vitali's dressing room after the fight," Lampley remembered, "and watched the doctor, who had been brought in to do some preliminary work before he got to the hospital for more sophisticated plastic surgery, and the doctor was shaking his head in resignation because dealing with the flesh on Vitali's eyelid was like picking up dried leaves off a pile. I mean, there was nothing connected there. And the risk that he had taken by fighting all the way to the end of the sixth with that eyelid was incalculable. He could have lost his eyeball. He could have gone blind in that eye. But he wasn't going to quit. Now that he knew what quitting is in America, and that retiring from a fight is not perceived here as an intelligent tactical decision, he was not going to quit. Which was thrilling as all hell."
Immediately after the fight, Lewis vs. Klitschko was replaced by Lewis vs. Merchant, a contentious post-fight interview in which a highly defensive Lewis engaged in a microphone tug-of-war with the HBO analyst who was some 100-plus pounds lighter and 34 years older.
"I was hanging on for dear life," Merchant recalled with a laugh. "It was amazing. I didn't think so at that moment, but later I thought it would have been funny if he would have just lifted me and the mic up to his eye level, which I think he could have."
Soon after the Staples Center crowd cleared out, the focus turned to Lewis' decision between rematch and retirement. Klitschko claims that in the ring following the fight, the champion told him he'd get an immediate rematch. But Lewis took his time thinking it over during the months that followed.
"I know for a fact that Lennox called some people during those months and asked the specific question: What would be more damaging to my legacy, to come back and fight him and lose, or retire now and not fight him again?" Lampley revealed. "The answer I knew to that question in my heart was, 'If you retire now, it's a footnote; if you come back and lose, it's tremendously damaging to your career.' And he made on that basis a decision that I think most guys would not have made. He deserves credit for the intelligence of that decision. And he gets a little better every day. He's the only heavyweight in the world who's getting better every day right now."
Even though he asked others for their input, Lewis said ultimately the decision was his, and he chose to retire as champ because he felt he had nothing left to prove.
"At my worst, I beat Vitali Klitschko," Lewis said. "I know if I would have prepared for the fight, I know I can beat him. Ten times out of 10 I can beat this guy if I train properly. And once I beat him again and come sit back on my throne, there's going to be three more challengers out there. That is the drug of the sport. Once you beat a guy, you go and sit down, three guys are calling your name. There's always another guy down the line."
So Lewis decided to call it a career with a record of 41-2-1 (32), and he did something very noble: He invited Klitschko to London to inform him of his decision personally.
"He said, 'Please, Vitali, I want to talk to you personally. Just me and you,'" Klitschko remembered. "I come to our appointment, I was very surprised, I come in the room, it was Lennox Lewis and his mom. I talk to Lennox, and this woman, his mom, scanned me with eye. And it was end of the discussion. I felt eye from his mom, and his mom doesn't want to see the second fight, Lennox against me. In my personal opinion, is not the decision of Lennox, it was the decision of his mom. I know because my wife and my mom tell me, 'Vitali, stop your career, is too much risk.' Woman always worry about their son or husband. And Lennox listen to his mom and decide not fight anymore.
"To be honest, I feel bad for all boxing audience because it's my fault that Lennox Lewis retired. If Lennox Lewis beat me easily, he would continue his career. But everybody said he have to fight the rematch against Klitschko, and he doesn't want to destroy his reputation."
Whatever you make of his retirement, Lennox left the game with his reputation quite well intact, and he became a first-ballot International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee in 2009. And in his final fight, in an odd way, he succeeded in passing the torch of heavyweight supremacy even without losing.
Based on his brave effort and competitive showing, Klitschko's popularity exploded after the Lewis loss, and his subsequent knockout wins over Kirk Johnson and Corrie Sanders gained him general recognition as the man to beat in Lewis' absence. And when Vitali temporarily retired from '05-'08, his younger brother got his career back together and rose to the top of the division.
So in a sense, Lewis passed the heavyweight torch to the Klitschkos on June 21, 2003. It wasn't the smoothest transfer of power. But at least we got a thrilling, bloody brawl out of it.