Remember when? ... Lewis and Klitschko went to war
Vitali Klitschko’s famous brawl with Lennox Lewis was a savage spectacle. Its sheer brutality exposed human emotions in their rawest form. Six pulsating rounds of fury forced Klitschko beyond the realms of comfort and changed the Ukrainian forever... In his Boxing Monthly debut, Epsom-based boxer Daniel Morley re-examines a classic heavyweight showdown...
Los Angeles, 21 June 2003.
Talented Canadian heavyweight Kirk Johnson was due to be given a second chance at fighting for a heavyweight title.
First time around was against John Ruiz 12 months prior, a showdown which finished with a disqualification loss for the Halifax favourite.
Johnson's shot at redemption against universally recognised heavyweight king Lennox Lewis would never arrive though - three weeks before fight night he was pulled out due to a chest muscle injury sustained during training.
To save the Staples Center promotion in stepped Ukraine’s Vitali Klitschko, originally scheduled to fight Cedric Boswell on the undercard. (Incidentally, Vitali would knock Johnson out in two rounds later the same year).
Vitali's younger brother Wladimir had lost his world strap three months earlier, after a shock defeat against the late Corrie Sanders. The Lewis showdown was a chance for a Klitschko to keep the family name in world honours. The Ukrainian was paid a handsome purse of $1,500,000, whilst Lewis was looking at five times that sum. Klitschko was himself a former WBO world heavyweight champion, who had defeated Britain’s very own Herbie Hide four years earlier, but was now the holder of the lightly regarded WBA Intercontinental strap.
Aside from a sole defeat to Chris Byrd in 2000, Klitschko had an otherwise unblemished record. Since that loss, he had claimed five victories and was gaining momentum in his comeback, but the demons of defeat still haunted him. His loss to Byrd just three years earlier was not down to a gap in class nor due to a hellacious beating - in fact Klitschko was the bookies' favourite and predominantly controlled his sturdy challenger throughout the nine completed rounds.
Rather, the reverse seemed to be the product of a lack of heart by Klitschko, who sacrificed both his undefeated record and the WBO title by retiring on his stool with a shoulder injury while ahead on points, much to the shock of everyone ringside. Experts deemed him a coward, while HBO's Larry Merchant openly stated that "He doesn't have the mentality of a champion".
It would later be revealed that Klitschko was suffering with a torn rotator cuff and could no longer deal with the pain.
However, it was too late. His reputation was tarnished and critics expected his heart to similarly crumble when faced with the daunting form of Lennox Lewis.
These taunts, however, had ignited a fire inside Klitschko.
The talking was over, contracts were signed and both fighters warmed their body for battle. White silky interior of the notorious black robe cloaked Klitshcko's mountainous frame, the ghastly silence in the dressing room only amplified the doubts in his mind. With a shake of the head the doubts were banished and the seconds dragged unbearably until finally the time of reckoning dawned - time to make the ring walk.
Klitschko gallantly marched to the ring with both shoulders proudly pinned back, his stocky chest bare and a burning intensity in his eyes.
Lewis swiftly followed, possessing the confidence that had brought him to the very pinnacle of the sport. With the Ukrainian standing two inches taller than the 6' 5" Lewis, the giants met in the centre of the ring for the referee's final instructions, as the 16,000 strong crowd sat in anticipation. The general consensus was that Lewis would brutally demolish Klitschko.
However, Klitschko shocked his critics, standing toe to toe with his formidable foe, unleashing spiteful combinations and hurting the champion. The onslaught Lewis retaliated with was both gruesome and punishing. Cuts gushed blood over Klitschko’s eyes and bruises became puffy. Astonishingly he overcame the adversity and began to build a lead on the cards in a display of bravery which had the crowd now throwing their loyalty his way.
The bell chimed for round six, 55 seconds of this stanza had passed when Lewis detonated an explosive uppercut upon Klitschko’s chin, a spitting-image of the shot he obliterated Michael Grant with three years earlier.
Vitali instinctively grasped on to Lennox for dear life but once again showed astonishing resistance, before amazingly retaliating by hurling battering combinations at Lewis. It became apparent that Klitschko was not succumbing to his pain on this occasion. The bell ended round six, the ringside doctors assessed Klitschko and made the infamous decision to stop the bout. The gash over his eye was far too horrifying and permanent blindness was a serious risk had it received more damage.
Frustrated and furious Klitschko debated the decision, waving his arms around frantically yelling "no!" but the fight was waved off.
Once again Klitschko had been stopped. This time there were no jeers. The crowd cheered and experts applauded his courage. All negative remarks were revoked and respect replaced the criticism that had burdened Klitschko for years.
Those in attendance that night had not just witnessed a classic fight, but the resurgence of a broken man.
Klitschko lost the fight that night and the cuts he had sustained required sixty stitches.
But this meant nothing to him as he'd won a much greater battle. In confronting his fears head on he was able to eliminate all of his demons. An albatross was removed from around his neck and the resurrection of Vitali Klitschko could begin.
As for Lewis, many argue the fight acted as a wake-up call to the champion who wisely retired after the bout, boasting a record of 41-2-1 (32KOs), including victories over legends such as Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. Even more wisely, Lewis resisted all attempts thereafter to lure him back in the ring.
Klitschko would continue to fight for nine more years - albeit with a near four-year absence from the ring - in a dominant reign that would eventually see his record reach an impressive 45-2 with 41 knockouts. He avenged his younger brother Wladimir's defeat, destroying Corrie Sanders in April 2004 to claim the prestigious WBC heavyweight title, which he defended in all eleven times. When Wladimir defeated David Haye in July 2011, the Klitschko brothers held all four heavyweight belts between them - the first siblings to achieve such a feat.
Vitali's swansong came in September 2012 when he dismantled brave challenger Manuel Charr before joining the short list of boxers who retired as a heavyweight champion - a prestigious roll call that also includes Rocky Marciano, Gene Tunney and, of course, Klitschko's old foe Lennox Lewis.
Vitali had no intention of enjoying a comfortable, early retirement though - instead he branched out into the challenge of politics, becoming Mayor of Kiev during some of the town's most troubled times.
Klitschko's achievements in and outside the ring speak volumes for his courage and willpower. However, no opponent or challenge could ever match the ferocity of his battle with his own mental demons - after conquering those, his mindset became invincible.