Lennox Lewis is widely regarded as the last undisputed heavyweight champion by virtue of beating Evander Holyfield in 1999. It’s certainly true if one applies the dictionary definition to ‘undisputed’ – nobody disputed that Lewis was the best, after all. 

However, boxing is boxing and in boxing, particularly in this ‘four-belt era’ that is celebrated when it should instead be castrated, one needs to win all four belts to be regarded as ‘undisputed’. Lewis, who held the WBC, WBA and IBF titles, never did that.

Lewis rightly ignored the WBO title while he was active. It’s worth remembering that Holyfield also chose not to fight for that belt at a similar time out of concern it would affect his ranking with the other three more established bodies. Think about it some more: When reeling off world heavyweight champions of the past does anyone ever mention (with a straight face) Francesco Damiani or Henry Akinwande? When discussing great world heavyweight title fights why does the humdinger between Michael Moorer and Bert Cooper never make the list? Simply, the WBO wasn’t accepted as a legitimate sanctioning body back then, particularly at heavyweight.

The decades of chaos caused by conflicting rankings and don’t-get-wet-or-feed-after-midnight belts will allow the marketeers to spin the fact that Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk will be the first fight in heavyweight history in which all four straps are up for grabs even if, by doing so, the truth that undisputed champions existed long before the four-belt era is conveniently forgotten. That we haven’t had one heavyweight champion who was universally recognised as such since Lewis retired – TWENTY years ago – should be plainly ludicrous.

“Absolutely,” Lewis says when asked whether the four belts have proved something of a hindrance to the four-belt era. “To me it is all about money. I understand it is business but, tell the truth, don’t put the façade in there, wipe it away and tell the truth. Tell it how it really is.

We shouldn’t be surprised [it’s taken so long for an undisputed fight] because, you know, when you put all the belts together a lot of the promoters don’t like that because all the belts are in one place and they don’t get to bring their guy around to make money. For them, it is better that [the belts are] split up. For the organisations, they don’t want that either. They want to be able to move around. The only ones who want undisputed are the guys who are boxing for it and working towards it.” 

Regardless, even if announcements about how long it’s taken to get to this point should stick in the throat somewhat, we’re right to be excited that the all-conquering fight is at last upon us. Because for a while back there – as two Klitschko brothers ruled concurrently thus vetoing any hope of one king and fights like Anthony Joshua-Deontay Wilder and then Fury-Joshua failed to materialize – it felt like it would never happen. For boxing to truly thrive, one recognizable world heavyweight champion is a must. 

“I think everyone wants to be No. 1 and we have had a bunch of guys trying to be No. 1,” Lewis says. “Now we have two undefeated guys and now they have to face each other. When you box there can only be one champion – and we will see who is the champion.”

Even though Lewis finished his career as that champion and is today rightly lauded as one of the greatest heavyweights in history, there was a time when certain commentators were both unconvinced and unimpressed. Ultimately, though it stung at the time, the criticism made him stronger – as did the addition of legendary trainer and then-HBO analyst, Emanuel Steward.

“That was frustrating, really frustrating,” Lewis remembers of his early failure to impress the HBO pundits. “What I learned from that was a lot of the commentators were like, ‘He’s not jabbing enough, he doesn’t have the killer instinct’ but it all changed when I got Emanuel [Steward] in my corner. 

“All the HBO commentators started saying, ‘Oh he’s doing well, his jab is good’. Manny and the commentators would talk and ask, ‘What do you think of his jab? It’s not working’ and Manny would say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s coming’. I aimed to do that in each fight. Improve. 

“Even George Foreman helped me do that. I’m listening to everything he said. He said, ‘He should step into his jab’ and I listened to him and went back in the gym and started [practising] it. I wanted to improve my jab, I wanted them to say, ‘This guy has got a great jab’ and not, ‘He doesn’t throw his jab enough’.” 

Today, at the age of 58 and still at complete ease in his own skin, Lewis is a picture of contentment and rightly proud of his career. And though he’s acutely aware that the length of time between him walking away and a new king being crowned is laughable there’s also obvious amusement that, because of all the tomfoolery, he left behind the biggest hole the heavyweight division has ever encountered. In turn, with his legacy long since secure, he is “delighted” that on May 18, he will at last be released from duty.

“I’ve been the undisputed champion for 25 years,” Lennox chuckles. “Now I challenge the [new] heavyweight [champion] to hold his Lennox Lewis Is ‘Delighted’ That His 25-Year Reign Is About To End for the length of time I did.”

With the IBF reportedly poised to strip either Usyk or Fury should they fail to immediately take on Filip Hrgovic, don’t rule it out.

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