The world of boxing is dominated by loud, braggadocious personalities. Figures like Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson and, of course, Muhammad Ali became as famous for their personal journeys as they were for their pugilism. But while much is known about those names, we know less about Lennox Lewis, despite the British heavyweight champion having a legacy that matches and, in some cases, eclipses his contemporaries.
Lennox: The Untold Story is an attempt to address that, and while the narrative may not be impartial, the story is compelling.
Told through archive footage and talking head interviews, we meet the young Lennox Lewis, a boy born in London with Jamaican heritage, who finds his feet in Canada when he moves out to live with his mother. Rising through the ranks of the youth and amateur boxing scene, he became a leading player in the booming 1990s heavyweight division that included the likes of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Frank Bruno.
What he achieved is remarkable – winning an Olympic Gold Medal in 1988, before dominating the world of boxing to become the first British Undisputed Heavyweight Champion in a century, and the last heavyweight boxer to achieve that feat. The film paints a picture of a man driven by a singular focus to be the best, the self-proclaimed Pugilist Specialist who views his opponents as a “Maths Problem”. While almost everyone interviewed was either employed or in some way tied to Lewis, the bias is less evident when his achievements are so, well, undisputed.
Most interesting is Lewis’ arch-nemesis: not another fighter, but public perception. Lewis wasn’t a street fighter like Tyson, or an evangelical warrior like Holyfield. He plays chess, thinks deeply, and walks to the ring to the strains of Bob Marley. He is, as narrator Dr. Dre puts it, “mysteriously different”. Of course, this is a kind of way of saying he didn’t have the personality of many of peers, and simply being excellent at what you do doesn’t always sell pay-per-views.
This is Lewis’ documentary, however, and so any shortcomings are immediately spun into something positive. He is on a hero’s journey, spurning the temptations of promoters like Don King and staying true to himself in the face of a public that would prefer an American champion. Dubious decisions in a loss to Oliver McCall and a draw with Evander Holyfield are presented as travesties of justice, but ultimately only hurdles for this zen hero to overcome. Less focused is the complacency that led to his knockout loss to Hasim Rachman, or the refusals to fight mandatory challengers that saw him stripped of titles in 2000 and 2002.
Like many sporting greats, Lewis’ legacy is a business in and of itself, and as such this documentary leans into hagiography. Even events that do not particularly concern him are a chance for praise. Kellie Maloney, who lived as Frank when she worked as Lewis’ promoter, opens up about being transgender and struggling during his period as champion. While it is to his credit that Lewis publicly supported her when she came out publicly in 2014, the film handles her identity clumsily, describing her ominously as “a man with a deep secret”, before shifting focus onto Lewis’ benevolence.
One examination that does seem balanced is the comparison with Tyson. We hear an argument that the two men were from similar in backgrounds, and that Tyson’s path diverged through unscrupulous management and poor decisions. It’s an interesting parallel, and Tyson himself is generous toward the man he fought for the title in 2002.
Lennox: The Untold Story isn’t the first documentary to take a rose-tinted view of its subject. 2015’s Gascoigne glossed over the footballer’s demons, while 2014’s I Am Ali was almost religious in its reverence of the boxing icon. That said, it’s a testament to Lewis’ career that a sympathetic telling of his journey stays close to the truth, and boxing enthusiasts will revel in this story of a fighter who side-stepped the pitfalls on his way to greatness.
Lennox: The Untold Story is available On Demand from 13th November, then on DVD and digital platforms from 16th November.