Lennox Lewis coming back to Memphis to help underserved kids become champions

MEMPHIS, Tenn. —  In June of 2002, it was billed by some boxing enthusiasts as "The Fight of the Century" or "The Rumble on the River."

Who could forget when all eyes in the boxing universe were on Memphis for the Heavyweight Championship Fight between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson at the Pyramid arena.

"We are getting old," Lennox Lewis said, laughing. "I was with Mike Tyson the other day and we were talking about the old times. I still got my speed. Anytime I go to bed and before the light goes off, I’m in bed."

The fight brought in an estimated $30 million to the city. A-list Hollywood celebrities Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio and Donald Trump were in town and boxing fans filled hotel rooms and restaurants.

Sixteen years ago, WREG had exclusive access to the Team Lewis, the boxer's training and his coverage while in Memphis.

In an exclusive video conference interview from his home in Jamaica, Lewis recently talked about his fond memories of Memphis.

"I was happy because Memphis is a special place and when I went down to Memphis, just the vibe of the people, they were very happy and very neighborly. The music aspect of it It was a real culture shock for me and it made me feel good and welcomed," Lewis said.

Of course, the fight turned out better for Lewis. After three frenetic rounds from Tyson, Lewis, known as a pugilist specialist, defeated 'Iron Mike' by knock out with a heavy right hook in the eighth round.

"So that era was a special era for Mike Tyson and me," Lewis said.

Lewis won over fans in Memphis, but outside the ring The Champ, also a devoted Chess player, showed he had the right moves and a passion for inspiring young people.

He met with and played with the Oakhaven Elementary School Chess Club.

"I thought it was important for me to play Chess with some of the kids and brighten up their day. I remember playing Chess and I wanted to share my talent. I got to see how good they were and even things I was lacking because I was forgetting about the fundamentals. It was a good experience for me playing with them," Lewis said.

Since then, Lewis has kept busy as a sports analyst and he was recently invited to the White House for the posthumous pardoning of legendary boxer Jack Johnson. Johnson's legacy was tarnished by a racially tainted criminal conviction.

Lewis sees a parallel in what many young black men face today when it comes to race in America.

"I look at him (Jack Johnson) as being the father of boxing and it was a trumped-up charge and he definitely needed to be cleared of it, and that was my purpose of going to the White House to clear his name. and give his family back his dignity. If you focus on what's happening in America when it comes to police killing our young men, and our unarmed men, what`s behind this and can we find a solution?" Lewis said.

One possible solution Lewis wants to personally explore is helping underserved young people in Memphis, a city where he cemented his legacy as a boxing champion.

"I want to come back (to Memphis). I think it's necessary for me to come back," Lewis said.

He and his wife, Violet, want to come back to inspire and create opportunities for children ages 9 through 17, here in the Bluff City, a city still struggling with issues of poverty, crime and violence.

The former undisputed world heavyweight champ believes his Lennox Lewis League of Champions Foundation could change lives here through mentoring.

"I would to come to Memphis to talk about my mentor program, the Lennox Lewis League of Champions. The kids can be short, fat, skinny, tall. Once you learn how to box, you become a lot more confident in yourself and that's what I felt growing up and it helped me put things in perspective, and part of that perspective is conflict resolution, " Lewis said.

The League of Champions Boxing Camp is already in Jamaica and in Canada.

"We’ve actually been doing it for three years in Jamaica and we are growing. We started with 20 kids and now it’s up to 120," Lewis said.

The program provides kids with more than just learning how to box, but they offer programs dealing with conflict resolution, self-esteem, career exploration. It also offers safe havens for children, academic support through homework and computer labs and warm nutritional meals.

"I wanted to give the kids an outlet to come to one of my camps and experience some mentorship and life skills and have fun doing it. The Lennox Lewis League of Champions will help them become boxers and not everybody will become a boxer, but when they come to the camp, they'll learn some type of life lesson that will help them in the future," Lewis said.

Lewis believes the League of Champions would be a knockout for Memphis, a city where he became a champion and one where he wants to inspire young people just like the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali, once inspired him.

"Memphis, we are coming! We are coming with the Lennox Lewis League of Champions and it`s going to be great mentor program and we want everybody involved," Lewis said.

Lewis said he would like to possibly visit Memphis during the upcoming months and meet with city and business leaders.