Sunday, April 19, 2015

John Henry Lewis: The First Black American to win the World Light Heavyweight Championship

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By Peter Silkov

John Henry Lewis was an extremely talented boxer who could have been one of the all-time greats if fate had been kinder to him. Indeed, there are those who consider John Henry to have been one of the outstanding champions at his weight, despite his severely curtailed boxing career. 

Born on May 1, 1914, in Los Angeles, California, Lewis turned professional in 1930, at the age of 16 years old. Despite his youth he could fight, and just two years after turning professional, he was fighting main events. Lewis was a boxer-puncher, more in the stand up English mould, rather than the more stereotypical aggressive American brawling style. John Henry had it all, he could box and he could punch, had good speed and durability, along with an excellent boxing brain, and ring ‘smarts.‘  In many ways Lewis was a prodigy, fighting at a world class level almost from the start of his professional career. 

Standing 5’ feet 11” inches, Lewis started his career as a middleweight, but soon blossomed into a light heavyweight. As he progressed, Lewis would often fight full-fledged heavyweights as well as light heavyweights, regularly giving away 30 or more pounds. Lewis’s record reads like a who’s who of the top names of the 1930s, with him fighting men such as, Jim Braddock, Maxie Rosenbloom, Fred Lenhart, Tony Shucco, Bob Olin, Tiger Jack Fox, Jock McAvoy, Izzy Singer, Bob Goodwin, Al Gainer, Len Harvey, Al Ettore, Johnny Risko, and Elmer “Violent” Ray.

Lewis’s career was touched by tragedy early when opponent Sam Terrain died after being knocked out by Lewis in the 4th round on March 11, 1931. John Henry was a very religious man and Terrain’s death troubled him deeply, and for a time, made him question if he should carry on boxing, but boxing was what he was good at, and was his chance of a better life. So he fought on. By 1932, John Henry was a ranked contender for the world light heavyweight title. In July 1933, he underlined his status by twice out-pointing the reigning world light-heavyweight champion Maxie Rosenbloom in non-title fights. The clever and slick “Slapsie Maxie” had out-pointed Lewis in 1932 in another non-title affair, but the much young, and much less experienced, Lewis was learning fast.

Despite these wins over the reigning world champion, John Henry would have to wait over two years before finally getting a shot at the World light-heavyweight title.  Although taking into account the attitudes of the time to coloured fighters, Lewis could be classed as being lucky to receive a title shot at all. On October 31, 1935, he became the first black American to win the World light-heavyweight champion, after easily out-pointing Bob Olin (who had taken the world crown from Maxie Rosenbloom) over 15 rounds.

Lewis would be a busy champion. During a reign, which would last until his retirement in 1939, he would defend the world title five times, winning all five, but he also engaged in many non-title bouts, the vast majority of them against some of the top heavyweights in the world.  In 1936 and 1937, Lewis fought a total of 20 times each year, winning 36 against two defeats and two draws. The defeats were both avenged within a couple of months. In 1938, John Henry had 12 fights and won them all. Included in these fights were two successful defences of his World light-heavyweight title. At the comparatively young age of 24, John Henry Lewis seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, and seemed destined to be World light heavyweight champion for some time to come. However, Lewis was harbouring a dark secret. For some time he had been losing the sight in his left eye, and by 1938, despite his ring form still being impressive, Lewis was practically half-blind.

On January 25, 1939, Lewis was given a shot at Joe Louis World heavyweight title. It is said that Louis, who was good friends with John Henry, was aware of his affliction, and arranged for Lewis to have a shot at his title in order that he could collect a career high payday of 15,000 dollars. Louis also made sure that his friend didn’t suffer unnecessarily in their fight, ending the contest clinically in the first round. It was to be the only defeat inside the distance of Lewis’s career.
After the Louis defeat, arrangements were made for Lewis to travel again to London and defend his light heavyweight title again, in a rematch with Len Harvey. The match fell through when doctors from the British Boxing Board of Control became aware of John Henry’s failing sight, and the fight was vetoed. Having reached the point where he could no longer get by the medical examiners John Henry Lewis announced his retirement in June 1939, retiring as undefeated light-heavyweight champion of the world, aged just 25.

Lewis retired with a final record 103(64koes)-8-5.

If not for his eyesight problems it is likely that John Henry Lewis would have remained World light heavyweight champion for a considerable time. He would have made a much bigger mark upon boxing history. As it is, Lewis’s career and record as world champion shows that he was an outstanding fighter and champion, who had his chance of reaching his full potential cruelly taken away by blindness.

 Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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