Sunday, May 21, 2017

Willie Lewis Remembered…Boxer Extraordinaire

By Peter Silkov

Willie Lewis was the kind of boxer who died out with boxing’s golden age. He belonged to a time when fighters thought nothing of fighting every other week, and when the opponents were plentiful to do just that. It was a time when there were often boxing shows to be found in some club or other venue every day of the week, and only the toughest and hardest working survived what was often a hard and cruel occupation.

In an interview with 'The Ring' magazine in 1947, over 30 years after he had retired, Lewis compared the fighters of 1947 with his those of own era.

Boxing was a tough and hard-bitten business in those days, and a fighter had to know his trade if he expected to get anywhere. He had to learn what boxing really was, and he also had to know how to adjust his style to any occasion. One week he’d be fighting a 6 rounder in Philadelphia. A couple of weeks later he’s be in a marathon brawl in California, where twenty and twenty-five rounders were the usual thing, and often championship bouts were over the forty–five round route.”

Lewis continued “It was a tough schooling, but it paid dividends for those who survived. Under the same circumstances, the kids today would be as good as they were in my day. But times are different. This is an era of speed. Everybody’s in a hurry. So the fighters don’t get much of a chance to properly learn boxing, how to feint, shift, counter, and really master the trade. The public demands ‘action’ the slam-bang and give-and-take stuff. And its only on rare occasions, in championship bouts, that fighters today are asked to go more than 10 rounds."

Willie Lewis was born on May 21, 1884, in New York, and began his professional boxing career in 1901, at the age of 17. Lewis would develop into a clever and cagey boxer who could also slug it out when he wanted. Although no more than a middleweight, he often fought bigger men throughout his career, thinking nothing of giving away 20 or more pounds to light heavyweights, and even heavyweights.

Lewis certainly didn’t have an easy road in his fighting career, as he fought quality fighters right from the start. In just his 13th contest, Lewis shared the ring with a young Sam Langford, and was knocked out in the 2nd round.

For the remainder of his career, Lewis would meet some of the very fighters of his generation. Men such as, Harry Lewis, Jimmy Gardner, Joe Gans, Honey Melody, Mike Donovon, Curly Watson, Jewey Smith, Sailor Burke, Billy Papke, Stanley Ketchel, Dixie Kid, Frank Klaus, Cyclone Johnny Thompson, Jeff Smith, Mike Gibbons, Paddy Lavin, Georges Carpentier, Al McCoy, and Young Ahearn.

In an era where many white fighters drew the ‘colour bar’ when it suited them Lewis fought anyone, regardless of weight, colour or reputation.

Lewis was to become renowned for his use of the one-two, a straight left, followed very quickly by a straight right, so that the two punches landed almost simultaneously. Many of Lewis’ knockout victims where accounted for by this method.

During his career Lewis fought all over America, but also traveled to England, Canada and France for fights. He fought in France for the first time in 1908, and soon because a favourite with the French fans, due to his personality and style, both in and out of the ring. Lewis was one of the boxers who helped the boxing boom grow in France during this time.

Years after he had retired from the sport, Lewis was asked who was the best boxer he had ever fought, chose his namesake Harry Lewis.

No we weren’t related. Harry was Jewish, and one of the most skilled mechanics I ve ever seen in the ring. What he didn’t know about boxing wasn’t worth knowing. Just look over his record some day , and you’re get an idea. He specialized in knocking out guys who never were knocked out before. Harry was an artist in feinting and countering. His punches only went a few inches, but, boy, what authority they carried. Frankly I don’t know how I did as well as I did with him. He usually belted my ears off in the early rounds, but somehow I seemed to outlast him and finish the stronger. We fought half a dozen times, but never could seem to settle our differences. Two of our scraps over the 25-round route in Paris."

The two fights Willie is recalling here are his two battles with Harry Lewis for the World welterweight title, which his namesake had claimed. They took place on February 19, 1910, then two months later on April 21, both in Paris over 25 rounds. Each fight saw Harry Lewis have the early lead, but Willie whittled his advantage down, the longer that the fight went on. In the end, both fights were judged draws. Willie Lewis would never manage to capture a world title, but he came awfully close.

Lewis finally retired from boxing in 1915, after being knocked out in 2 rounds by Young Ahearn in Havana, Cuba. He retired with a final record of (56-16-8, 39koes.)

In 1920, Lewis survived being shot 3 times while making a phone call at a cabaret, which he owned. Throughout his career, he trained Joe Jeanette, and other boxers along the way. In later years Lewis worked as a bar tender at a tavern on 8th avenue New York, just a little walk from Madison Square Garden. Willie Lewis died on May 18, 1949, aged 64.

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