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7.03.2009

Versus X

Yes, issue ten of Versus is finally done...only a year since the last one! The magazine will now be published on a bi-monthly basis, all with fantastic covers from the generous Dave Sim. Issue eleven and twelve are almost finished, so 2009 is pretty much done. Below, you can read an excerpt from Dave Fisher's interview with hometown hero Lennox Lewis who was recently inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. To read the whole thing, you'll have to find a copy in Waterloo! Distribution has just started and you can find it most places downtown. Kitchener and Guelph to follow. Eventually you'll be able to order back issues direct via paypal, probably with a signed glossy print of Sim's cover. Check back for details! Next issue will be first Friday in September and the issue after that will be the first Friday in November. And now, part one of Dave's interview with the Legendary Lennox Lewis:

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The bell rings, and Lennox Lewis has me onto the ropes. I’ve got him on the phone at his home in Miami Beach, and he’s exasperated, telling me nobody informed him about our interview, and that he’s headed out the door for an urgent appointment.

An awkward pause of silence ensues while I process my crossed wires. The Champ follows up by bellowing a giant’s laugh, and assures me he’s yanking me around. “How’re things in K-Dub?” he asks excitedly.

The former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world can allow himself the luxury of practical jokes. He’s earned it. He got out of the game having cleaned out the heavyweight division with the belts in his grasp, with his bank coffers stuffed and his brain cells intact. Just the way he planned it. Besides, if he’s proved anything the past two decades, it’s that he’s not Sonny Liston. He enjoys having a good laugh, whether it’s getting in the first, the second, or especially, the last.

Lewis is aware of a delicious irony that sees many in the boxing public, who initially failed to appreciate his championship quality during a long reign as title-holder during his prime, now believe he’s still the best heavyweight in the world, despite being in his mid-40s and not having competed in the ring for more than six years.

Lewis proved the cynics and naysayers all wrong. He won everything his sport had to offer. This past month, he was enshrined into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY, elected in his first year of eligibility. The induction was a no-brainer. His talents and skills speak for themselves. So too the respect and dignity he brought to his sport.

Anticipating the announcement of Lewis’s election to the Hall, the editorial board at Versus was naturally eager to speak with the Champ and trace his career arc as a boxer, from hometown teenage hero who learned to box under the tutelage of local legend Arnie Boehm, to his retirement as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. We always remembered how in moments of euphoric triumph at the height of his greatest victories, Lewis rarely forgot to shout out at the world, “Big Ups, Kitchenah-Water-Loooo!!” So in the spirit of a tribute to a hometown kid who grew up to do something really, really special, we were delighted that Lennox consented to share some of his reflections with us.

Lewis’ road to Olympic gold and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world is a tale of triumph, redemption and vindication. Nobody saw that coming 25 years ago, of course, but then nobody quite knew what to make of the tall, skinny kid everybody called “Junior” back then. He was a polite and well-mannered Mama’s Boy who slugged it out in a sport of brutes. When he began to assume a public profile, the mythmakers found it tricky to make sense of his confusing identity and awkward narrative. He was a Canadian, and he was a Brit. Oh, and for good measure, a Jamaican, too. To skeptical outsiders, it seemed like the line delivered by Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time in the West. “How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.” The truth is Lewis was his own man, and identified with all three. The mythmakers, wanting to spoon-feed their narratives into easily digestible bite-sized chunks on deadline, were mostly perplexed. From the mean streets of where, exactly?

Lennox Lewis was born September 2, 1965 and raised in a working class neighborhood in West Ham, London, England. He possessed Jamaican parentage on both sides. His mother Violet, the backbone of his life, moved to England as a young woman seeking a better life. Wages were hard to come by and, unmarried she bore two children. The first, Dennis, was older by several years and would live with his younger brother when Lennox was a toddler, before relocating to live with his separated father. Lennox was fathered by a different man who was not nearly as engaged in the boy’s life. Lennox met his father on a few rare occasions, but he never really knew the man nor shared a relationship with him.

Facing emotional turmoil and financial hardship in England, Violet moved to Chicago and left Lennox in the care of “Aunt Gee” in London. The employment in Chicago did not materialize and Violet returned to England where she was quickly given a tip that would forever change their lives. She was told there was a job waiting for her in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

While it is commonly known that Lennox made a permanent move to Kitchener when he was twelve years old, Lennox actually accompanied his mother to K-W five years earlier, when he was seven. The original intention was for him to stay here permanently, but he spent only six months, including a full winter. Hard as it seems to believe, the temporary residence left an indelible impression upon the boy that borders on the exotic.

“Yeah, I liked Kitchener a lot,” he tells me. “But I didn’t really think of it so much as Kitchener, as I thought, y’know, it was Canada, because that’s what Canada was to me. It was actually the first place I’d seen snow and saw things like toboggans and hockey, which I never even knew was a sport, and I loved discovering fun things like that. It was new and pretty exciting, and to me it was Canada, it was where my mother lived.”

Fatefully, Violet could not sustain the two of them on her meager wages, so the boy was returned to the care of his great-aunt in England until something could be worked out down that road. That road would be long and painful.

The seven year old Lewis who returned to England is recalled as a rambunctious child. His mother claimed he’d “been punching since he was a toddler,” and biographical accounts of his lengthy separation describe the young boy as an archetypal “feral child” and “disturbed...with a wild temper...increasingly difficult to control.” Aunt Gee was aging and in no capacity to harness the boy, so in consultation with Violet a decision was made for him to reside in British boarding schools/reformatories where he would bounce around for the next five years.

English boarding schools sound like shitholes, evoking images of a hierarchal bully-boy discipline found in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, or worse, Dickens. Lewis retains only the vaguest of memories of his orphaned years attending boarding school in England, and one presumes they are not happy ones. His earliest girlfriend in Kitchener, Bernita Drenth, has told biographers that Lennox was private and reluctant to talk about those years and deduced they were traumatic. An enigma as a professional boxer, he seems to have been equally so as a young boy.

With the help of a social worker, the twelve-year-old left behind England and flew to reunite with his mother in Kitchener after five years separation. If his new hometown was only slightly less glamorous and exciting than the pulsating hustle-bustle of his birthplace, Lewis tells me the lifestyle and culture shock was an exchange he was more than happy to make.

Violet was employed at the Morval Durafoam plant on Shirley Ave., and the pair lived in a humble two-bedroom at the Sunrise Apartments on Lancaster Street West, near Hill Street. It was living there and attending Elizabeth Ziegler Public School that he met a new best friend, Andy Powis, after a schoolyard scuffle, and began discovering and reinventing himself.

Lewis tells me he tried his hand at sports at boarding school in England – “a couple things: soccer, archery, snooker, I even laced on some gloves and hit a bag. Although at that time it wasn’t organized, it was just their way of getting hyper kids to get rid of energy.” Aside from those recreational activities, Lewis says he never possessed any athletic dreams or aspirations. “No, never,” he insists. “Not until public school in Kitchener.”

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