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NEW BOXING year, same old boxing stories in the heavyweight division.

You know the ones: this will be my last year, I will have three fights, new saviour found, deal being discussed, I’m invisible, nobody wants to fight me, I’m coming back, contract sent. And on it goes.

It is close to the same just about every year. It was a bit different under the rule and reign and pride of Lennox Lewis and this year is the 20th anniversary of his last fight. At first I typed 10th, honest. It is a blur of years.

The great Hugh McIllvanney swore that Big Lennox would only have the respect when he left the game, the ring, the politics and the sport. Hughie was nearly right, obviously.

The names Lewis left in heaps form the true measure of his fighting legacy. He left them in a high tower of pain as they stumbled, wobbled, fell, quit, danced on jelly legs and collapsed in blood and defeat. Some had less respect for him than the fans and media. How we gloated when Ray Mercer went the full ten. My phone buzzed at about 8am: “Exposed, he’s been exposed. I told you,” one very prominent British boxing figure gloated.

The Mercer brawl made him. Real fights, not the he-said-he-said waffle, tend to do that. Only hard fights can make hard boxers.

At the time, it was too easy – and, hands up, lazy – to be critical of Lewis for not fighting Riddick Bowe. And critical for not engaging David Tua. And critical for not putting Evander Holyfield away in the second fight. And critical for losing twice – how dare he! You get the idea, it was easy to knock a man we only saw at fight time.

Lewis fought and beat 13 heavyweight ‘world champions’. Nobody does that and nobody will ever do that. He also beat a leading, ranked and dangerous list of men. It is easy to dismiss them as they rocked and tumbled or, like Tua, hit thin air for 36 minutes. Muhammad Ali met 10 world heavyweight champions; Wladimir Klitschko beat 12 and met 15, but I’m being very kind with the types of belts held by the men that Wlad met.

Lewis did Mike Weaver in the sixth and Tommy Morrison in the sixth. Veterans or threats went the same way. He ruined Shannon Briggs in an old-fashioned shootout in the fifth. He did the same to break Andrew Golota’s head and heart in the first. They were fearless fights. Some even gave unbeaten Michael Grant a real shout; Lewis screamed “Timber” in round two. The thud of 31-and-zero Grant landing shook the Garden. Grant was done, Lewis was cold. Grant incidentally became a hyped-up bum as he fell to earth. Funny, that happened a lot with Lewis. You know the rule for critics: He’s too old, he was overrated. It was the reverse when Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman landed.

And, damn it, he beat Frank Bruno at midnight. And he posed with a tiny lamb, draped in a Union flag and dared to smile. And after each major fight, he vanished and we were left with very little to grab. And then, as the extraordinary fights mounted, there was a switch flicked; Lennox was very good.

At the end, in the final fights, he was starting to ache in places he had not even known about. The wins continued without old-fashioned paper talk about retirement. The men closest to him saw the signs and knew they were fighting on borrowed time. Lewis walked in style.

The last three wins are a wonderful reminder: Rahman revenge in the fourth, Mike Tyson finally in the eighth and Vitali Klitschko in the sixth. Then, goodnight. He vanished and appeared eight months later to make his mother cry with joy when, in a hotel in Park Lane in 2004, he retired with the type of dignity he might just have packed away in his bag when he left the old game. Bosh.

Hughie had nearly been right.

In retirement, he did finally became the regal figure he is now. There is nobody in this current heavyweight stew with the same righteous mix of achievement and genuine humility. He lost two bad fights, got his calculations wildly wrong and got hurt. And don’t forget that twice he was at the centre of vicious scraps away from the ring with opponents. His decency had a limit; cross it and there would be blood. There was nothing fake about Lewis and I doubt he ever threatened a man with an insult without letting his fists go; in other words, he never threatened a man. The Rahman brawl in a television studio is an example. He was insulted, he issued a warning and then he let his fists go. That is it.

In the boxing business at any level, it is not just about ability – the jab, the chin, the heart. It takes a lot more than the thin demands of modern boxing, a theatre where the best are placed on pedestals too soon and occupy that hallowed piece of turf with a glitzy pomp that we devour. How we love image now.

It really does take a lot more and being a great heavyweight requires several other ingredients. They are rare, hard to identify easily and often only show at extreme moments. Decency is in there somewhere.

Lennox Lewis had so many of those moments on Saturday nights of joy. Please, stop asking questions about what he would have done against the modern beasts and giants. Just stop, thanks.

In retirement, Lewis talked about his journey. The setbacks, bad defeats, waiting for fights, criticism and glory. That, you see, is the path. It is the boxing journey and he knew that there is always another Saturday night.

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