• Rewind to 2003

Klitschko gives Lewis fright of his life

Tom Walker
June 30, 2011

The waiting is almost over and, with the appetite suitably whetted, the need for talking has been and gone. It's time to walk the walk.

Fights don't come much bigger than this. After two years of negotiating, goading, insults, mind games and politics, 57,000 people at the Imtech Arena in Hamburg, and millions around the world, will finally bear witness to David Haye's defining moment - when his long-awaited showdown against Wladimir Klitschko takes centre stage on Saturday night.

Britain's Haye, the WBA heavyweight champion, is a man on a mission - to seal his legacy by unifying the division by claiming Klitschko's WBO and IBF belts before hanging up his gloves in October.

With so much on the line the stakes couldn't be higher, for either man. Two heavyweights, one a Brit and the other a Ukrainian, going toe to toe for the right to call themselves the undisputed world heavyweight champion.

Sound familiar?

There's an element of deja-vu about this match-up. In June 2003, Britain's Lennox Lewis put his WBC strap on the line against Wladimir's elder brother, Vitali, at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles and, although he prevailed, the controversy that surrounded Lewis' victory has continued to irk the Klitschkos in the eight years since.

The bout was seen as a contest between a dominant champion (Lewis) and a legitimate contender, which offers some similarities with Saturday's clash - when the far more proven Wladimir will take on the less experienced, but genuine contender, Haye.

The mega-fight was originally pencilled in for the winter, leaving both camps plenty of time to sell the clash and generate as much interest as possible. A massive pay-per-view event was on the cards but politics took over and the fight was put together with less than two weeks of promotion.

After a rematch with Mike Tyson fell through, Lewis scheduled a fight with Kirk Johnson for the less-recognised IBO belt for June 21. However, the Canadian suffered an injury in training and was forced to pull out just two weeks before fight night - leaving a stranded Lewis without an opponent.

Klitschko, the mandatory contender for Lewis' WBC title who had been on the undercard of the Johnson fight, stepped into the breach but, by agreeing to face the Ukrainian at such short notice, there was a danger Lewis was not taking the confident 31-year-old seriously enough.

And so it nearly proved. Lewis came into the fight heavier than he had ever been before and his lack of conditioning soon became apparent. The Brit was manhandled in the opening rounds, dominated by his younger, fresher, opponent. Blowing as early as the second round, Lewis was rocked by several Klitschko right hands and, momentarily, an upset looked on the cards.

Lewis improved in the third, however, and was given a huge lift when a deep cut opened above Klitschko's left eye. With the challenger's vision severely impaired, Lewis started to assert himself and edged the fourth, before both men looked out on their feet by the time the bell rang for the start of the fifth.

Wladimir had to try and calm down an irate Vitali after the fight was stopped prematurely © Getty Images

Klitschko refused to yield, however, frequently forcing Lewis on to the back foot with a series of punches. Despite being clearly out of shape, Lewis still had the power to hurt Klitschko and caught his rival flush with a couple of fierce uppercuts in the sixth. Somehow, Klitschko withstood the blows and by the end of the round it was Lewis, 37, who slumped into his corner as if the end was nigh.

Controversially, the fight was stopped before the seventh round. The doctor wasn't happy with the state of Klitschko's eye, which was streaming blood at will, and ruled he couldn't continue. Klitschko was ahead on the judges' scorecards but, because in the referee's opinion the cut had been caused by a punch, Lewis was awarded the decision, meaning he retained his WBC belt.

"There's no way he could finish the fight. I was just getting to him," Lewis said afterwards. "He would have got knocked out in the next couple of rounds. Look at the state of his face."

However, a clearly disgruntled Klitschko didn't see it that way. He said: "I see very well - I don't know why the ref stopped the fight. He's very heavy but he don't punch me very hard.

"He never punched me hard with his right hand - I saw every punch. If referee doesn't stop it, I win the fight and knock him out in 11 or 12th round. I show everyone I can beat Lewis. I am distraught with this decision."

Klitschko, who required 60 stitches, demanded a rematch but never got his wish. Lewis was originally in favour of going at it for a second time but later did a U-turn, insisting "I didn't need to fight him again". He never donned the gloves again and called it a day in February 2004, leaving the sport with his faculties intact and his name still up in lights.

If Haye wins on Saturday, he too can retire at the top.

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