LONDON — Back then, he was just a kid with a funny accent, a nobody with a second-hand heavy bag and a dream of making a name for himself as an amateur boxer.
Everyone now knows him as Lennox Lewis, an Olympic and undisputed world heavyweight champion. But Lewis, long since moved back to London, has never forgotten the town where it all began for him — Kitchener.
As the 2012 Olympics draws the world’s best amateur fighters to London, Lewis reflected in an interview on Friday on his own Olympic dreams as a young man in the Ontario city where he grew up.
When he was training for his bid to get to the 1984 Olympics, people would stop the Cameron Heights grad in the street and shout out support.
“Even jogging in Kitchener, people would stop and cheer me on, and say ‘Hey, I hope you do it,’” he said.
Lewis didn’t have a name or a gym or much equipment then, but he remembers the feeling that his adopted city was behind him.
“It wasn’t an easy road. I remember when I was trying to get to the ’84 Olympics, trying to find sponsors and trying to get my trainer there, there were a lot of Kitchener people that helped and stepped up to the plate,” he said.
“That’s what I love about Kitchener. They support their local athletes.”
Lewis arrived in Kitchener in 1977 as a poorly disciplined and alienated kid from East London, with his mother Violet, a single parent. He found the father he never had in coach Arnie Boehm, who channeled his energy into boxing.
Teased by his classmates about his Cockney accent, a tall and gangly Lewis often responded with aggression. A teacher sent him to the Waterloo Regional Boxing Academy, where Boehm recognized his talent.
“He was a very wise man and very caring. He helped not only me, but a lot of other boxers,” Lewis said. “I miss him. He was like a father figure to me.”
Boehm trained plenty of notable local fighters, including Chris Johnson, who won bronze at the Barcelona Olympics; his brother Greg, who also fought for Canada; Art Binkowski, a heavyweight pro; and Sid and Fitz Vanderpool.
But Lewis was always his prized pupil.
Lewis made it to the quarter final at the 1984 Games as an 18-year-old, losing to American Tyrell Biggs. Four years later, he wouldn’t be beat — taking home gold for Canada at the Seoul Olympics by beating Riddick Bowe.
That medal became his “gold ticket,” as he put it, to a remarkable professional career, winning his first 21 fights.
He talked about the influence he’s had on the next generation of fighters to come out of Kitchener, including Mandy Bujold, the 24-year-old who wanted to represent Canada at these Olympics.
“The fact that I’ve left that legacy, where people look up to me, that’s a great feeling,” he said. “It really makes me happy that has happened, that people can look back at what I did. For me, it was watching Muhammed Ali on TV that made me want to be just like him.”
He admits watching women box at these Olympics has changed his opinion on their role in his sport, too. At first, he didn’t think women’s boxing should be taken seriously, but he’s been won over by the calibre of the fighting he’s seen.
“I was pleasantly surprised, and I said, ‘Yo, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.’ They’re doing the same thing as the guys, throwing punches with velocity and trying to knock you out,” he said.
Lewis danced around a question about his shared British and Canadian identity. When Canadian and British boxers met up at these Olympics, he says he “cheered for the better man.”
He misses Kitchener, he said, and still cherishes getting back occasionally. He wanted to know what was happening to the Schneiders plant, the old Bauer skates factory, the Kitchener Rangers and Oktoberfest.
“I love when people ask me where I grew up and I say Kitchener-Waterloo, and they go ‘where’s that?” I say, ‘that’s the second biggest Oktoberfest celebration in the world!’” he said.
Lewis laughed when talking about seeing old Cameron Heights teammates from his basketball days, and recalled an alumni game that still cracks him up.
“Those guys haven’t changed. Some of them are bald and some are fat or have babies, but they’re still doing the same things. They’re still hogging the ball, and some guys are shooting too much,” he said. “It was great.”
As for his old coach Boehm, who died of a heart attack in 2002, still working at the gym where he trained young boxers — Lewis has a suggestion on how Kitchener should honour his memory.
“They should really make a statue out of him,” he said.