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Hall of Fame Class of 2017: Johnny Lewis

Fighters Network
09
Jun

AUSTRALIA’S BEST


Johnny Lewis was a fledgling boxing trainer in the Sydney area when a teenager named Jeff Fenech walked into his gym. Their lives were never the same after that.

Lewis, a caring man with a knack for teaching the sweet science, guided his raw protege to the 1984 Olympics and then to profound success as a pro. It was the first major step in a training career that ultimately would include six world titleholders and a ticket to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. Lewis will be inducted in June.

“I was taken aback, I was so nonplussed by it,” said Lewis, referring to his reaction when he was told he’d been elected to the Hall. “I’m just so proud to be inducted and be with some of the real greats of boxing.



“I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d have a world champion, never mind a few of them.”

Indeed, Lewis has come a long way.

He grew up in the working-class town of Erskineville, a suburb of Sydney, and discovered boxing at the Newtown Police Boys Club when he was 13. It was love at first sight. He learned the rudiments of the sport as a boxer before turning to coaching at 17.

Lewis was making his living as a sign painter when he met Fenech, who had never boxed before. The young trainer honed his student’s skills and, after fewer than 30 amateur fights, Fenech qualified for the Los Angeles Games.

Fenech didn’t medal but his promise was evident, prompting him to turn pro a few months after the Olympics. Only seven fights later, he stopped IBF bantamweight titleholder Satoshi Shingaki to become the first 1984 Olympian to win a world title.

With Lewis by his side, Fenech would finish as a three-division titleholder, recognition as the greatest Australian fighter ever and his own place in the Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2002.

“For the work he’s done in boxing in Australia, he deserves that plus a medal,” Fenech said of his cornerman. “I was 17 and I’d never boxed in my life. I went to the youth club and it changed my life. It was more like a father-son relationship than boxer-trainer. We spent every day, all day together. He took me from the streets and turned me into what I am today. He did an amazing job. Without me meeting him I’d more than likely be in jail today.

“All his life has been boxing. He’s given his life to the kids whether they were the best boxers or the worst boxers. He gave his life and time to all of them.”

Lewis coached the Australian amateur team in the 1989 World Championships, where he discovered his next prize pupil.

“Kostya (Tszyu) got beat by a kid from Germany,” Lewis said. “I remember when I came back and I said to Bill Mordey, ‘I saw a kid over there from Russia. I think he could be the real goods. He’s got a lot of skills and he can bang a bit and he’ll be an excitement machine.’

“We kept that in mind, and I think it was 1991, when they came over [to Australia] for the World Championships, that Kostya decided to stay and achieve the levels that he did.”

Tszyu eventually unified three junior welterweight titles and the RING championship under Lewis’ tutelage and also landed in the Hall of Fame in 2011. He was pleased to hear that Lewis would be honored.

“I think he’s deserves it,” Tszyu said. “He is a great man. That’s the most important thing. We had a very good connection, we had a good trust in each other.”

Lewis also worked with world titleholders Gairy St. Clair, Billy Dib, Jeff Harding and one more Hall of Famer, Virgil Hill, a two-division champ. And, even at 73, Lewis isn’t finished. He is currently working with an unbeaten young pro named Bilal Akkawy.

He still loves it – all of it.

“There are so many people that have walked in and out of our gym … but our rapport is everlasting,” he said. “That’s the one thing I can really say is great about boxing. Success is paramount but the friendships with different people all around the world, that’s what makes the sport so great.

“I’m very humbled to be a Hall of Fame inductee. If I went tomorrow, I’m sure I’d have a smile on my face. It was all worthwhile.”

 

Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him at Twitter @AnsonWainwright

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