Sam Colonna (left) and Johnny Lewus, Sr. Photo from Sam Colonna Boxing Gym.
by Mike Sack
In 1989 The Ring magazine started ranking professional boxers across weight classes. Number one on that inaugural "pound for pound" list was none other than "Iron" Mike Tyson. By 1990 he had dropped to number seven after suffering his first defeat. He had one loss, had knocked out thirty-two of his thirty-six opponents, and held the possibility of being one of the greatest boxers in the entire history of the sport. The loss garnered him the seventh spot on the list. Professional boxing hype has little tolerance for imperfection. By 1994, Tyson would be off the list for three years and in prison for two. Head of the pack in '94 was Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker; number two was the charismatic Roy Jones, Jr., and number three was a guy named Orlando Canizales. If you're not a boxing fan, there's still a chance you've heard of Whitaker and Jones, Jr.—Whitaker by virtue of his "Sweet Pea" moniker and Jones because Nike broadcasted his image in advertisements across the world—but you've likely never heard of Canizales. Canizales knocked out thirty-seven of his fifty-eight opponents in lower weight classes not known for having knockout finishes. He defended his International Boxing Federation Super Bantamweight (118 lbs.) championship title a record sixteen consecutive times between 1988 and 1994, a record that still stands today. Canizales was inducted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009.
Canizales forfeited his title to enter the super bantamweight division (122 lbs.) in 1995 and challenge a man named Wilfredo Vazquez for the World Boxing Association super bantamweight championship. Canizales lost in a split decision. He was removed from the pound for pound top ten. In his first fight after the loss, Canizales knocked out a young man with a mediocre record. He would then fight at Caesars Tahoe Casino against a little known young kid from Chicago with a 16-1 record and fourteen knockouts. Johnny "Bad Boy" Lewus was his name.
It's 2018 and I'm in the passenger seat of a black Buick that Johnny Lewus, Jr. is driving. We're headed south of Chicago, to 147th Street in Oak Forest, IL, to his Grandma Lewus's house, where his dad lives. Since being released from the Illinois Dixon Correctional Center over a decade ago, Johnny Lewus, Sr. has stayed mostly with his mother. Junior is twenty years-old and has his phone glued to his right hand while driving. He wants to find a song I like. I want to live. On both the drive out and back in I spasm my right thigh from stress pressing my foot into the floor of the Buick. The mouth of their gravel driveway joins the north side of a two-lane, two-way road with no shoulder. He successfully makes the left turn into the driveway, and I can breathe again.
There are no immediate neighbors adjacent to the Lewus house—a large city park surrounds the property. There are dormant mechanical arms looming over the yard's tree canopy from a previous night's carnival. A little man-made fountain pond is in one corner of the yard, with nine koi fish occasionally appearing through murky water. A dog runs out of the back screen door that's been opened by Lewus, Sr. "Get 'em, Bones!" he shouts. Bones came running out of the woods one day a few years back and has stayed ever since. He's a gentle pit/lab mix, white with black spots and a black fur patch surrounding his right eye. When Junior and I go in the house, a shuffling black rug of a cat called Mitsy is there to greet us, squeaking as she rubs our legs in figure-eights. A head of feathered Farrah Fawcett-like hair sits at the kitchen table counting money. I see a lighter and a pack of Marlboro Light 100s on the table, and hear a matching voice say hello before I come round her shoulder to shake her hand. She stands up with a smile to shake mine. Mrs. Lewus is a little shorter than her 5'4" son, who has walked in from the dining room. While her tanned and slightly wrinkled skin might belie her sixty-some years, her smile, eyes, and hair have no age. The smile is easy and genuine, and her eyes hold a tension full of contradictions: soft yet strong, sad but excited, welcoming while fortified.
Senior can almost never sit or stand still. He says, "Come on, come on, I'll give ya the tour." We leave the linoleum tile of the kitchen for the carpet of the dining room. There's a parrot on one side of the room that periodically, unprovoked, says, "JAH-knee! JAH-knee!" On the other side are two dry fish tanks, each with a lizard in them. One is a gecko with long eye lashes, and the other is of undetermined type but likes to bite. There used to be more lizards, nine in total.
I'm at the Lewus house because we're going to watch some of Senior's old fights. You can't find them on YouTube and a Google search yields only his professional record on a site called BoxRec. While Junior and I figure out the TV and DVD player, Senior and Mrs. Lewus stack the kitchen table with barbecued meat and various salads. There is enough food for twenty, but it is only us four. Senior fills his plate so no white space is visible, two of everything. He eats standing up, walking from room to room. Mrs. Lewus, Junior, and I take our seats on the couch.
Sometimes the father Lewus will embarrass his son knowingly, not intended as a dig, but seemingly unable to stop himself. Once, in the locker room at the boxing gym, Senior came storming in to refill a coffee pot with water from the bathroom sink. Junior, myself, and two other guys were in there changing. Referring to his son, Senior bellowed, "Lewus is coming for ya! Lewus is comiiing!" He approached a young African-American fighter, whom he knew, and said, "Lewus is coming for your black ass! Hahaa! Lewus is coming!" The young fighter smiled. Junior just shook his head and focused intently on tying his shoe. Another black fighter in the locker room, who didn't know Senior, furrowed his brow in confusion, perhaps disgust.
Father and son are almost polar opposites in demeanor. Where Senior is usually the biggest voice in the room, Junior is soft spoken. While Senior likes to bust balls where and when he can, talking shit does not come natural to Junior. Senior walks with a pot-bellied swagger, and Junior, though appearing relaxed, walks with a light tension seizing his muscles. Senior has a staccato laugh reminiscent of the tail end of Woody the Woodpecker's; Junior smiles but never explodes when amused. They are both kindhearted at the core, though. Senior is unremittingly encouraging to all patrons of the gym, be they civilian, amateur, or professional. He genuinely wants to see everyone improve. You can often hear him during his sessions with clients when they get tired: "Come on, come on! Punches in bunches, baby, punches in bunches. Don't you quit on me. Don't you dare quit on me!" Junior has at least four inches in height on his father, yet he'll be fighting at the same weight class Senior did twenty years ago. Super bantamweight, 122 pounds.
Junior's first professional fight is in five days. His final sparring session before the bout was earlier this morning, and it seems there's some residue left from the gym between father and son: Senior lasers in on Junior when he's talking to him, and Junior keeps busy to avoid eye contact. The responses to his father are clipped and irritable. Senior will later pull me aside and tell me that this always happens before a fight: Junior gets nervous and as a result becomes easily agitated and defensive toward his old man. Senior just takes it stride, allows Junior to blow steam. The first time I spoke with Junior, after his father had cancelled meeting with me a few times, I asked him if he found it difficult to remain angry at his father. He immediately and nonchalantly said, "No," and then he grinned.
When we finally get the TV on, the scenes on the DVD each contain a fight and they are in chronological order. We watch Senior's first few fights and he cleans up—all KOs or TKOs. One of the fights looks like it's against a legitimate dwarf. Lewus just plows through. I'm excited to see the Canizales fight and ask to skip ahead on the DVD menu. It was his first major fight, for a world title. Before Canizales, he had been earning two or three thousand dollars per fight and working full-time as a garbage man for the city, making decent money. A local CBS affiliate found out about a young local boxer's big break and followed Senior on his garbage route for a quick TV news segment. Neither Johnny nor his mother quite recollect how it came to be that he earned a title shot. One of the promoters got it, somehow.
With hot dog in one cheek and hamburger in the other, standing, Senior says, "I think I won the fight. You see what you think. I really think I won, though. You tell me." I have no idea if this is the necessary ego inflation of a professional fighter or an honest assessment. My initial guess is the former. The fighters make their entrances. Lewus looks like he just got his driver's license and Canizales has a mustache thick enough to rival Juan Valdez. And then the first round bell sounds, and little Bad Boy Lewus comes out of a cannon. Canizales tries to warm up to the bout, but Lewus won't let him. The kid relentlessly pursues him around the ring throwing one-twos, jab straight right hand, jab straight right hand. And he's connecting.
Senior was paid about twenty-two grand for the Canizales fight. He had been introduced to powder cocaine a while back and was already shoveling it into his face before this fight. It was right around the Canizales fight that he was introduced to crack-cocaine by card girls. I asked Senior, "What's a card girl?" He glared at my ignorant face. "Strippers, Mike. We were in a Jacuzzi, and one of the girls said, 'Here, smoke this while I suck your dick.'"
Back in 1994, on the television screen, it seems to me that Senior is winning the fight with Canizales by a slight but significant margin. Canizales starts to take the fight seriously in the third or fourth round, in which he switches to a higher gear, moves quicker, and catches Senior with some smooth combinations. Still, Senior keeps moving forward, round after round, throwing his one-two, one-two, one-two-three-four. He seems fearless.
Throughout our viewing, Senior repeatedly says he thinks he won the fight. His mother repeatedly counters that Canizales is the champ, "and if you want to beat the champ, you got to knock the champ out." Her Marlboro voice is not harsh, it definitively glides, and delivers the last word, always.
Junior is fixated throughout our viewing of the fight. He leans forward on the couch, rarely touching his food. It's a sharp contrast to the flesh to flesh interactions he has with his father. Here, facing the television and the past, without the pressing emotion of the present, he is enthralled. Though Senior was incarcerated for the first ten years of Junior's life, Junior still looks to his father as a model for a kind of undefined virtue.
"He cuts me in the tenth, that's what got me," Senior says. "I still think I won the fight though. I don't know though, you tell me. You see what you think," he says to me.
It's actually in the ninth round that Canizales catches Lewus with a loaded right hand just above the left eye. At the rest between rounds nine and ten, a television camera gives the close-up of the Lewus corner. The cut man is pressing on Johnny's cut so hard his head is bent back against the turnbuckle. Our view is over their shoulders, so that we can't see Johnny's face, only his diaphragm frantically pulsing his abdomen in and out. He had never fought more than six rounds before this fight. This one was scheduled for twelve.
Neither fighter is knocked down during the fight, and it lasts the whole twelve rounds. The last three rounds are about even, possibly in Canizales's favor. Orlando Canizales is declared the winner by unanimous decision (three judges all scoring heavily in his favor) and the twenty-four year-old Johnny Lewus awkwardly hoists the twenty-nine year-old Canizales by the waist to walk him in a short congratulatory circle. Later that evening Lewus will cash his check for the fight right there at Caesars, give some party dollars to his family and friends who were at the fight, then take a flight back to Chicago the next day. He'll immediately buy ten pairs of shoes and a watch.
A couple of cakewalk fights will round out '95, preceding another world title bout in 1996. His payday for this will be substantially more, about $80K, but he will keep his job with the city. He'll go the distance again and lose again, this time to South African Vuyani Bungu in Biloxi, Mississippi. Five months later, Lewus will fight again in Biloxi, this time for a national title with another substantial payday. Again, he'll go the distance and again, take the loss. By this time smoking crack will be a regular thing.
It will be almost exactly one year before his next fight. Three consecutive months of 1996 will be devoted to exchanging $160K for rocks of crack. Theft will ensue, with prosecution and probation to follow. On one of his last heists, he robbed a drug dealer's convenience store with a friend. He punched the dealer in the face and made it out before the cops came, but his partner was caught and gave up Lewus. In '98 the judge will finally say no more. Shortly after finding out his girlfriend was pregnant, Johnny Lewus was sentenced to twenty years confinement in Illinois state prison for attempted murder, armed robbery, and assault. The reason there are two lizards instead of nine in the Lewus dining room today is that seven of them went on a crack-exchange trip.
Senior still struggles with the addiction, though he maintains he wants to be clean. Junior knows his father's history and his current struggles. He keeps no secrets from his son. Of prison and his past mistakes, he says it was just something he had to go through. Of the thing that drives him back to crack, he calls it the demon. After we finish watching the DVD, we talk more about Junior and his upcoming fight. Senior is saying to Junior, "You got that demon, John. I got it with the crack, and you're a drinker. You got the demon, John. You gotta watch it."
The 2018 Rosemont Rumble is taking place at Allstate Arena. Capacity is 18,500 and my head count gets to about 100 before I tire and lazily extrapolate. There are maybe 2,500 heads in attendance, and that's for the main event. The lowest price of admission is $50. Ringside seats are at least $250 and there big round tables with blue plastic covers and Bud Light bucket center pieces to accommodate separate parties. There are probably two or three hundred suits and dresses down there. Several fights scheduled, but only the main event is being televised. The result is that instead of the big fight being scheduled in the final slot, it is positioned for prime time television with the under-card fights coming before and after. Johnny Lewus, Jr. makes his professional boxing debut in that final slot, when all but a few hundred people have left the building. Most of the ringside round table attendees have vacated and the tables themselves are being rolled on edges off the floor when Junior makes his entrance. He's wearing his father's old silk robe—purple with teal block lettering on the back: BAD BOY. A hood flops about his face as he loosens his limbs in the ring. Senior will be his second, with Sam Colonna and Rita Figueroa in the corner as well. Junior has a new haircut, his young beard is trimmed and aligned. In one of the promotional posters for the event, Junior has a kind of dopey smile in his fight stance and a scraggly beard. The clean-up is an indication of the stakes, maybe. This fight will set the tone for everything that follows in his life, as he can foresee it from his twenty year-old view. His scheduled opponent was a thirty-seven year-old Mexican journeyman fighter with a poor record. In the opposing corner stands a last minute replacement, a full-body-tattooed black man with an unknown record. It's unclear who found him and why the Mexican backed out. Apparently this kind of thing happens all the time in the lower tiers of professional boxing.
The first bell rings and Junior looks surprisingly calm as he shuffles to the middle of the ring to meet his opponent. Sam once told me that sometimes something happens to a fighter when they turn pro. Something changes psychologically, and their fight game explodes. Angel Manfredy was like that. Sam coached him as an amateur and professional. Manfredy was an above average amateur fighter, but not a major prospect. After his first handful of pro fights (a couple of which he lost), his old amateur ring mates could no longer spar with him. He hit too hard. In his twenty-seventh fight, Manfredy became the first fighter to knockout the soon-to-be-legendary Arturo Gatti. Sam says the shift in skill level was entirely mental.
It's not that Junior is pummeling his opponent, but he looks sharper and more focused than I've seen him in his amateur fights. He looks at ease, and in each of the four rounds the fight is scheduled for, he pulls off a sweet little move. It's a short hop to his left, followed by a pivot on his front foot, and WHAM! left hook to the body. It's an extraordinarily awkward movement to develop, and Junior makes it look like Tango. Rita will later tell me they worked a lot on that move.
At the end of the fourth round, the decision is announced—unanimous in favor of Lewus. Senior hoists Junior up by the waist and prances him around the ring. I can't hear from where I sit, but I imagine the Woody laugh propelling them. The celebration may appear overzealous to most of the crowd that's left, but it seems on point to me, given the time I've spent with father and son. It's the meat of a happy middle appended to a rough beginning.
When I stand out of seat and my vicarious pleasure starts to wane, I look around the 18,400 empty seats of the arena. There are signs everywhere for Hitz Boxing, the promoter of the fight night. There are six triangular pylons on the ring canvas's perimeter, each with a different business advertisement. My ticket to the event was $50, the lowest priced. I bought it from Junior, who was allotted a fixed amount of tickets from the promoter to sell. His cut was ten percent. I'm told it's normally twenty. I start to think of all the hours of training Junior put in and out of the gym, and wonder how it's possible to make a living for the average professional fighter. I've lost count how many times I've heard that all promoters are scumbags who rip off their fighters. But I want to know firsthand.
But what am I going to do? Even if I do manage a sit-down with a boxing promoter, are they going to confess their financial sins to some schmuck with a pen? Fortunately, I think I may have found an inroad to at least one of the control rooms where we might see the machinations of professional boxing finance and administration.
Originally published July 25, 2018
Copyright © 2018 by Mike Sack
This is part 2 of a multipart series on boxing. Part 3 will explore the business side of professional boxing. You can read part 1 here.