The boos Lennox Lewis hears these days hurt more than most of the punches he took. The fighters claiming pieces of the heavyweight title he held seem like impostors.
For those, and maybe 35 million other reasons, Lewis ought to reconsider retirement and fight a rematch against new WBC champion Vitali Klitschko. Unless he does, Lewis may never get the full respect and peace of mind he deserves.
He sensed it when he was in Los Angeles over the weekend, hearing the crowd boo him before the title fight between Klitschko and Corrie Sanders. Lewis felt it the week before when he went to New York to see Chris Byrd and Andrew Golota fight for another slice of the splintered heavyweight title.
Mike Tyson got cheered like crazy. Evander Holyfield got a respectful ovation. Lewis? He's beaten both, handled himself with dignity, never spent a night in jail - and still he got booed.
"I know him and I know that bothers him," says Emanuel Steward, Lewis' former trainer who began working with Klitschko after Lewis retired at 38 in February. "He can't get away from boxing because that's been his life for 26 years. So he's got to go to these events. He's been the Olympic champion and the three-time heavyweight champion, yet wherever he goes, he gets booed. That hurts."
It might hurt enough to make Lewis think again about his decision to walk away without trying to cement his reputation with one final and convincing victory against Klitschko. Steward said a rematch could be worth $100 million, with each fighter getting a guaranteed $35 million. If it comes about, money wouldn't be the main motivation. More important would be wiping out the memories of his WBC and IBO heavyweight title fight against Klitschko last June.
The giant Ukrainian led Lewis on all scorecards when the 12-round bout was stopped in the sixth because of a cut around the challenger's left eye. Klitschko protested vehemently, and many thought he'd have won had the fight continued.
Lewis has kept mum recently, but he said in July that he definitely wanted a rematch with Klitschko before deciding to quit instead.
"On Dec. 6 we went to a wedding together, and he and I had a long discussion with his mom," Steward said. "We discussed it very carefully. She told him, 'If you retire, I want you to stay retired.' She was very adamant about that."
When Lewis made his announcement two months later, he insisted he wouldn't be one of those champions who retire, return, retire and return again. But events have a way of reshaping a man's thoughts. Lewis' exit left a void in the heavyweight division. Tyson plans to come back, but his act and skills are getting awfully old. John Ruiz is the WBA champion and Byrd holds the IBF title, and who really cares?
Even Steward, who owes allegiance to Klitschko now, would give Lewis even odds on winning a Klitschko rematch.
"I don't discount Lennox," Steward said. "Vitali's improved a little bit, but a real focused, determined Lennox is a good fighter. We know it, and the Klitschkos have a lot of respect for him. I can't see an easy fight for anyone if they fought again."