Place of Birth - London
Date of Birth - 28th October 1893
Passed away - 20th October 1970
Record - 155 wins (68 KO’s), 24 losses, 9 draws, 65 no-decisions
Greatest Accomplishments - Twice reigning as world welterweight champion
Lewis was born in the Aldgate district of east London and his real name was Gershon Mendeloff. He grew up in a high-rise, gas-lit dwelling and it was certainly a meagre beginning. He began boxing when he became a teenager and joined the Judean Athletic Club, where he would be given just six pence and a cup of tea per fight. It may seem paltry but these rewards were keenly accepted by a boy who experienced poverty. He proved to be successful and won a flyweight tournament for which he was awarded a silver cup (though it was not genuine silver).
He turned professional in 1909 and maintained an amazing schedule, often fighting three or four times a month. On 6th October 1913, he stopped Alec Lambert in the 17th round to become the British featherweight champion, and on 2nd February 1914, he defeated Paul Til of France via 12th round disqualification to win the European featherweight title. Both these bouts took place in London.
A painting of Lewis by Charles Miller
He soon relinquished both these titles and moved up to the lightweight division. He travelled to Australia, performing in Melbourne and Sydney, and his relentless, aggressive style made him a favourite with fans. He became known as “The Crashing, Dashing Kid”. By the autumn of 1914, he had ventured to the USA, making his debut there against Phil Bloom in a 10-round no-decision bout in New York City. Now campaigning as a welterweight, in 1915 he began one of boxing’s greatest rivalries when he faced the talented Jack Britton for the first time on 16th March in another 10-round no-decision contest, which was also in New York City. At this time, the world welterweight championship was vacant and Lewis claimed it when he outpointed Britton over 12 rounds in Boston on 31st August. His claim was generally accepted as he had already beaten another claimant, Mike Glover, 28 days earlier, also in Boston.
Lewis had an all-action style that thrilled boxing fans
He and Britton faced each other an incredible twenty times in total, with Lewis winning three and losing four. There was a draw and the rest were no-decision contests. They were perfectly matched and brought much attention to the welterweight division. Unlike many rivalries in which there is a grudge, no needle element existed between them; they were actually friends and there was a real sporting ingredient when they met in the ring.
He made a successful defence (a 12-round decision over Britton on 28th September that year in Boston) and then Britton took the world title from him on 24th April 1916 with a 20-round decision in New Orleans, Louisiana. But Lewis regained it with a points win, again over twenty rounds, on 25th June 1917 in Dayton, Ohio. With this victory, Lewis became the first British boxer to regain a world title and this record stood until Lloyd Honeyghan repeated the achievement in 1988, also at welterweight.
Again, he made a successful defence. On 17th May 1918 he outpointed Johnny Tillman over twenty rounds in Denver, Colorado.
A biography of Lewis written by his son
It was during his time in the USA that he met his future wife, Elsie Schneider, and he became something of a celebrity, mixing with stars such as Charlie Chaplin, who later became Godfather to his son, Morton. Lewis’ second reign as world champion came to an end on 17th March 1919 in Canton, Ohio, when Britton stopped him in the 9th round. This was the only result ending in a KO in any of the contests between them. After this, he returned to Great Britain and on 11th March 1920 he KO’d Johnny Bee in four rounds to win the British middleweight championship. Later that year, he scored a 9th round KO of Johnny Basham on 9th June to win the British, Empire and European welterweight championships (the Empire championship was the early version of the Commonwealth championship). Both these bouts took place in London. He subsequently relinquished the European title and fought Basham again on 19th November, this time stopping him in the 19th round.
A shot of Lewis (standing) in a KO victory over Frankie Burns in 1922
In 1921, he travelled back to the USA in an attempt to win the world welterweight title for a third time, but he lost on points over fifteen rounds to his old adversary, Jack Britton, who was still the champion. This contest was in New York City.
Lewis (right) did not last long against Carpentier
On 14th October, he engaged in a rubber match with Johnny Basham, which he won by 12th round KO in London and retained his British middleweight title and won the European middleweight title. On 11th May 1922, he challenged the outstanding world light heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier of France. Known as the “Orchid Man”, Carpentier is one of the greatest French fighters ever and was a dashing hero to millions of fans. Women adored him and he was one of the first boxers to attract females to a fight. Unfortunately, during the 1st round the referee, Joe Palmer, warned Lewis for holding and when he turned to complain, Carpentier struck him with a right cross and KO’d him. It was a controversial and unsatisfactory outcome and cries of “Foul!” came from the audience. However, the result stood and Lewis felt he had been cheated, though he put it behind him.
A poster for the Carpentier-Lewis clash
He bounced back and continued collecting titles by winning the Empire middleweight title with a KO of Frankie Burns on 19th June 1922 in London.
Entering 1923, his amazing assortment of belts included the British and Empire welterweight titles and the British, Empire and European middleweight titles. Though by this stage of his career he was beginning to decline. In a match with Roland Todd on 15th February in London, he lost his three middleweight titles on points (he had already beaten Todd on points on 20th November the previous year). On 26th November 1924, he lost his two welterweight titles to Tommy Milligan in bout that took place in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was outpointed. Now in his twilight years as a boxer, he fought on, albeit less regularly, and had his final contest in 1929. An interesting footnote is that Lewis is regarded as the first boxer to use a mouthpiece (he is certainly the first well-known boxer to use one). It was designed for him by his dentist, Jack Marks, in 1913.
Sadly, upon his retirement most of his fortune was gone. He had earned an estimated $500,000 when campaigning in the USA but he was a keen gambler, much to his detriment. Soon afterwards, he was introduced to a politician called Sir Oswald Mosley, considered to be a potential future Prime Minister.
Lewis (right) with infamous politician Oswald Mosley
Mosley headed a political outfit named the “New Party”, who had a strong anti-communist stance. He hired Lewis for £60 a week as a physical youth training instructor, though this position later developed into a role as a bodyguard. He had a team working for him, some of whom were unsavoury characters, and they were known as the “Biff Boys”.
In 1932, Mosley visited with the notorious Benito Mussolini in Italy, after which he dissolved the “New Party” and formed the “National Union of Fascists”, which incorporated anti-Jewish views. Lewis, of course, was a Jew and when he discovered what Mosley had done he confronted him. At the time, Mosley was with two of his other bodyguards and words were exchanged which erupted into violence. Lewis, being a former world champion, had little trouble in flattening all three of them.
Lewis continued working as a trainer, spending time in Vienna, Austria, tutoring boxing. His son established himself as a film director in London and Lewis ended up working for him as an assistant. Sadly, by the mid-1960’s, he was a widower and moved into a residential home for elderly Jews called Nightingale House, which was in south London. This place was commemorated in his memory with an English Heritage Blue Plaque in 2003. Former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson referred to Lewis as probably the greatest fighter from Great Britain. Maybe he was right.