In June 2003, world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis faced Ukrainian legend Vitali Klitschko in a fight dubbed the"Battle of the Titans" at the Staples Center.
The bout put Lewis' WBC belt on the line and involved two of the most revered champions in the division’s history.
Lewis was also the former IBF heavyweight champion, who held a record of 40-2-1 (31 KOs) going into the bout. He was subsequently stripped of the red belt after refusing to fight mandatory challenger Chris Byrd - who had beaten Klitschko in 2000.
Meanwhile, Klitschko was the former WBO world champion whose record stood at 32-1 (30 KOs). Also known as "Dr. Ironfist", he was a well-known knockout artist with a durable chin from Eastern Europe.
Although he was a former world champion, the Ukrainian went into the fight as the underdog due to Lewis’ strong record. Lewis had beaten the likes of Frank Bruno and Evander Holyfield and was fresh from a lucrative victory over Mike Tyson.
"Clash of the Titans" was originally scheduled for 2004, but an injury to Lewis’ opponent Kirk Johnson saw the bout moved forward. Klitschko and Lewis seemed evenly matched in terms of size and skill, which helped to make the fight even more interesting.
The fight was intriguing from the start to with both fighters looking to control the ring with their strength and punching power. Klitschko started strongly, forcing the champion backwards and landing some heavy blows. Lewis was able to survive Klitschko’s early onslaught, though, and slowly began to assert himself by utilising his long jab. Klitschko’s early dominance meant he won the first round on the judge’s scorecards but fans knew this wouldn’t be going the distance.
Klitschko continued his strong start in the second by landing two strong right hands which opened a cut under the Briton’s left eye. Klitschko made it obvious right from the start that he was not overwhelmed by the occasion and had turned up for the win rather than the payday.
The tide began to turn in the third round as Lewis skilfully landed a flurry of big blows. Towards the start of the round he landed a right hand which caused a horrific cut above Klitschko’s left eye, an injury which would have a significant impact on the remainder of the contest.
After an onslaught from both in the opening three rounds both men appeared gassed. Their punching rate had slowed down and they sluggishly tried to avoid each other’s blows, often unsuccessfully. Lewis began to unleash more shots on Klitschko’s left eye, although the Ukrainian’s determination forced him to fight back.
Prior to the fourth round, Klitschko’s team tried to mend his cut to allow the fight to continue. This round saw the fighters fall to the canvas after leaning on each other, but the referee signalled it to be a slip rather than a knockdown.
The pair continued to trade big punches, only for their opponent’s durable chin to survive. They slowed down once again during the fourth and the fifth followed suit with plenty of grapples. Lewis soon showed why he was champion, gritting through exhaustion to land a sequence of body shots.
The cut had impeded Klitschko’s vision, preventing him from slipping punches on his left side and all the attention was about the condition of it. However, the referee was satisfied and allowed the Ukrainian to continue into the sixth round.
He managed to start the round strongly before Lewis landed a huge uppercut. This unsettled Klitschko was forced to hold on and avoid a knockout blow from his opponent.
The referee continued to watch Klitschko’s eye with scrutiny while allowing the fight to go on. The sixth round was another close one that showed how evenly matched the fighters were in terms of size, speed and power.
Following the round, the ringside doctor decided that the damage to Klitschko’s eye was too severe and that the fight should be stopped. Lewis was awarded the TKO victory and retained his world WBC belt.
The result was controversial as many fans thought Klitschko was winning the bout. At the time of the decision, the judges had Klitschko ahead by 58-56 on the scorecards.
Due to the outcome, a rematch was swiftly set for later that year with both men agreeing to do it all over again. However, it wasn’t to be as Lewis decided to retire in February 2004, much to the disappointment of fans who were eager to see them meet in the ring once more. The British fighter retired as a three-time heavyweight champion with a record of 41-2-1 (32 KOs).
Lewis’ retirement meant his WBC belt was vacated. It was won the following year by Klitschko, who became heavyweight champion of the world by beating Corrie Sanders via TKO. He successfully defended his titles against the likes of Shannon Briggs and Dereck Chisora before retiring in 2012. His record stands at an impressive 45-2 (41 KOs).
This fight was so close that it could have gone down as the fight of the decade if it was longer. Klitschko was on a mission to become world heavyweight champion and make a statement against heavyweight’s best. Lewis is nicknamed "The Lion" for a reason though and proved why he was viewed as an all time great.
The fight marked a new era though with the (Wladimir) Klitschko brothers taking over for more than a decade.
Vitali's performance against Lewis showed he could compete with one of the division’s greatest fighters, matching the Briton for speed and skill. If the fight had not been affected by his left eye, it is hard to predict which way it would have gone but Klitschko showcased his talents on the world stage.
A rematch between the pair would have been a truly great spectacle, likely with a larger crowd and PPV advertising to make it a global event. While it’s disappointing, we missed out on the rematch, it does not take anything away from the fight and its importance.
By James Holland, follow James on Twitter @jamessports20