Hedgemon Lewis: Meet the man who set the stage for Sugar Ray Leonard - Boxing
By Ken Hissner (Feb 15, 2008) Doghouse Boxing  
Back in 1964 a young 18 year old boxer was noticed in the Olympic trials. He stood out even though he did not win those trials. Born in Greensborough, Alabama, like another Alabama native named Joe Louis, this Lewis also came to Detroit at the age of nine or ten and he too would establish himself in the art of boxing.

He was a team member along with current top trainer/manager Manny Steward. Luther Burgess was his trainer. This kid had the looks and personality of a champion to be. He would make his debut in Cincinnati in May of 1966. With the
win under his belt eight more would follow in Detroit and one more on a return trip to the Buckeye state.

In his ninth fight in less than seven months he would make his Los Angeles debut. He would return for his thirteenth straight win in April of 1967 to Los Angeles. After a win in Canada in June he would make a “going away” appearance in Detroit on September 18th. In all he had won seventeen straight returning for his first ten rounder in Los Angeles.

The Hollywood stars were among those who followed him closely. A group called January Fighters would be formed by Dale Jackson. Comedian Bill Cosby, singer Robert Goulet and TV stars of “Peyton Place” Ryan O’Neal and Chris Connelly would round out the four man team as managers. Veteran trainer Eddie Futch, another Detroit connection would join in the training.

After posting twenty-two straight wins Lewis would meet his toughest challenge, Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez (31-5-1) a top contender. This fight was Lewis’ “welcome to the big leagues” bout! He was stopped via TKO9. A small fight in
San Diego two months later and he was back in the Olympic Auditorium increasing his record to 26-1. His opponent was Oscar “Shotgun” Albarado who was 25-0 and one of the hottest fighters of the division. Lewis came close to shutting him out over ten rounds. This would bring about a rematch with Lopez almost a year to the day. This was a very close fight with Lewis scoring a knock down in the fourth round. Two of the judges had him ahead by one point. The knockdown won him the fight.

The stage was set for the rubber match just three months later. This one was in the Sports Arena in Los Angeles. Ahead on one of the score cards going into the tenth and final round again he was tko’d. Two months later he would make his final Detroit appearance with a win after being away for almost 27 months from the motor city.

In his next five fights, two in Mexico, he increased his record to 34-2. A big fight with Raul Soriano (47-16-1) was made and again he won a decision. Two fights later he would travel to Honolulu to fight veteran junior welter contender Adolph Pruitt (38-9-2) and lose a very close fight. In May of 1971 he would defeat a pair of contender’s in Percy Pugh (44-17) and Arturo Lomeli (28-9-2). He signed to meet the Cuban out of Mexico Jose Napoles for his WBC and WBA welterweight titles. Napoles had won the title from Curtis Cokes and had decisioned Emile Griffith while stopping Lopez. His only setback was against the nephew of Carmen Basilio, Billy Backus by a cut. He would win the title back in a rematch. This bout would be at the Forum, in Inglewood. Watching this on television I thought Lewis deserved a close decision. The judges all had it for Napoles. It was clear Lewis would not be getting an immediate rematch. Six months later Lewis would fight former champ Backus (35-11-4) in Syracuse, New York where Backus was from. It was billed as the NYSAC world welterweight title since Napoles was refusing to fight Lewis while making two defenses out of the country against lesser opposition. Lewis would drop Backus in the second round which proved to be the difference on the scorecards of all the judges. Six months later they had a rematch in Syracuse with Lewis winning much more convincingly.

Some 33 months, and 11 straight wins from their first encounter Lewis would be forced to go to Mexico City for the rematch. Napoles was (75-6) and still wanted all the edges in the return bout. Lewis came down sick prior to the fight but it was either go ahead or lose the opportunity. He came in at a low 141, the lowest in his eight year career. Even the referee, Ramon Berumen was Spanish. Lewis did all he could to stay in the fight until it was stopped in the ninth round.

A follow up loss to top contender Armando Muniz (35-8-1) and draws with two other contenders, future champion Carlos Palomino (17-1-2) and New York’s Harold Weston (19-6-2) at the Garden, earned him another title shot. This time he would have to go to London, England to meet John Stracey (43-3-1) for the WBC title that was won from Napoles just three months before. In viewing this fight you knew it just wasn’t the same fighter that had wowed them in Los Angeles. The bout was stopped in the tenth round ending the career of Lewis (53-7-3, 26 KOs) a month past his 30th birthday.

Over the years I would see Lewis working the corners with Futch, Thell Torrence and Freddy Roach. All schooled by the legendary Futch. In a recent telephone call I mentioned to him I had seen him during his hey days on the Johnny Carson Show with Ryan O’Neal who he still has a close relationship with today. I asked who his toughest opponent was and to no surprise he said “Jose Napoles in the first fight. The second fight I was really too sick to fight but had little choice.” I asked about his relationship with Futch. He said “Eddie was like a grandfather to me.” I told him that he was responsible for one of the top trainers today. He asked “who is that?” I told him “a young fighter was in the gym with you and you used his head for a speed bag. He realized he better start thinking of training fighters instead of fighting them. He happens to be one of the toughest, and well respected trainers in the business, Jesse Reid.” With that Lewis and I had a good laugh together.

It’s my opinion Lewis was the one who set the stage style wise for Sugar Ray Leonard. While Leonard had Tommy “The Hit Man” Hearns to contend with, Lewis had Jose “Mantiquilla” Napoles. Both today are hall of fame fighters. Lewis was inducted to the California Boxing Hall Of Fame on August 19, 2006. On style alone he should be inducted into the International Hall of Fame. I’m sure he put a smile on a young Ray Leonard’s face like he did to thousands of us over a period from 1966 thru 1976.

Ken at: kenhissner@yahoo.com

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