Boxing collects black eyes the way a philatelist collects stamps. Yet the world would have us believe that in the collective known as sport, boxing is a slut among pristine virgins. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Basketball has tattooed cross-dressers. Baseball has pathological gamblers. Football has murderers. They break necks in hockey.
In the midst of so much mayhem, boxing doesn’t look that bad.
One of the times boxing looked bad was on June 16, 1983. That was the night up-and-coming welterweight Billy Collins Jr. fought journeyman Luis Resto in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Collins was seconded by his father and trainer Billy Collins Sr. Resto had Panama Lewis in his corner.
To the surprise of almost everyone, Resto beat Collins to within an inch of his life. The formerly good-looking prospect was a ruined man. After the fight, a suspicious Billy Collins Sr. asked that Resto’s gloves be impounded as evidence. The NYPD determined that the gloves had been tampered with. Most of the horsehair padding had been removed before the fight.
Lewis and Resto were tried, convicted and sentenced for assault, conspiracy, and possession of a deadly weapon. Resto served two years. Lewis did one. Panama Lewis was banned for life from the sport of boxing in the United States. Billy Collins died a year after the fight, drunk and despondent behind the wheel of a speeding car.
The boxing trainer Panama Lewis was born Carlos Humberto Lewis in the Panama Canal Zone and has been fighting forever.
“I was an amateur fighter in Panama and then I turned pro,” Lewis tells me. “I started off boxing in 1960, 118 pounds, bantamweight. I had twenty amateur fights, only lost once. Then I went to professional and I only lost once there too. I went into the U.S. Army in 1969 and got out in ‘71. I’m a disabled veteran. I met Eddie Gregory, known as Eddie Mustafa, and I hooked up with his trainer, Chickie Ferrara, and he taught me a lot. I met Mr. Ray Arcel in 1971.”
Ray Arcel was to pugilists what Siegfried and Roy were to big cats.
“I went on with Mr. Ray Arcel and I went on with Mr. Freddie Brown, because they both used to work together and they was training Roberto Duran. I have to give all blessing to God,” Lewis declares. “And the next man I have to give blessing to is Roberto Duran, because if it wasn’t for Roberto Duran, there wouldn’t be no Panama Lewis. He gave me the opportunity to work in the corner as the fourth man, to translate, and with that I learned. Plus I’m gifted to see things and move on. I’m a fast thinker. I’m a good motivator. The only man who could top me with that was a man named, God bless him, Bundini Brown.”
Drew “Bundini” Brown was the mirror in Ali’s corner who cast his good spell on Ali and his bad spell on Ali’s opponents.
“I knew Roberto Duran in Panama. I was in the family,” continues Lewis. “I was part of Duran’s family.”
I mention that Roberto Duran, in my opinion, was one of the greatest lightweights in history.
“Not one of them,” Lewis says. “He’s the only great lightweight champion whoever put his foot on the planet.”
I ask if he thinks Duran was better than Benny Leonard.
Panama Lewis smiles. “You know greatness when you see it,” he says. “Like when I had Aaron Pryor. He was the best 140-pounder ever done it. So I’m blessed to work with good fighters. I work with Mike McCallum. I work with Livingstone Bramble. I work with Camacho Sr. I had a chance also to train Michael Nunn. I gave him four defenses. I made Vito Antuofermo world champion. I did that. I can go on and on today with you naming great fighters, but all that’s saying is that you have to have a blessing from God. I am blessed with boxing. Even though they took away what I’m supposed to have – you understand? – I’ll get it back because they can’t stop that.”
There’s an old adage which says a trainer is only as good as his fighter. I ask Panama Lewis if that is true.
“I’ll put it this way,” he replies. “The trainer gotta be a teacher, to teach the fighter to show his greatness. But if you work with that fighter and the fighter look bad, you can look bad at the trainer. So is a double-whammy here. The trainer makes the fighter and the fighter makes the trainer, in a sense.”
Although Panama was born in Panama, he was a classic New York gym rat.
“I started off in the 149th and Third Avenue, Bobby Gleason’s Gym. That’s where I really started off,” Lewis says. “Then I went by a little gym over here, got to Stillman’s, traveled around to get boxing. I’m from the old school. But what I do, I mix the old school with the new school. You cannot bring the old school without mixing it with the new school. I don’t believe in a fighter leaving everything up to lifting weight. I don’t wanna hear what his strengthening coach gotta say. Back in the old days you go and rake grass, you chop trees down, you work hard in the gym and you spar. That weightlifting thing don’t work for every fighter. It works for some fighter, but not a skillful fighter.”
I ask Lewis to elaborate.
“You may have muscles,” the trainer says, “but muscles don’t win fights. The brain wins fights. That’s why a lot of fighter’s careers end up quick, because they’re not thinking fighters. Then you be talking with your tongue heavy. Know what I’m saying? This thing kills. But boxing is an art. Once you learn the art, you can go places. And you have to live clean. In a sense, that’s why George Foreman could a came back and did what he did. A lot of these fighters trying to do that, and they’re gonna get hurt, because they didn’t live the life George Foreman lived. I don’t think Holyfield is finished. I think he could fight still, but he can’t beat no great fighter or no young guy. He’s gotta look for somebody old like himself. I can’t speak for him, but if I was him, in his shoes, with the money he made, I wouldn’t be in the game today.”
Everyone agrees – everyone, that is, except Evander – that Holyfield should call it a day. I ask Lewis why he thinks the Real Deal – or any other fighter, for that matter, who fights past his prime – resists hanging ‘em up.
“What they miss is when they cross the street and people say: Here comes the champion. When you retire you don’t hear that. They miss that spotlight. They miss that crowd. They live for that. That is a big high for them.”
That may be a big high for them, but it can be a big low for the rest of us.
“He shouldn’t have fought no Larry Donald. I wouldn’t fight Larry Donald,” Panama Lewis says, “because he’s a stinker. He runs. He grabs. And if you beat Larry Donald you’re going nowhere. All you do is look stupid, like he did in the fight. So he fought the wrong fighter.”
Is there a top-ten fighter Holyfield can beat? What about WBO champ Lamon Brewster?
Panama Lewis makes a face: “Brewster is a champion because Wladimir Klitschko got no heart.”
Team Klitschko had several explanations for Wlad’s poor performance that night, blaming it on everything from Vaseline on the legs to poison in the water bottle.
“No, no, listen to me,” Lewis says excitedly. “Excuses. You’ve gotta bring heart to the game. He’s in condition, but he can’t take it, and he quit, gave up. There ain’t no excuses. So he should get out before he gets hurt. But he ain’t going to do it, because of the money they’re giving him. The brother, Vitali, at least comes to fight.”
Vitali Klitschko’s last fight was his demolition of Danny Williams.
“Danny Williams became famous because Mr. Mike Tyson’s leg got messed up. Trust me, if it weren’t for the leg, you wouldn’t be hearing no Danny Williams fighting no Klitschko. But things happen in the game when you’re thirty-eight. You leave the dressing room good, you try in that ring, and all the sudden your body go ‘whoop’ because of your age. I don’t wanna dog his victory,” Lewis says. “He beat Tyson because Tyson wasn’t Tyson that night. If the leg was good – you seen the fight – you know Williams wasn’t going no three, four rounds with Tyson.”
Panama Lewis has done it all, the good, the bad and the ugly. Under the circumstances, I wonder if he has mixed feelings about the sweet science.
“I’ve been in it for the last thirty-eight years and it’s all I know to do,” he says. “This is a blessing God gave me. That’s why nobody can take away what God gave me: the knowledge of the game. And I’m blessed in motivation. I could take a bad fighter and make him a good fighter, because I’m a teacher. There are few teachers left in the game, very few teachers left in the game, and I’m fortunate to be one of them.”
Panama Lewis, despite the odds, is standing at the final bell.
“You know what keep me grounded?” he asks. “That keep me going? A man named Jesus Christ. God keep me going. The bible keep me strong. Everybody in this world, except God, commits sins – understand? – Even the President of the United States. So who am I to talk? When they talk about me, I feel good because I’m still important. ‘Oh, Panama Lewis, he’s the one . . . ’ That make me famous still. When I don’t hear about Panama Lewis, then I worry. God gave me the gift to motivate. God gave me the gift to be a teacher in boxing. Not a trainer, a teacher. So that’s why good fighters come to me – because they want to learn how to fight. Being a trainer is more than putting on a towel and tell a man to give me three rounds, give me four rounds, give me five rounds. No. You got to teach your fighters. That’s what I’m gifted with. They can’t take that away from me.”