I learned a few minutes ago that Hedgemon Lewis, who fought for a world title three times in the 1970s, has passed away. He was 74.
As a tribute to Mr. Lewis, I’m rerunning my article from last month.
By John J. Raspanti
I remember him very well.
Some called him the poor man’s Sugar Ray Robinson.
Let’s keep it real. Hedgemon Lewis couldn’t punch like the Sugar man, who scored 108 knockouts in his long career, compared to 26 for Lewis. Nor could he take a shot like Robinson. But he could move, with a pair of very fast hands.
Lewis was talented and flashy.
“He was a brilliant boxer with a fantastic left jab,” wrote John H. Stracey, former welterweight champion of the world, responding to me a few weeks ago on Facebook. “Very, very underrated.”
I asked former champion Carlos Palomino about Lewis a few days ago.
“Hedgemon was an incredible boxer,” said Palomino, who fought to a majority draw with Lewis in 1975. “Great hand speed and defensive skills.”
Lewis was barely 12 when he first laced on the gloves at Northern Recreation Center in Detroit, MI. One of his teammates was future trainer Emmanuel Steward. Lewis quickly revealed his talent, capturing the National Golden Gloves competition in the lightweight division in 1964.
After picking up another amateur trophy in 1966, Lewis, 20, turned professional. He went 9-0, with five KOs. His win streak was at 22, when Lewis, now fighting out of Los Angeles, met the formidable Ernie Lopez at the legendary Olympic Auditorium.
This was a glorious time in the annuals of the welterweight division in the Southern California area. The division was loaded with talent. For the next 10 years, most of the top fighters would face off in grueling affairs of the heart.
Lewis boxed beautifully in the first half of the fight, until the relentless Lopez began to catch him. The fight was stopped in the ninth round with Lopez declared the winner.
“I felt I was strong all the way,” Lewis told the AP after the bout. “But he nailed me with a good right and he was able to follow it up.”
Lewis was back in the ring less than two months later, after his loss to Lopez. He won several fights before facing the dangerous Oscar “Shotgun” Albarado at the Olympic in 1969. Albarado was riding a 24-fight winning streak. Lewis ended it, using speed and elusiveness to slice and dice Albarado.
Next up was a rematch with Lopez back at the Olympic. Lewis floored Lopez in the fourth round, and won the fight by decision. Some at ringside disagreed. An immediate rematch was arranged, this time at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles.
Like the first fight between the pair, Lewis got off to a lead. The determined Lopez kept chasing, bouncing shots off Lewis in the later rounds. The fight was up for grabs entering the 10th and final round.
“I knew it was close going into the last round,” said Lopez. “I didn’t want to get robbed again, so I shot the works.”
Yes, he did. Lopez won by stoppage in the last round in a “Fight of the Year” candidate.
No rest for the weary, Lewis returned to Detroit two months later and won by stoppage.
He was determined to get back in the title mix.
A close loss to talented Adolph Pruitt didn’t deter a title shot against legendary Jose Napoles at the Forum in Inglewood, CA. The fight was a see-saw battle with aggressive Napoles working the body and head, while Lewis tattooed the champion with numerous jabs. Napoles won the fight by close unanimous decision.
Lewis was 25. He had compiled an impressive record of 40 wins and only four losses. Six months after the disappointing loss to Napoles, Lewis traveled to Syracuse, NY, to fight former welterweight champion, and local favorite, Billy Backus for the vacant New York State Athletic Commission belt. Lewis knocked down Backus in round two—winning the match by unanimous decision.
He defended the title once, defeating Backus again in 1972. Lewis faced Napoles for the second time in 1974. Napoles ignored a cut over his eye and beat up Lewis until the fight was stopped in round nine.
Lewis wasn’t done yet. He lost a close decision to Armando Muniz a few months after the Napoles fight. Being a Muniz fan, I was worried going into the bout. Lewis had been in some wars, and perhaps slowed down a tad, but he was still a tricky boxer.
Palomino found that out eleven months later at the Olympic. Most boxing scribes said Lewis was an “old” 29. He had engaged in 59 fights in nine years. Palomino had won 17 of 18 fights. He was favored, but Lewis fought well, the bout ending in a majority draw.
Lewis went to London to fight titleholder Stracey in 1976. He knew this was his last chance. He tried, but Stracey wore him down and won by stoppage in round 10.
“He (Lewis) was possibly the toughest opponent I ever fought,” said Stracey.
Lewis retired after his loss, having been victorious in 53 of 60 fights. He stayed near the sport he loved, working the corner with his former trainer and Hall of Famer, Eddie Futch. Lewis was well-liked. Palomino called him a “great guy” as did Muniz. He was classy and soft-spoken, greeting people with a handshake and hug.
He shared a close friendship with his former manager, actor Ryan O’Neil.
Lewis’ older sister said in an article by John Monaghan of the Detroit Free Press that Lewis and O’Neil were like brothers.
Hedgemon Lewis fought at a time when the welterweight division was loaded with talent. He basically met them all, won a part of a title, and came close to winning a world title.
Now 73, and in poor health, Lewis lives in an assisted living facility in Detroit, MI.
A number of years ago, Lewis told Dean Juipe of the Las Vegas Sun:
“I’ve done the best I could in boxing, I’ve had fun. I’ve had a ball. I got to travel and I met a lot of people."
As always, classy.
Hedgemon Lewis passed away March 31, 2020. Rest in peace.