Historic meetings: When Nelson Mandela met Lennox Lewis

Nelson Mandela was one of the most iconic political figures of the 20th century. The anti-apartheid campaigner and political leader was President of South Africa between 1994 and 1999. As the nation’s first black head of state, he was also its first president elected in a fully democratic election.

Serving as president and leader of the African National Congress party from 1991 to 1997, he and his government focused on wiping out apartheid by tackling racism and promoting racial reconciliation. His rise to president followed his arrest in 1962, when he was found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the state.

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Mandela served 27 years of a life sentence, until President Frederik Willem de Klerk released him from jail in 1990, amid growing international and domestic pressure demanding his release and fears of a civil war.

Following his release, Mandela and de Klerk led efforts to end apartheid, resulting in the 1994 multi-racial general election, when Mandela led the African National Congress to victory. He earned international acclaim and was regarded as an icon of democracy and social justice.

He was awarded more than 250 honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize. Following his death in 2013, at the age of 95, Mandela left his great legacy in South Africa. Held in high esteem, he is often referred to as the “Father of the Nation”.

Keen boxer and runner

Mandela always took a keen interest in the sporting world and met many sports stars including the legendary footballers Pele and David Beckham; boxers Lennox Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Michael Spinks and Joe Frazier; golfers Tiger Woods and Ernie Els; cricketer Brian Lara; and many more.

Born in July 1918 in Mvezo, Umtata, Mandela was a talented sportsman himself in his youth. As a pupil at Healdtown school in Fort Beaufort, he excelled as a long-distance runner and boxer, spending much of his spare time in the boxing ring, retaining an interest all his life.

He continued boxing while a student at Fort Hare University. Later, while working in Johannesburg in the 1940s and ’50s, he carried on boxing in the heavyweight division, although he didn’t fight professionally and was modest about his skills.

While campaigning against racism and apartheid, he admitted to taking out his “anger and frustration” on the punchbag, rather than on the police. During his long prison term, he still followed boxing and kept himself fit by training.

He believed a sporting routine was the key to both physical and mental health. Exercise helps to dissipate tension, which Mandela described as the “enemy of serenity”. He said when he felt in good shape physically, he worked better and thought more clearly.

Sport can “change the world”

There was more to Mandela’s meeting sports stars than a simple interest in sport, however. He believed sport played an important role in combating racism. He famously said, “Sport has the power to change the world … the power to inspire.”

He felt sport could unite people in a way that little else could, speaking to young people in a language they could understand. “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers,” he said.

It was back in 2001 when Nelson Mandela met Lennox Lewis, the former world heavyweight champion. At a time when the sporting legend’s career was at its peak, Lewis, the undisputed heavyweight champion, was in South Africa.

The British heavyweight title holder had taken up boxing at secondary school, as Mandela had. Lewis had won a string of titles, including Olympic and Commonwealth medals, during a career spanning from 1989 to 2003.

He won 41 out of his 44 career fights, including 32 knockouts; he won Olympic gold at Seoul in the 1988 Olympics; gold at the 1986 Commonwealth Games; and multiple other medals in the super heavyweight category. He is still the last heavyweight boxer to hold the undisputed championship.

Lewis’s shock defeat

In April 2001, Lewis was fighting Hasim Rahman in South Africa, suffering a shock defeat. He recalled his loss was softened by Mandela’s support – especially when he heard the legendary leader was a boxing connoisseur and wanted to meet him.

Lewis recalled how Mandela offered him friendly support as soon as they met, telling the boxer, “Don’t worry. He caught you with a lucky punch,” advising Lewis, “Get your jab working again. You’ll beat him next time.”

Mandela and Lewis spent a whole day talking in Soweto. Mandela related the true stories of his own lifelong fight against racism. “He taught me a great deal of history,” Lewis said.

Mandela’s aides were urging him to go out to his press conference, as the journalists were awaiting him. Lewis stood up to let Mandela go in front of him. However, instead, Mandela pushed the boxer out of the door first, confusing the waiting press.

“Everybody’s was looking at me and saying, ‘That’s not Mandela!’ – I thought it was great seeing his jovial side,” Lewis admitted. Mandela spoke to the waiting reporters about Lewis’s defeat, saying, “He must not worry – he will come back and do very well.”

His words were true, as in the rematch in November 2001, billed “The Final Judgement”, Lewis defeated Rahman in the fourth round.

Tribute to Mandela

Following the sad death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, Lennox Lewis paid tribute to the legendary leader, describing how he had lost one of his “lifelong heroes”. He said Mandela had lived his life by example, exhibiting “dedication, commitment and unwavering love” for the entire human race.

“His legacy will continue to help shape the world for many generations to come,” Lewis added, expressing his gratitude that he had been able to meet his hero.

Today, Lewis, aged 55, says although he remembers the intensity of a boxing match, he doesn’t miss being in the ring. He still does a lot of commentating and the crowd’s roar brings back memories, but he adds, “I remember it, but I don’t need it.”

Meeting Nelson Mandela was one of Lewis’s proudest moments and it grabbed the attention of a new, young audience, who might previously not have known much about Mandela and South Africa’s history. This is why it was such an important meeting in history, as it alerted a new generation to Mandela’s plight.

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