Lewis: The Aldgate Sphinx
By Mike Casey
He was instantly recognisable and as intimidating to behold as he
was to fight. If you could ignore the flashing fists of Ted Kid Lewis for a few
precious seconds, there was little comfort to be gained from contemplating his
fearsome countenance. The large baleful eyes in the large jutting head were set
into a wholly individual face that seemed permanently chunky and swollen.
Lewis was known as the Aldgate Sphinx after the tough area of
London from which he hailed and the quite terrifyingly impassive expression he
carried into battle. Like the eyes of the shark, those menacing peepers of Tedís
were emotionally dead yet vibrantly alive in their scope and intelligence.
Now, as I watched the film avidly, he was hunting down the clever
Johnny Basham at the Royal Albert Hall in the early winter of 1920, never once
betraying his frustration at failing to trap his elusive prey. Quick and
skilful, full of artful feints and shifts, Basham had fashioned a handy points
lead after eighteen rounds, but The Kid kept shadowing him with the patience of
a wily tiger that knows the best meals can take a long time coming.
Lewis was eternally fascinating to watch as he stalked the ring
with his hands often held almost at his sides. I am always amused when todayís
young prospects are castigated for holding their hands low, as if this is
something new. For years, this was the vogue, the only difference being that the
past masters were taught more thoroughly how to feint, slip and block punches.
Ted Kid Lewis was no defensive genius, let us be clear on that. But like
Dempsey, Armstrong, Duran and numerous other fighters loosely referred to as
Ďsluggersí, The Kid was more than proficient at protecting himself.
Tedís left glove would often rest on his thigh as he pursued
Basham, a deceptively dangerous weapon in its apparent slumber. His right hand
would be held only a tad higher, cranked comfortably into its firing position,
half cocked but never telegraphing the volley of vicious hooks that would
spearhead the next attack.
Lewis would explode with lightning quickness when he spotted his
chance. He would vary his attack, sometimes using a stiff jab to open the door,
sometimes using it as a range finder for the heavier artillery. Very often, he
would simply spring like a cat at Basham, firing the big blows in quick
There never seemed a moment when Ted was idle in the ring, even
when he was having to make the most of a bad job. Basham was a shrewd mechanic,
a thinking man who used the ring beautifully, and it was essential for Lewis to
make the most of the rare chances that came his way. The Kid was a demon in the
clinches, working all the time, ripping punches to Bashamís body to slow him
down and tire him out.
Clever Johnny was so close to home when the violent end came in
the nineteenth round. Having skilfully danced and manoeuvred his way around the
tornado all night long, he was suddenly sucked into its eye and sent tumbling by
a ferocious two-fisted combination that culminated in a big left hook to the
jaw. Clearly dazed, Basham was up at nine but now had nowhere to hide and no
more cards to play. Trapped near the ropes, he was caught by a fusillade of
punches and was trying desperately to escape when The Kidís final left hook
swept him into oblivion.
How good was Ted Kid Lewis? We will flesh out some of his
fabulous achievements, but the naked details alone are impressive enough, so
much so that even the most dedicated historians live in fear of leaving out an
important event or a vital statistic when listing them.
To The Kidís 301 recorded professional fights, we must first
attach the important addendum, Ďagainst all oddsí. For most of his career, Ted
was conceding significant poundage to a great many of his opponents and also
going into their back yards to do so. Aside from his native Britain, he fought
in America, Australia, Canada, South Africa, France, Italy and Germany. In one
incredible sprint, he fought six times in seven nights in different cities.
His all-action, courageous style made him a popular favourite of
American fight fans, but the referees and judges were often far less charitable.
We despair of chicanery in boxing now, but in The Kidís era it was nigh
impossible to keep track of the dupes and injustices. In the muddled era of the
no-decision, he lost newspaper verdicts that defied belief. He wasnít even safe
in his heartland of England, where he was knocked out by Georges Carpentier
while the referee was touching Tedís arm and admonishing him for an earlier
infraction. Lewis was conceding 25lbs to Carpentier that night and was giving
the French ace a rare old thrashing when Britainís habit of being nice to
visitors reached ridiculous proportions.
During his exciting sojourn in America, Lewis proved to be the
scourge of the two great aces from Minnesota: Mike Gibbons, the St Paul Phantom,
and Mike OíDowd, the St Paul Cyclone. Both boys were wonderful fighters and very
different in style. The handsome Gibbons, brother of light-heavyweight Tommy,
was a masterful boxer whom former Ring editor Nat Fleischer grouped with Sam
Langford and Packey McFarland as the greatest trio of fighters never to win an
official world title.
OíDowd was rough, tough, hugely knowledgeable, and enjoyed a long
reign as middleweight champion just before the coming of Harry Greb. Mike
actually met the still maturing Greb in 1917 and is credited with getting the
better of the Pittsburgh Windmill in their fiery ten rounder.
Ted Kid Lewis proved himself more than the equal of OíDowd and
Gibbons. Ted weighed 139lbs when he stormed through Gibbons in their 1916 match
at Madison Square Garden for Mikeís middleweight title claim. The Kid won
handily in the eyes of just about everyone except the New York Times, which
reported an easy win for Mike. Make of that what you will.
Lewis fought five no-decision bouts with OíDowd, edging their
first meeting according to the Ring encyclopaedia, but losing four newspaper
verdicts. Alas, like so many other clashes of ring giants from that era, we will
never know the true story.
For all of his fateful misfortunes, Lewis scooped nine official
championships in his long and illustrious career, starting out as a
featherweight and working his way through the divisions. At one point in his
career, despite rarely hitting the scales at more than 140lbs, he held the
British welterweight, middleweight and light-heavyweight titles simultaneously.
However, it was in his natural element of the welterweight
division that The Kid made his name as one of the greatest of world champions,
as he became locked in an epic twenty-fight rivalry with the man known as the
Boxing Marvel: the brilliant New Yorker, Jack Britton.
Ted Kid Lewis genuinely loved to fight. In his case, the reason
for being was that simple. Yes, he loved the money too. Name me one fighter who
didnít. It is estimated that Ted earned around £500,000 in his boxing career,
which sounds almost quaint by todayís standards. But it enabled him to wear the
finest clothes, drive the fastest cars and even own a racehorse. Charlie Chaplin
became a personal friend and a godparent to Tedís son.
The money was all gone before Lewis stopped fighting, but still
he fought and still he loved his profession.
Born Gershon Mendeloff, Tedís first unofficial opponent was his
strict father. Old man Mendeloff didnít care for his son fighting, but young Ted
knew his destiny and carried on scrapping behind his fatherís back. Frail of
physique as a youngster, The Kid did his roadwork in Londonís Victoria Park,
where he also rowed for hours to build up the strength in his arms, chest and
legs. On one occasion he fell out of his boat and straight into a blind panic,
fearful that he was drowning. He later admitted, with a sheepish smile, that he
was in two feet of water when he finally scrambled to his feet!
The dedication to his fitness quickly reaped its rewards as his
slender body developed its strength and muscle definition. As a young
featherweight, he began to make his name with a string of impressive victories,
fighting most of his preliminary battles at the Judaeans Athletic Club.
Ted dropped a six rounds decision to Johnny Sharp in his pro
debut in 1909, but the effect of that harsh christening couldnít have been more
positive. By 1912, incredibly, Lewis had logged 93 contests and lost just four.
And he was still only considered a domestic prospect!
Then the roof appeared to fall in on the eager youngster when he
was matched with a man he had already beaten in Duke Lynch. A terrific right by
the Duke laid The Kid out in the opening round and prompted the usual cynical
murmurs. Lewis didnít have the necessary tools, argued some critics. And he
certainly couldnít take a punch. How The Kid ridiculed those two notions in the
glorious years ahead.
Never one to indulge in self-pity or lengthy naval gazing, Lewis
steamed back into contention with another batch of wins before meeting the
skilful Alec Lambert for the vacant British and European featherweight titles at
the National Sporting Club. The jury was still out on Ted and many saw the match
as being a step too far for the young juggernaut.
Anxious to win the prized Lonsdale Belt to impress his doubting
father, The Kid took to the ring with fire in his soul and a determination to
win that would power him through the rest of his glittering career. He set a
ferocious pace which Lambert was never able to adjust to, mounting waves of
two-fisted hooking attacks. As hard as the cagey Lambert tried to fend off the
charging assaults, Lewis kept finding a way inside to batter his manís ribs.
Lambertís face told the tale of his punishment, his face seeming
to slowly drain of blood as the hard blows rained home. He could do nothing to
turn the tide or even stem the flood. As his strength and endurance began to
leak away, so The Kidís resources seemed to double as he upped his already
brutal tempo and kept firing away.
Lambertís fortitude was outstanding in the face of such a violent
storm, but he was trading on nothing but his courage when Lewis ended the fight
in the seventeenth round.
Ted Kid Lewis arrived in earnest that night and seemed to linger
forever as he surged through the weight divisions in the following years to
carve his legend. His appetite for bigger and heavier opponents was no less
voracious, but it was as a welterweight that he sealed his place in the history
books. The glib and the lazy among biographers always refer to Lewis as the guy
who had all those fights with Jack Britton. Similarly, they pigeon-hole Jack as
the fellow who made a career out of fighting Ted Kid Lewis. Well, that is a very
easy way to shrink two magnificent careers into a convenient pint pot.
Yes, Ted and Jack fought those twenty fights and swapped the
welterweight crown with each other like a couple of kids trading the same
baseball cards. But this was a battle of supremacy between two of the genuine
titans of boxing, one an exceptional wrecking ball of a man and the other a
boxing genius whose sublime skills carried him through 347 fights. Jack had the
official edge on Ted when the final count was in, but we simply donít know the
full details of all their stirring tussles.
Look up the records of these two ring marvels and study the other
famous names sprinkled through them. Both crossed swords with Mike Glover,
Willie Ritchie, the legendary Benny Leonard, the great middleweight champion
Mike OíDowd and that perennial tough nut of the era, Soldier Bartfield. In the
twilight of his career, Lewis even had a go at light-heavyweight great Maxie
Britton tested his mettle against Philadelphia Pal Moore, Leach
Cross, Packey McFarland and Charley White. It is rarely mentioned that Jack was
a jaded thirty-seven year old when he finally lost his welterweight crown to
The modern fan poring over all those title fights between Lewis
and Britton might easily misconstrue their rivalry as being something of an old
pals act. Nothing could be further from the truth. The competition between the
two men burned with intensity through its six-year duration and began in August
1915 when Ted dethroned Jack on a 12-rounds decision at the Boston Armory.
For those who labour under the sweet delusion that the fighters
of the past were too gentlemanly to trade insults or ignore the traditional
pre-fight customs, let it be said that Mr Lewis and Mr Britton didnít behave
like boy scouts prior to their Boston donnybrook. The two fighters exchanged
threats, refused to shake hands and tried their best to take each otherís heads
off in the battle proper. They would need a further nineteen arguments before
they got the bad blood out of their system.
Most of the rematches were no-decision affairs, but it is
probably safe to assume that they were never dull. Jack finally put the lid on
the long-running feud with a unanimous decision over The Kid at Madison Square
Garden in February 1921.
When Ted Kid Lewis returned home to England from his
unforgettable campaign in America, the general consensus was that he was near
the end of his career as a top flight fighter. It was typical of the tenacious
and contrary East End slasher that he found a few more exciting chapters to
In 1921, he won the vacant British middleweight title from Jack
Bloomfield on a 20-rounds decision. A year later, he had the effrontery to step
all the way up to heavyweight and blast out big Tom Gummer in one round at
Then came the astonishing fight with Georges Carpentier in 1922,
when Lewis challenged for the Frenchmanís world light-heavyweight championship.
Carpentier, a brilliant talent, had also started young and moved up through the
weight divisions with outstanding success. Just a year earlier, he had jolted
the great Jack Dempsey before being overwhelmed in his audacious challenge for
the richest prize in sport.
Against Lewis, the stunned Carpentier ran into a firestorm.
Taller, heavier and with an advantage in reach, the French ace was too shocked
to utilise his advantages as The Kid attacked him ferociously in the opening
round. Nobody could have guessed the shocking outcome as Lewis swerved, feinted
and repeatedly ducked under Carpentierís educated left hand to connect with a
succession of hurtful rib punches.
Losing his composure, Georges became uncharacteristically ragged
in his work as fired back wildly in his frantic effort to calm the stormy
waters. Seeking shelter from the hail of The Kidís blows, he began to clutch at
Lewis and look for some respite in the clinches.
Ted couldnít believe it when referee Joe Palmer broke the action
to warn both men for holding. Palmer was touching The Kidís arm as he issued the
admonishment, and Lewis turned to him to protest bitterly that he had been too
busy punching to hold.
Carpentier saw his chance and almost took flight as he cracked
Lewis flush with a terrific right. The Kid went out like a light as the crowd
erupted in its indignation. The protests were to no avail as Carpentier was
declared the winner by knockout. ďI felt cheated but I didnít bear any grudge,Ē
Lewis would later say.
Ted would continue to indulge in his great love of boxing,
fighting on until 1929, but he was never the same formidable force thereafter.
It had been a long time and a mighty eventful ride since he had stepped into the
office of a London newspaper reporter as a mere slip of a lad and boldly
proclaimed, ďIím a fighter and Iím going to try to win a championship.Ē
The Kid certainly did that. And then some!
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