July 25, 2012
Lewis now championing East End home
By THANE BURNETT, QMI Agency
LONDON - Boxing legend Lennox Lewis may have a comeback career as a champion for the underdog.
Earlier this month, one of the sport's greatest fighters lent muscle to the cause of Lennox the Labrador-American Bulldog, sentenced to die by officials in Belfast, Northern Ireland, simply because of its breed.
Now the 1988 Olympic gold medalist and later world heavyweight champ is back in this city's gritty East End, where the majority of the 2012 Olympics will take place.
While Canadians treat him as their own, Lewis was born in the Cockney corner of London and, as part of an Olympic legacy promise, is making the rounds hoping to bring pride and prosperity to his childhood streets.
He recalls feeding off the area's energy, especially during weekend soccer games.
"That's when it was the rowdiest," he explains.
Though, as a youngster, he also loved the fish and chips produced by local merchants. He still returns here to feast on them.
He used to jump on area buses as a child -- getting a free ride until the stern conductors would came down and kick him off.
He traveled far in the years to follow, but has come full circle for the cause.
In a London promotional video, Lewis points out: "I've got a British passport and a Canadian passport, and obviously my British passport comes first."
When I take him aside, he pulls his punches and treats both countries with care.
"Britain is my mother, but Canada was there to nurture me," he tells me.
It always pains him to watch Canadian athlete go head-to-head with their British counterparts.
And, yes, he wants Canada to do well.
Of course he hopes the Summer Games return to Canada. And he asks why professional boxers can't compete in the Olympics if pro basketball players can go for the gold?
But those are fights that will be decided down the road.
Right now, Lewis is in the East End's corner, hoping it benefits from the immediate attention -- and money -- offered up by hosting the world.
While he has fond memories of growing up here, the East End is economically depressed, weighed down with high unemployment rates and substandard housing. The district of Bethnal Green and Bow reportedly has a child poverty rate of one of every two children.
So the aim was for the Olympics to help create 20,000 jobs in five host boroughs, and jumpstart long-term improvements. Organizers have fallen short of the job target but analysts say there's progress that can be built on.
But how much progress can come to an area without gutting the people who know it best? Some locals complain about an influx of young, white-collar owners looking for profit instead of community. The price of homes near the main Olympic site have gone up substantially since the Games were awarded.
The increase amounts to 33%, versus a country average of 24%.
Lewis says he feels a duty to plug away for streets where he found his own footing.
He's even brought his family here so they can see it through his eyes -- what London's East End was and can be after the Olympics leave.
With the right moves, East End London could walk away one of the biggest winners from these Games. But some fights in life are tougher than standing toe to toe with Shannon Briggs and Mike Tyson in their prime.
And even Lewis knows no outcome is certain when the bell rings.
After all, despite the outpouring of support for Lennox the dog, who apparently didn't know what it was to fight or take a bite, Belfast officials still went ahead and put him to sleep.