Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson memoirs: Part one

Lewis-Tyson-The Pyramid-Memphis, Tennessee


A quadruple stretch limo, a Sean Connery/James Bond-era Rolls Royce, a $300,000 victory party and much more! A behind-the-scenes look back at Fight Week: Lennox Lewis versus Mike Tyson.


(Here are just a few notes from my personal journal dating from April through June of 2002 for the Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson promotion for Lewis’ undisputed heavyweight championship. I was the event coordinator for Fight Night Inc., in which we served as the official promoter of record for Mike Tyson. Looking back, it truly was like being in a movie. I am forever grateful to all those who gave me the chance to be a part of this history-making event. The following is Part One of a two-part journal.)



The flight to Memphis


Tickets, seating chart, limos, personal cars, SUVs, large buses, airport runs, flight arrangements, hotel reservations, meal vouchers, lighting and sound, signage, medicals, agreements and legal forms, credentials, gym set-up, arena ring set-up, ambulances, hospital on standby, licenses for trainers, cash budget, backup bell and striker with a whistle (that’s how detailed Bill Kozerski is!), corner cushions and bumper pads, radios, scale and certification, schedule of events and media relations…when I add all the individual items together, there are over 200 “to-dos” right here alone.


If I add in all the other to-dos from all the other entities involved in this promotion, without a doubt, it’s the most detailed and complex of any promotion that I have ever worked on. As noted previously in my journal, we’re working with three other promotional groups, including Main Events and Lion Promotions for Lewis, Prize Fight Promotions – the site promoter – two television networks, Showtime/Viacom and HBO/Time Warner, as well as the venue, The Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee. Each entity has a variety of responsibilities for the promotion and there’s no room for error. Add to this a joint broadcast team from both networks and production crews working together, two ring announcers (Michael Buffer for Lewis and Jimmy Lennon Jr. for Tyson), a total of six hotels, two “host” casino properties (one for each fighter), two private residences for the fighters and two training locations for Tyson. Oh, I can’t forget about multiple city officials and representatives from more branches of law enforcement and private security that I have yet to meet and see what that will involve.



LewIS vs. TysON – IS ON


Inside the airport, there’s a welcome station set up to assist anyone who needed information about the fight (hotels, schedule of events, etc). A staffer at the booth said they have scheduled over 100 more additional flights for fight week to meet the demand of reservations. It just confirmed that, regardless of where the bout would have taken place, nothing compares to that of a true heavyweight championship fight.


It is sundown but the humidity is thicker than any I have ever felt. It is so thick; it’s hard to breathe. The hotel is positioned right next to the Cook Convention Center, which will serve as fight headquarters and have individual offices for all entities involved with the promotion.


Outside the hotel, as Brian Young of Prize Fight and his staff brought us up to speed on several things, I could sense the nervous and complex energy that was going to push him through many restless nights this coming week. You have to respect his hustle for helping make this fight happen. Countless groups BS’ed in previous months but, from where I sat at my desk, Brian was the only one who I felt was capable of making the fight happen. Brian showed us the chauffeured sedans for the fighters’ managers, the vans for the fighter camps and the limos they had secured for both fighters. (No luck on the three Tyson promoter SUVs, so add that to my list of tasks: Drive to Tunica, Mississippi first thing in a.m.) Lennox’s limo was a white SUV that was so long, it could barely make the turn around in front of the hotel. It was the longest limo I have ever seen! While Memphis may have had one of the longest stretch limos in the nation, the Rolls Royce they secured for Mike looked like something out of a museum. It was even older than Emanuel Steward’s infamous Rolls. I took one look at that old white Roller and told Bill not to hurt anyone’s feelings but we needed to get rid of that fast!



Thursday, May 30, 2002


Sunrise wake-up call. We moved our equipment trunks over the Cook Convention Center into the “Fight Night Office” that would serve as the headquarters for the Tyson side of the promotion. Down the hall were offices for Prize Fight, Main Events, Lion Promotions and the athletic commission. After getting the game plan for the day in order, I am off to pick up the vehicles. It is not even noon and it is so humid I need to change my first shirt of the day.


I am taking a cab from Memphis to Tunica, Mississippi to grab each vehicle and drive it back. (Great reminder to everyone who only sees all the fun stuff on TV: you have to do whatever is required to get things done and lead by example). It is approximately one hour each way, if traffic is not bad, so there is not going to be any time to waste. I am riding in the back of a cab on a four-lane street/interstate and there are “LewIS vs. TysON – IS ON” signs everywhere.



The People’s Champ


I arrived at the dealership to pick up the remaining “Tyson vehicles” and was met by the owners, managers and several members of the staff, who all appeared interesting in finding out some info about the fight or about Mike’s chances against Lewis. Lennox may have been the champ and the “good guy,” according to the media but it was clear that Mike was still the “People’s Champ.” I shared some old stories from past promotions and some news from Hawaii from the Tyson training camp and they were genuinely mesmerized. Yes, use that word because that is the vibe I got when I shared the stories. I then handed off eight fight tickets to the owner and jumped in SUV No. 1.



Stars to the stars: Elvis and Tyson


Stop at Graceland: I cannot resist stopping at Graceland on the way back because it sits right on the main interstate I am traveling. No time to waste, moving fast, but not missing a thing. It is amazing to see how Elvis Presley lived. He was a man ahead of his time. He had the best of everything that was available and truly lived like a King. Elvis was a baller for real! Seeing how he lived reminded me a lot of Mike’s massive estate in Vegas, state-of-the-art security system, televisions, sound systems, private lounge, wardrobe and lots of bling, multiple buildings on the property and a great collection of vehicles. (Elvis had two planes that were on display on his estate as well). It was an eerie feeling when someone told me that Elvis was pretty much broke and out of money when he passed away.



Gym set-up


Mike’s trainers wanted a private location in which to train that was close to the rental house where Mike would stay. (I am going to have to be extra careful dealing with all the egos and agendas this week that are not listed on any “to do” lists!) We were able to get the gymnasium inside a recently closed elementary school for a very fair price. While some are spending big money on renting an 8,000 square foot mansion for Mike to stay in, I am watching pennies, knowing this might end up being Mike’s last big payday. The second gym would be in the ballroom at the Fitzgerald’s Casino in Tunica, Mississippi, where the new owner Detroiter Don Barden secured the right to be the “Official Training Camp for Mike Tyson.” For the past two months, I faxed designs and layouts for two gym locations for Mike, back and forth, between trainer Stacey McKinley in Hawaii and a local point person in Memphis who built the gyms, according to my specs. I made my way over to the school and checked on the progress being made and all was good. On the basketball court was a boxing ring and custom-built platforms for a slip bag, speed bag and heavy bag.



No free product placement


The ring in this location was brought down and being set up by a man from Ohio. He was 95% done and wanted to get paid but I was going to see that ring completed 100%, secure the building and then pay him before he headed back up North. All that remained was putting on the ring mat and the corner cushions. I decided to open up the boxes before I left to make sure everything was there. (Worst case, we had brought backups and even ordered extra sets for the Fitzgerald’s ring with logos.) To my surprise, they all were covered with a logo that had two hands on two jail cell bars and read “Thug Life.” My ass was on the line if I didnt make sure this was approved. I did not want someone thinking I was trying to hustle some side money. I made a couple calls, one to a person inside Tupac Shakur’s camp and one to Tyson’s camp. I was told this was not a company affiliated with Tupac and clearly not a deal that Tyson’s manager Shelly Finkel did. I then put a call into Mike Tyson Enterprises in Atlanta to reach Mike’s other “adviser” and she said she knew nothing about it and was pretty pissed someone was trying to hustle from free advertising. I noticed my local guy was making a call whispering to whomever he had on his phone that the jig was up! Mike’s adviser made it clear I was to remove them immediately.



Friday, May 31, 2002


Fighter Arrival


While the promotional groups for the fighters got along just fine and had a long history of working together, extreme measures were already being taken to keep the two fighters and their camps apart. We have designed two sets of color-coded, pre-fight credentials for both camps with Lewis in red and Tyson in blue. Lennox arrived in town and was busy taking part in a welcome parade in Memphis when the call came in.


MAYDAY! MAYDAY! No, Mike’s plane was not going down but several more thousand dollars of his money was! As Mike was en route to Memphis from Hawaii on a private jet, it was discovered that the brain trust at Iron Mike Productions in Atlanta had rented a house for Mike to stay in that was not only in the same gated subdivision as Lennox but on the same street! Bill began working with a realtor to locate a property that was “acceptable” to the decision makers at Tyson’s office and it had to be close travel distance to the Pyramid Arena, Cook Convention Center, Fitzgerald’s Casino in Tunica, Mississippi and his gym (as no one wants an unhappy fighter, especially Mike, with all surrounding his pre-fight wrap in the media to date).


I guess my local man, who set up the gym, left town when he did not get his cash to hook up the Thug Life deal and I was in desperate need of a crew to take down the gym he had just built! Brian Young’s brother gave me the info for a group that promoted fights at a local venue, the New Daisy Theater. Bill and I connected right at the same time as he found a house and I found a good gym, the Six 50 Health Club in Memphis, located not far from each other. The gym had a small group exercise studio that could fit a small ring, speed bag and heavy bag. I finally tracked down the group from the New Daisy and cut a deal to rent their smaller ring and use their crew to rebuild the gym. We had to meet at the school and take down everything except the ring, where it will remain vacant, like the school, until it gets picked up. It might have cost six figures but this is how it can get there real fast.



VIP arrival at private airstrip – Memphis


I got the Team Tyson vehicles together and positioned them on the tarmac at the private airstrip where Tyson was about to arrive on a private jet. Mike exited the plane with a dozen of his closest associates, including his infant son, Miguel (who my best friend Darryl welcomed into the world in Vegas, then flew him to Hawaii to spend the rest of training camp with Mike). Mike greeted the Mayor of Memphis WW Herenton (a man who really worked hard to bring this event to town) and then jumped in a limo. (I actually wondered what happened to that white old school Roller they had.) The rest of the crew on the jet (also including my other partner Anthony Harris) then all piled into three SUVs and two cargo vans and headed off to the newly-rented mansion. I am honestly cracking up at how that family, who owned the house, must have thought, “Oh, well; I guess no Hollywood VIP wants to rent our house this week,” then BAM, they end up renting it to Mike Tyson and have to be out of the house in a couple hours!



Abandoned school, abandoned gym


I met the New Daisy Theater crew that was led by the owner’s son. He was this short, little round kid in a cream-colored suit that looked like something Colonel Sanders wore in those old Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials. You could tell this kid was not going to lift a finger to work. Regardless of me being in a Boss suit, I still had work to do. I joined the crew and we broke down the other equipment I had custom-built. By this time, I had to arrange for the health club to stay open all night if necessary. It was late; thick humidity hung in the air and everyone was tired, hungry and irritated. While we started unloading the rented moving truck, that little Colonel Sanders actually sat there and started eating some fried chicken. If only I was kidding! He sat there and did not even bother to offer if anyone wanted anything to even drink and made disgusting sounds as he ate like a pig in slop. Mike’s trainers Ronnie Shields and Stacey McKinley (whom I knew, dating back many years from Detroit) stopped by to check things out and told me Mike would be training tomorrow. I ended up buying a shirt at K-Mart during one run down to Home Depot because I was drenched in sweat, by this point. Bill was posted up in his SUV and worked from his cell phone to make sure everything went smooth. The lazy kid sitting there was clearly pissing his crew off and grew more irritated with each passing minute. If I lost these guys, I was fucked. They were growing restless and, by this time, came close to busting the ring through the glass door on a few occasions. We got done just before the sun came up and, when I went to pay the workers, Colonel Sanders wanted the money and he would pay his workers (whatever he wanted to pay them, no doubt, so he could skim some off the top). I paid the workers directly and also got clearance to give each one a ticket to the fight (I did not give the Colonel one).



Saturday, June 1, 2002


Training day


Stacey called me to notify me when Mike would be training that day at the gym. I got there early to meet Stacey and Ronnie and – thank God – everything was to their liking…well, almost everything. When the next group arrived ahead of Mike, one person tried out the speed bag and then told me it needed to be adjusted because Mike needed it a certain way and, furthermore, the thermostat was not at the exact temperature Mike would want it. Then, not even a minute later, another person repeated this process. I just told them do as they needed, at this point. I took a seat by my man Anthony Harris as he set up the radio and CDs. He told me to just post up by him in the corner and, if there were a problem, I would be onhand to handle it. The small, make-shift boxing gym was over 100 degrees by the time Mike walked in and sweat was just rolling off me. Anthony handed me a “gym towel” and I couldn’t help but notice Mike’s gym towels were Versace. There must have been a few thousand dollars in towels in that big box! Mike checked out the ring and was shaking his head bouncing around in a section of the ring and also seemed to notice some uneven spots caused by the wood planks. Security member Anthony Pitts motioned for me from the door and I was off without seeing Mike train because I had to go secure radios for the entire promotional team on both sides.



More ring trouble


Stacey called me and told me that the ring boards were too lose and they had a problem in Hawaii with the ring and I needed to figure out a way to fix the “bounce” and uneven surface. He went on to tell me Mike had injured his ankle because they had to squeeze a ring into a small space, as I had done, and not to repeat that to anyone on fight week (so, as I make these notes, this will not be repeated unless the day comes I decide to share them many years from now). I headed to the Home Depot, where I bought several, small pieces of hard foam floor matting and an automatic screw gun. Bill was also in his suit and we took off the canvas, laid down some plywood and put in so many screws into that floor those guys are going to be there for a week trying to get it apart! I laid some hard foam squares in place on top of the shabby padding they had; we tied the canvas down and wrapped it up. Another suit headed to the cleaners!


I ended the night with the entire promotional staff, our crew at Fight Night, and everyone at Main Events, all sharing dinner and then watched the Evander Holyfield vs. Hasim Rahman fight.



Sunday, June 2, 2002


Prep for Monday’s operations meeting. Review of credentials lists, ticketing, undercard fighter arrivals and accommodations, medicals, sanctioning forms and more!


I got a phone call from Stacey to meet him at the gym to inspect the ring before Mike trained. All was good finally…well, at least inside the gym (despite the owner and staff telling a few people who told a few people who…you get the idea). So as Mike is pulling up, he was met by a group of supporters and protestors, who included some gay activists holding up signs. Mike got out and smiled and said he had no problems with gay people and gave the guy a hug and smiled for some photos.



Monday, June 3, 2002


Fight week is officially here! The lead story in all newspapers this morning is Mike being cool with the gay rights activists including photos. Every single paper I can get my hands on features this story.


First up is the operations meeting, stop by the gym, check out ring set-up inside the Pyramid.



Operations meeting


There are large tables connecting all walls of the room with a dais at its front. At each table are seated representatives in charge of the Mayor’s office, local police and fire departments, the Pyramid, Prize Fight Promotions, Lion Promotions, Main Events, Team Tyson, Fight Night, Magna Media (credentialing), local boxing commission, commission consultants, private security company, FBI, Secret Service, local National Guard and finally the Coast Guard. I am not sure if I missed anyone or any entity because I am so overwhelmed right now, it is hard to even explain.


Things got under way with a presentation by the Mayor, followed by a presentation by Alan Freeman from the Pyramid. Magna Media then gave a presentation on credentials, educating everyone on the colors and letter codes, that was followed by promoters then educating all other parties how this would work into their plans, primarily for security purposes. Then the Cook Convention Center went over info such as hours, secret location of credentials office, security for building and the details for main event and undercard weigh-ins. Next up: The Security Plan! Starting things off is a presentation by the Chief of Police and other high-ranking officials representing the most powerful group of lawmen I have ever seen in my life! On Friday, there would be a detailed walk though at the Pyramid, with mock fighter ring walks, security, checkpoints, dressing rooms, you name it! We then covered all the security issues for the Tunica, Mississippi events such as the two-fighter casino host hotels, media workouts, open workouts, on-site safety and weigh-in security plan. Fight Night security procedures included: Checkpoint at all entrances, checkpoint at fighter departure to venue and arrival, dressing room, ring walk, corral area and, for the first time ever in boxing history, a line of special event security that will form a wall between Lewis and Tyson to keep them separate until the opening bell rings. Wow! Transportation and Movement schedules and procedures for main event fighters and teams that relate to all parties in attendance, detailing full, around-the-clock police escorts on all moves. Parking issues with special parking permits. Undercard transportation will be conducted by two large buses with private security on board from Tunica, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee with official police escorts. Review of complete time chart of all transportation-related matters.


We are not done yet and I have made note: Mike has two people in this meeting representing him from his “camp,” with whom I am seated. While Lennox’s two guys are sharp as a razor and making strong points, these two guys have liquor sweating out of their pores and are whispering about how hungover they are. They are making it too obvious that they are not interested in being there but it is alarming to me that they do not have any experience in matters like this and they do not realize how important this meeting is. I do not know who picked these two but they are not prepared, to say the least. I have had to make two interjections so far, on behalf of Mike, because they told me, “Just handle it. You talk for us.” Each time, my points were validated and confirmed. We cover television production details and then next on the agenda are the commission issues (Note: To save space, I have removed approximately 35 items.), on to the night of the fight, promotional procedures at the venue and positions of override for all parties. (I am given such a “title” – I get to play the role of “big shot” for one night.) We close up with a handful of other items from EMS, hospital procedures, order of bouts and ticketing before wrapping up.


We have some STRICT policies in place! There are ONLY fighters and four cornermen allowed to walk to the ring. There will be no entourages past the entrance to the arena. There will be no one allowed to enter the back door of the venue without the proper credentials, not even the President of the United States – and I quote – unless arrangements have been made. There are going to be members of private sector security and law enforcement from land, air and water at every turn, who made the trip from Tunica to Memphis. It might be the first big fight ever hosted here and there are more egos involved now than ever when it comes to who wants to make the most important point in the room. However, one thing is clear: NOTHING will be missed for this promotion!



Looking sharp


Mike caught Stacey with a hard right to the body on the corner of his padded protective vest while giving Mike mitt work. As Stacey winced in pain, we know one thing is for sure: Whatever sum Mike is paying him, he earns it. I have seen dozens of trainers give pad work but Stacey really can catch with Mike (or, in today’s case, get caught by Mike).


Ring set-up is finished…



You can follow Mr. John Lepak on Twitter @Lightning_JL and on Instagram @lightning_lepak.




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