Last Tuesday, much of the world paused to celebrate the 70th birthday of Muhammad Ali, once the most recognized man on the planet and perhaps the greatest boxer ever.
At a west-side nursing home, the milestone went unnoticed in the room of Fred “Preacher” Lewis, who once hit Ali with a right fist so devastating that it dropped him to the canvas.
The day was May 19, 1960, in the Cow Palace in San Francisco where the two men met in a semifinal bout of the U.S. Olympic boxing trials for the 178-pound light-heavyweights.
Ali, known then as Cassius Clay, was a smack-talking, two-time Golden Gloves and AAU national champion from Louisville, Ky.
Lewis was a native of Oklahoma who excelled in several sports as a youth before enlisting in the Air Force and becoming its boxing champ. He was known as “Preacher” because he had a strong Christian faith and led his teammates in prayer before each bout.
Before the fight, Clay was confident, Lewis told The Gazette Telegraph in 1991, predicting he would knock Lewis out.
Lewis said Clay’s taunts angered him and he channeled his fury inside the ring in the second round, knocking Clay on his butt.
So stunning was the blow that the referee forgot to count Clay out.
The crowd booed, Lewis recalled, as the referee stood silent. Clay regained his feet and the round ended. In the third, Clay jabbed and moved, winning a split decision by one point.
“He was always thinking in the ring,” Lewis said in 1991, recalling Clay’s punishing jab. “He’d try to get you confused.”
Lewis said Clay frustrated him and made him forget his strategy, lose his poise and, ultimately, the bout.
Clay went on to take the gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome as Lewis went back to the Air Force.
In 1963, as Clay was floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee on his way toward the world professional heavyweight championship a year later, Lewis was winning the national amateur championship and the Pan American Games gold medal.
Lewis never dwelled on what might have been.
“I should have won,” Lewis said in 1991. “But when I look back now, it was all in God’s plan.”
Turns out “Preacher” was more than a nickname.
Lewis and his wife, Jean, moved to Colorado Springs in 1969 and retired here as Lewis started a boxing club called 3D for desire, discipline and dedication.
And he became a minister — ordained by the Rev. Milton Proby Jr. at St. John’s Baptist Church in 1975.
But Lewis was never a church preacher. His pulpit was his pickup truck, which was covered with scripture verses he painted all over it.
“He was a street preacher,” said Jean, his wife of 56 years.
Rather than stand on the corner and shout, like some, Lewis parked in the street and quietly waited.
I used to see him parked along Academy Boulevard and Hancock Expressway and in Memorial Park.
“People would walk up and start talking about their problems,” Jean said. “He made a lot of friends. Touched a lot of lives.”
He also used his truck to go visit nursing homes. Every day. Seven days a week, Jean said.
Now, he lives in one.
Clay couldn’t put him down. But a stroke in November 2010 floored him.
This man, once so powerful he flattened The Greatest, now can’t walk or talk.
But Lewis, who will be 77 in April, recognizes people and loves seeing family and friends.
“He gets really happy when people visit,” she said.
It’s hard for her to see him this way.
This man who was so filled with the scripture that it spilled all over his truck now is limited to a one-word response to everything.
“The only word he says,” Jean said, “is ‘amen.’ ”
What else is there to say?
Amen, Preacher Lewis.
Here’s a link to a boxing website with information about Fred Preacher Lewis and his career.
Follow this link to a site about Muhammad Ali’s career.