It was 18 years ago this week, on Saturday night, March 28, that two big men took center stage to battle for the Heavyweight championship of the world. The WBC Heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis would meet the man recognized as the lineal Heavyweight champion, Shannon Briggs.
Fight posters proclaimed, “Anyone. Anytime.” Promoters billed the bout as “March Badness.”
The year was 1998.
At 32, Lewis (32-1, 26 KOs) was coming off a one-round blowout destruction of Andrew Golota just five months prior. Having won seven straight, he would be making the third defense of his crown. A crown he had lost, then later regained from the same bookend, Oliver McCall.
After the loss to McCall, Lewis was not only winning, he was dominating opponents. McCall suffered what appeared to be a nervous breakdown in the ring, Henry Akinwande was disqualified for being terrified and holding on to Lewis for dear life, and he dealt Tommy Morrison a terrible beating over the course of six rounds.
Briggs (30-1, 24 KOs) was a man that many had high hopes for. His only loss, to Darrell Wilson, was in March of 1996 on a card billed as “Night of the Young Heavyweights.”
The loss was televised live on HBO as Briggs appeared to run out of gas. Once the steam was gone, Briggs went down to the canvas for good after a Wilson left hook in the third round.
After rebounding and winning four straight, Briggs got a shot at the lineal Heavyweight champion, George Foreman, just four months before in November. In one of the more controversial decisions in Heavyweight history, one that sparked outrage, a public outcry, and investigations into the scoring, Briggs walked away with a majority-decision win.
Briggs, now 26, carried the moniker as the man who beat the man that beat the man. However, fans and insiders alike were skeptical if that truly made him “the man.” Lewis was installed as a 12-1 betting favorite as not many gave Briggs much of a chance.
The Convention Center in Atlantic City hosted the 6’5,” 243 pound Lewis and the 6’4,” 228 pound Briggs. HBO would carry the scheduled 12-round bout live with Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and the former two-time champion George Foreman seated ringside to call the action.
With both men now in the ring, and a raucous crowd on hand, Michael Buffer introduced referee Frank Cappuccino and then the fighters.
Before the opening bell, Merchant summarized what we were about to see. “One thing this fight has going for it is that the expectations are so low that it would almost have to exceed them. Let’s see if it does.”
Lewis, donning the Kronk gold and red, came out attacking at the bell. The opening action was sizzling as Lewis was in high gear, advancing forward while Briggs was reduced to fighting back while in retreat.
Briggs, sporting blue trunks with white trim, began firing his left jab and circling from right to left. The early problem for Briggs was Lewis’ own left jab as it popped repeatedly on his face.
With 30 seconds remaining in the opening round, Lewis ate a crushing counter left hook from Briggs. The punch landed high on the head and sent him reeling backward. Stumbling into the ropes, Briggs opened the flood gates and poured it on.
Lampley was stunned as the tide had turned so quickly. “And there Briggs almost knocked the champion down! And Lewis is wobbly as Briggs chases him across the ring and Lewis holds on!”
Lewis survived the assault as the bell sounded to end the round. Merchant concluded, “Well, it’s already exceeded expectations!”
Round 2 began with Briggs testing Lewis right at the bell. Seconds into the round, he confidently looked over at Lampley and winked. With under a minute to go in the round, Briggs again made his presence felt and pounded Lewis with a pair of left hands. And excited Foreman’s voice rose, “Good left hook by Briggs!”
Lewis was fighting back, but the powerful, flashy, shock-and-awe punching belonged to Briggs. Harold Lederman had the bout 20-18, two rounds to none for Briggs.
With Round 3 now underway, Lewis was attacking Briggs, strafing him with left jabs followed by monster overhand rights. Briggs was now clearly more defensive as the incoming leather was near non-stop.
The bombing continued into Round 4 as Lewis pummeled a hurt and tiring Briggs, sending him staggering into the ropes and down to the canvas. Lampley howled, “He’s landing the right hand at will!”
As Briggs showed courage by rising to his feet and fighting back, the fourth quickly spiraled into a pier-six brawl with both men landing a truckload of heavy leather. Just as Briggs had hurt Lewis, the tide turned as Lewis again clobbered Briggs while the two stood toe to toe in the middle of the ring.
Lampley shouted over the thunderous roar from ringside. “Hard left hand by Briggs! Lewis is hurt! And he comes back with his own left hook! And another right hand!”
That right hand from Lewis put Briggs on the deck for the second time in the round. Briggs survived as the bell sounded to end a fourth round that included a pair of knockdowns by Lewis and a determined Briggs who willfully dished out some damage of his own.
Round 5 saw a wounded Briggs pursuing Lewis, but Foreman didn’t like the strategy. “Briggs is making a mistake. You don’t want to follow a puncher around. Make the puncher follow you around.”
Foreman proved to be correct as Lewis continued blasting away, landing a thudding, powerful right hand that sent Briggs down for the third time in the bout. Briggs lay flat on his back, arms extended outward and above his head, and looked completely finished.
Everyone at ringside was on their feet as a courageous Briggs leaped to his feet, refusing to quit. Cappuccino allowed the action to continue but watched closely as Lewis went for the kill. Seconds later, Cappuccino had seen enough and halted the action.
Lewis stopped Briggs via a TKO at 1:45 of Round 5.
Remarkably, Briggs still fights on today as he continues to seek a title shot. Whether he gets one and what he does with it remains to be seen–though he’s made a lasting impression with his popular slogan, “Let’s Go Champ.”
Lewis would go on to fight WBA and IBF Heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield one year later at Madison Square Garden. This decision, a draw, trumped the terrible decision of the Foreman-Briggs bout in November of 1997.
A rematch was immediately scheduled for eight months later where Lewis finally claimed the undisputed crown, beating Holyfield in a unanimous decision.