Martial Arts Becomes A Dance Form
Henry Lewis, Mr. Lewis as his students respectfully call him, lives in Vienna and teaches people how to box. People whose lives are changed forever by it. 15 years ago he brought white collar boxing – the hard form of boxing training for fitness fans – to Vienna, and he also trains professional fighters.
For example, light-weight Mairbek “Beckan” Taisumov in the world
leading Mixed Martial Arts Organisation UFC, or the Thai boxer Ndombi
Kande. He prepared Jose Lantigua Suarez, one of today’s best Thai boxing
trainers in Austria, for his successful title match at the European
Championships. He holds licenses as a boxing promoter, manager, and
trainer and is a graduate of the Fight Promoter University in
When Mr. Lewis demonstrates how to properly land an uppercut or how
to dodge your opponent, martial arts becomes a dance form. Most
important, according to those who learned how to box from him, is his
talent in motivating others. He has been living in Vienna since 1992. He
fought his way up here. Born in Nigeria, his father a government
official, his mother an American businesswoman from Chicago. As a child
he lived alternatingly in the US and in Nigeria. Women, we learn, often
played a decisive role in his life.
"I was the class clown back then."
Maribel Königer: Were you always a boxer?
Henry Lewis: No. At first I was a soccer goalkeeper. But all of my friends were fighters. Fighting on sand is an African tradition – that’s how you prove your masculinity. But I always loved boxing. Like my mother, who was a big fan of Muhammad Ali. When one of his matches was on TV we kids always had to be quiet. I had a good friend back then, Sonny. He took me to the boxing gym. We always called him Sonny Liston (grins). We all had nicknames – they named me after Thomas Hearns because I’m tall and move quick. I was Hitman Hearns because everyone I hit ended up on the ground. I was 12 then. After a few months I stopped boxing. But then a girl knocked me out.
I was the class clown back then. She said I should finally cool down, which naturally I didn’t. She waited for me after school – crazy. I started to move around like a boxer; she came up, grabbed me, and threw me to the ground. She was bigger than me, sat on me, and shoved dirt in my mouth! From that point on I started to box again and never stopped.
How long were you active as a fighter?
I was 18 when I had my first match. For my opponent it was the first one as well, and we both naturally didn’t want to lose. But I lost – and learned a lot. The fight took place in his gym. Everyone said that I’d actually won. But that was nonsense. When I fight someone in front of his home audience then it’s got to be a KO or I lose. But in the second match I didn’t take a chance anymore and knocked the other guy out right away. That was a lesson in life: When you hit the ground, you can’t stay down. Get back up! Do it again! Each experience gives you strength and increases your motivation. Then I fought and won a lot. Only when I came to Austria did I stop being an active boxer.
"Women are the angels of this planet."
What was it like when you came to Vienna?
It wasn’t what I expected. I arrived at Westbahnhof (West Station) and checked into a hotel because I didn’t know where to go. I wanted to study aeronautics in Vienna, but I didn’t speak any German yet and needed to attend a language school first. I met another black guy who told me that the people here don’t like black people; they would never accept us here. At that point I actually wanted to turn around and leave immediately.
But you obviously stayed …
Yeah, then I left the hotel and moved in with this guy and his friends. But it turned out that I was among bad company there. One of the guys was a dealer. In this moment it was clear that I had to go. In order to get together some money to afford our own place without the dealer, my new friends and I painted pictures and sold door-to-door all around Austria. We rented a car and drove as far as Tyrol and Vorarlberg. We said we were students, and this is how we earned our living. The pictures costed 50 Schilling (3.64 EUR).
And did it work?
Absolutely. That’s what all of the black students did at the time. That also changed my opinion of Austrians. People bought my pictures. Elderly ladies gave us food, some even paid 100 or 200 instead of 50 Schilling. Many didn’t even want a picture. The only problem was the gendarmerie. When they saw blacks in a village, they rounded us up and brought us to the next train station. We should go back to Vienna. They kept the pictures. That was OK cause on the next day we simply went to another village (grins). But when there were guys with us who didn’t have the proper papers, they got immediately Schubhaft (arrest) and have been deported.
And then there was a turning point in your life?
Yes. But first I again got mixed up in the wrong circles when I moved from th5th to the 10th district. There were the worst types; they dealt everything, including drugs. I could never do that. I come from a religious family. We believe in God, don’t drink alcohol, and pray a lot. Drugs destroy lives; they kill people. It was a woman who got me out of this situation. I fell in love and my first Austrian girlfriend saved me. She said to me: Grab your things and come with me. Then I moved in with her. Women are the angels of this planet.
"My idea was to bring together many different types of people: men, women, young and old alike."
How did you make money at the time?
I worked for a club, Durdak in Favoriten. I stood at the door and took care of business. The owners were nice; they sponsored me and helped when racists pestered me.
Did you box on the side?
Yeah, I trained at the Boxing Union in Favoriten. At that time, all of the famous boxers were there: some from Nigeria, too: Said Lawal, an excellent, very dangerous boxer, or James Osunsedo. The World and European champion Edip Sekowitsch was my friend and very proud of me. He was murdered in 2008, may he rest in peace. My first trainer was Alfred Marek, the present owner. One of the best. A crazy, but very nice guy. And then Josef "Pepi" Kovarik, of course, for me the number 1 trainer in Austria. But my role model was, of course Nojim Maiyegun. He was the first athlete from Nigeria, who won an Olympic medal, 1964 in Tokyo, he gained a bronze medal in the light middleweight division. He was blind when I first met him in Vienna, but he has given me many valuable tips.
One day someone came from Sauerland in Germany looking for good fighters. They were looking for two middle-weights. At the gym they told me that they had proposed me and Abey, Nojim’s son. When the Sauerland man eventually came I wasn’t there at the moment. Suddenly, they just wanted one guy. Abey Maiyegun, a great boxer, went to Germany. I had no luck. That would have been my big chance. Then I overdid it a bit with training. Twice per day, before and after school, was too much. I fractured two vertebrae. At that time I was supposed to go up against one of the best Hungarian fighters. The doctor told me if I fought I would risk to be paralysed. When I told my manager that I wouldn’t do the fight, he was pissed. Everyone was pissed. So it came to a break between the manager, the trainer, and myself. That’s when I stopped.
"My message is: Respect yourself!"
Did that happen often?
Very often. One time the police came when there was a fight in the club. I wasn’t involved, but they only grabbed me and took me to the first floor. One of them called on the phone that they have “einen Neger” (a Negro). They wrote a protocol and then let me go. That happened to me more than once: I wanted to break up a fight in the club and they arrested me. Once the police took me to the station and made me strip naked to search for drugs. This only happens when you are a black man in this country.
Nevertheless, you ended up doing the job that you now have. You make others into strong people.
Yes. And once again it was a girlfriend who provided the impetus. I looked for a boxing gym where she could train. A didn’t find one. Many actually said that they don’t train women! That was in 1995/96. Then I went to a new fitness gym and asked them if they wanted to offer a boxing course. They did. My idea was to bring together many different types of people: men, women, young and old alike. And many people came – that was the beginning of my career as a fitness boxing trainer.
In your courses are bankers, doctors, judges, business people, students. At least so many women as men. What do they learn from you?
I would like to give something back to women. So many women helped me in my life, they were there when I needed someone. That’s why I often concentrate on the women in my training. I want them to become more self-confident and fearless. Men can take care of themselves. My training group is the best team you can imagine. I have more than 200 relatives scattered around the world, but I never see them. This is my new family; these people give me the feeling that I’m at home.
"I would guess that with 90% of the people I train something sticks that motivates them for the rest of their lives."
What is your most important message?
Treat others with the respect that you would like to be treated with. Respect yourself.
What is your next ambition?
I have an idea for a boxing event, that’s all I can tell for now. The search for investors is very difficult. When you’re black you have to know the right people, otherwise you’re a nobody. But I know it is a great project. I’ll keep working on it.