Butch Lewis, a former boxing promoter most famous for negotiating major fights for Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, died from a massive heart attack on July 23, according to reports. He was 65.
Born in Woodbury, N.J., but raised in Philadelphia, Pa., Lewis died at his home in Bethany Beach, Del., as reported by the New York Times. It was at that same home that Lewis celebrated his 65th birthday just two weeks earlier, according to Philly.com, inviting close friends like Denzel Washington and former BET owner Bob Johnson, a few of many celebrities Lewis associated with throughout his years as a promoter.
“What a shock! No words can express the sorrow for this great loss,” said legendary R&B group The O’Jays who played at Lewis birthday party. “What a party! Butch was so happy, so full of life! That was Butch! The life of the party! He was such a pleasure to be around…
“Our prayers go out to his lovely children and all those who loved him so much,” said group members Eddie Levert Sr., Walter Williams Sr. and Eric Nolan Grant in the joint statement. “Butch will be missed!”
NYTimes.com reports Lewis had spent most of his more recent years running Butch Lewis Productions, a marketing and promotions firm that primarily represented minority TV and movie actors/entertainers. But his legacy will be most remembered for inking a deal between former Olympic medalist/heavyweight champion Michael Spinks and legendary knockout artist Mike Tyson in 1988. Spinks, Lewis’ client at the time, made $13.5 million for the fight despite being knocked out by Tyson in the first round.
Lewis also served as a co-promoter for a few Muhammad Ali fights in the late 1970s, including the famous 1978 bout when Ali fell to Lewis’ client, Leon Spinks.
Elmer Smith, a longtime news columnist that covered boxing during most of Lewis’ tenure as a boxing promoter, noted other memorable moments of Lewis’ career, such as the night former boxing champ Dwight Muhammad Qawi changed his mind at the last second on taking a fight Lewis had set up, costing him “a fortune.”
“A few of us gathered in his suite that night. Butch broke open a case of the commemorative mugs he had planned to distribute at the post-fight party,” Smith stated on Philly.com “We drank Crown Royal from the mugs and toasted the occasion as if it were a great moment in boxing.”
Henry “Discombobulating” Jones, the first known Black boxing ring announcer, told the AFRO he had the luxury of getting to know Butch over the years. Jones said Lewis had promised him he would hire him as a ring announcer for one of the major fights he had thrown.
“Butch had put together a major fight that was held at the famous Apollo Hall in Harlem, but he ended up hiring a White announcer to announce the fight, so I called and left a voicemail,” Jones said. “But Butch called me back immediately, apologizing. He told me genuinely he forgot about me and said to blame it on his head, not his heart.”
Jones said he forgave Lewis because he knows he was “an honest man,” even when it came to business.
“Butch had a one-of-kind personality and a huge heart,” Jones said, “and he will definitely be missed and forever honored for the contributions he made.”
Butch was honored in 2004 when South African president Nelson Mandela presented him with the nation’s highest humanitarian award for his advocating contributions made throughout the 1970-‘80s. Lewis had led a boycott against the apartheid in South Africa, requesting leaders of boxing organizations not to sanction South African fights until apartheid was abolished. When President Mandela was released in 1990, Lewis worked closely with him to raise funds for his African National Congress (ANC) party. Lewis was also awarded with an honorary doctorate degree in 2007 from Morehouse College for funding several students’ way through college via the Butch Lewis Foundation Scholarship Fund.
A public wake and funeral will be held for Lewis on Aug. 1 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington, Del. In place of flowers, the Lewis family humbly requests donations are made to the Butch Lewis Foundation at 250 W. 57th St., Suite 311, New York, N.Y. 10107. Checks should be made payable to: Butch Lewis Scholarship Fund.