Boxing promoter, entertainment executive
Butch Lewis first came to prominence as a promoter for some of the biggest boxing matches of the 1970s and 1980s, including the famous 1978 fight in which Leon Spinks, then a relative unknown, upset reigning heavy-weight champion Muhammad Ali. During the 1990s Lewis expanded from boxing into movies and television, building partnerships with such entertainment magnates as Robert L. Johnson, the founder and chairman of Black Entertainment Television. Lewis also devoted much of his time to Voicez Music Group, an independent record label he founded in 2005.
Scant information is available about Lewis's early life. Born Ronald Lewis on June 26, 1946, in New Jersey, he was raised by his mother and grandmother. According to a biographical statement posted on the Voicez Music Group Web site, the family's circumstances were "humble." After attending local schools, Lewis got a job as a car salesman, a profession in which his considerable personal charm proved an asset. "I'm in the people business," Lewis told Robert Mladinich on the Sweet Science, boxing Web site. "Selling cars is a people business. Boxing is a people business."
The switch from automobiles to prizefights seems to have been a gradual one. Like most boxing promoters, Lewis started on a small scale, organizing local and regional matches for a share of the ticket receipts. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of expanding opportunities in boxing, however, as public interest in the sport grew with the rise of talented and charismatic young fighters like Muhammad Ali. To capitalize on this interest, the television networks increased their boxing broadcasts, a development that vastly increased a promoter's potential profits. Lewis thrived in this tumultuous, fiercely competitive atmosphere. Perhaps his greatest single coup came in the aftermath of the 1976 Summer Olympics, when his new company, Butch Lewis Productions, signed promotional agreements with brothers Michael and Leon Spinks, both of whom had won gold medals for the United States. In February of 1978 he arranged a televised fight in Las Vegas, Nevada, between Leon Spinks and Ali, the heavyweight champion and one of the most recognized celebrities in the world. Ali, expecting an easy fight, failed to train sufficiently, and Spinks, in only his eighth professional bout, won a unanimous decision that shocked the world of sport. Lewis built on this initial success by staging a rematch several months later in New Orleans, Louisiana. This time, Ali was much better prepared, beating Spinks before the largest stadium crowd in boxing history. Lewis's share of the profits from these two events is difficult to determine, but it undoubtedly amounted to millions of dollars. The former car salesman was suddenly a celebrity in his own right.
Lewis continued to promote boxers and boxing matches throughout the 1980s and 1990s. His career in this period was not without occasional setbacks. He had, for example, several bitter public disputes with boxers under his management, usually over money. The worst of these quarrels involved Bernard Hopkins, a prominent middleweight, whose unproven accusations of dishonesty reportedly moved Lewis to tears. In general, however, Lewis maintained his ascent, scoring another triumph in September of 1985, when he arranged a match between Michael Spinks, Leon's brother, and heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Spinks won in a unanimous decision, thus breaking Holmes's streak of forty-eight consecutive wins. Lewis also oversaw a 1988 match with Mike Tyson that would prove Spinks's last professional fight. Though Tyson knocked Spinks out in the first round, the match was a financial windfall for both fighters and for Lewis, who shared what was then the largest guaranteed purse in boxing history.
Though Lewis has never abandoned the boxing ring, he has increasingly focused on opportunities outside professional sports, notably in entertainment. In 1991 he formed an offshoot of Butch Lewis Productions called Butch Lewis Entertainment. The first production of this new enterprise was an immensely popular pay-per-view concert featuring soul star James Brown. Lewis then moved into feature films and television, often serving as a coproducer in partnership with BET, a cable network founded by his friend Robert L. Johnson. Lewis helped produce several prominent works, notably Out of Sync (1995), a crime drama starring rapper LL Cool J; the highly-regarded historical drama Once upon a Time … When We Were Colored (1995), starring Al Freeman, Jr., and Phylicia Rashad; and Linc's, a popular series that aired from 1998 to 2000 on the Showtime cable network.
In 2005 Lewis expanded his business interests once again, moving forcefully into the music business. The independent record label he established in February of that year, Voicez Music Group, is a partnership with Island Def Jam Music Group, one of the most powerful organizations in the music industry, with particular strength in rap, pop, hip-hop, and R&B. Voicez has signed a number of performers in these genres, including Kinfolk, a rap duo from South Carolina, and hip-hopper Troy Ave. Lewis's daughter Sita is the company's senior vice president of operations, and his son Brandon is the senior vice president of artists and repertoire (A&R). Lewis himself serves as Voicez' chairman and chief executive officer.
Outside work, Lewis devotes considerable time to philanthropic causes. He focused much of his early philanthropy on the antiapartheid struggle in South Africa, a country he first visited in 1991 at the invitation of revered antiapartheid activist Nelson Mandela. Lewis returned there five years later, again at the invitation of Mandela, who had been elected president in the interim. Following Mandela's triumph, Lewis seems to have shifted the bulk of his charitable giving to the United States. In 2001, for example, J. Zamgba Browne reported in the New York Amsterdam News that Lewis's charitable organization, the Butch Lewis Foundation, had joined a number of other groups in donating holiday toys to seven hundred underprivileged children in Harlem. In addition, according to the Voicez Web site, he has frequently paid the tuition of deserving students who would otherwise be unable to afford college. In recognition of these activities, Lewis has received a number of awards. In 1996, for example, an official "Butch Lewis Day" was declared throughout Delaware, his current home, by then-Governor Thomas R. Carper. Lewis also received a Candle Award in Business and Entertainment in 2006 from Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male institution in Atlanta, Georgia; the same school presented him with an honorary doctorate the following year.
At a Glance …
Born Ronald Lewis in New Jersey on June 26, 1946; children: four.
Career: Founder, chairman, and CEO, Butch Lewis Productions, 1978—, Butch Lewis Entertainment, 1991—, Voicez Music Group, 2005—.
Awards: Butch Lewis Day proclamation, State of Delaware, 1996; Candle Award in Business and Entertainment, 2006, and Doctor of Humane Letters, 2007, Morehouse College.
Addresses: Office—c/o Voicez Music Group, 250 West 57th St., Ste. 311, New York, NY 10019.
Jet, August 5, 1996.
New York Amsterdam News, December 26, 2001.
"About Us," Voicez Music Group, http://voicezmusicgroup.com/ (accessed October 30, 2008).
"Biography: Butch Lewis," Charlie Rose,http://www.charlierose.com/guests/butch-lewis (accessed October 30, 2008).
Mladinich, Robert, "TSS Where Are They Now: Butch Lewis," Sweet Science, October 27, 2007, http://www.thesweetscience.com/boxing-article/5462/tss-where-are-they-now-butch-lewis/ (accessed October 30, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler
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