"He always looked like a winner. He didn't look like a man who was going to be working for someone else for very long," says Ferdie Pacheco, boxing consultant to NBC-TV and the former ringside physician for Muhammad Ali.
"He's very hard working and tenacious, almost to an obsession," says Bob Arum, Lewis' former boss at Top Rank Inc., one of the nation's leading fight promoters.
"The man who would be king," observed Ring Magazine in a profile of Lewis.
"He's one of the funniest persons I ever met," says Cora M. Wilds, the head of the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission.
"He's a driver, a go-getter," says Bob Lee, the deputy boxing commissioner of New Jersey. "I don't think anything's ever come easy for him, but he gets down in the pits and fights for what he wants."
In the hurly-burly world of boxing promotions, Butch Lewis, the former used car salesman from Philadelphia, has his sights set on the summit.
He's not there yet, but in the last decade he's clawed and scrambled his way close enough to the top to clash with Arum and Don King, the two giants of the industry, and both are in litigation with him.
"I was 36 last Sunday," says Lewis, " . . . an old 36. But time is on my side."
On July 15, Lewis will bring the Nation's Capital its first title fight in decades when light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks fights Eddie Mustafa Muhammad at the D.C. Armory. Former World Boxing Council light heavyweight champion Dwight Braxton will fight Jimmy Smith of Wilkes Barre, Pa., in a 10-round bout on the undercard.
"Cora Wilds and the mayor were constantly asking me about having a fight in Washington," says Lewis. "They kept telling me D.C. is a boxing town. And sometimes I do get tired of Atlantic City and the casino promotions."
Lewis said he got interested in boxing after selling a car to Joe Frazier while working for his father, an auto dealer. His father, John L. Lewis, was one of the original Cloverlay investors who financed the beginning of Frazier's boxing career.
By the time Frazier became heavyweight champion in 1970, Lewis had already taken over the day-to-day management of his father's business, but he was quickly getting bored with it. What he really wanted to do was promte fights.
"I had become very close to Joe and started to do a lot of p.r. work for him on a voluntary basis before he became champion," said Lewis. "I got to sit in on some negotiations. I got to see from within how the industry operated . . . the automobile business just didn't do it for me any more.
"The bug had me so bad I just went and did it. I said, 'Okay, I'm going into the boxing industry. I'm going to be a promoter.' I had my savings over the years, and I was willing to roll the dice with it. Everybody was saying, 'What! Are you nuts?' They thought I was throwing everything away."
For the next 13 months, Lewis recalled, he dogged Frazier and Ali pleading for a chance to promote one of their fights.
When Frazier and Ali met in Manila on Oct. 1, 1975, Lewis was pulling for Frazier because he knew him better, but when Ali won that bout he turned all his attention to Ali. From Ali, he obtained the unlisted telephone number of Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, and he launched a months-long campaign of daily telephone calls.
"Ali told me I would have to convince Herbert," Lewis recalled. "Herbert told me to get lost, to go take a hike. He had his security guards throw me out of his office once in Chicago in the middle of a blizzard. And I didn't even have my topcoat. But Ali said I could wear him down."
Bob Arum says Lewis was "absolutely relentless in his pursuit of Ali. He just kept after him until he signed him for a fight."
Ali finally did sign with Lewis for the Richard Dunn fight in Munich on May 24, 1976, and Arum came in on the deal to provide the technical expertise necessary to stage the event. After that Arum made Lewis a vice president of Top Rank, but that relationship was short-lived.
At Top Rank, Arum recalls, Lewis had a sense of street savviness that proved invaluable in signing fighters, most notably the Spinks brothers, former heavyweight champion Leon and Michael.
"I never would have had the patience or the manner to deal with that family on the level that he did," said Arum. "I never could have done the ground work that he did."
But by the time Leon Spinks fought Ali in September of 1978, the relationship between Arum and Lewis had gone sour. Arum won't discuss details because of the litigation.
When he left Arum, Lewis took Michael Spinks with him, but since then has concentrated most of his efforts on signing lesser known but promising young fighters. Once such fighter was a young heavyweight named Greg Page, now the No. 1-ranked contender. Page subsequently signed with Don King, and Lewis promptly sued, contending he had an exclusive agreement with Page to promote his fights. That case was being heard by a New York judge last week.
Aside from the Michael Spinks fights, Arum does not consider Lewis a major figure on the boxing scene.
Pacheco disagrees. "He will achieve as much as he wants to achieve. You combine his good looks with hard work and a fast tongue, and you have all the elements of success in boxing."
Just about everyone agrees that Lewis' major success so far is the Michael Spinks-Dwight Braxton fight March 18 in Atlantic City for the unification of the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association light heavyweight titles.
One of the people in the ring that night just before the fight was D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who with Wilds had been waging a two-year campaign for a title fight in Washington. Barry renewed his plea that night, and Wilds pushed it further at a meeting of boxing promoters and state athletic commissioners June 1.
Lewis finally agreed. "I think D.C. may be ready," he said.