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45 Greatest Fighters Of The Last 45 Years – 12: Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield

I still remember the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games like it was yesterday. The Soviet bloc nations boycotted the games in retaliation for the United States boycotting the 1980 Moscow Summer Games, which, minus the perennial great Cuban boxing team, enabled the American team to win nine gold medals. They should’ve won 10 if not for the erroneous call by the referee during Evander Holyfield’s semi final bout causing Evander to settle for a bronze medal. In my father’s opinion, Holyfield was, alongside Pernell Whitaker and Meldrick Taylor, the best boxers of the 84 Games. My father felt that Holyfield was going to have an illustrious pro career. My father’s prediction was more than on the money. It was so accurate that the end result occurred in Holyfield becoming the 12th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

In only his 12th pro fight, on July 12, 1986, Holyfield challenged WBA cruiserweight champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi in his very first world title opportunity. Qawi had a style eerily similar to Joe Frazier. He was an aggressive fighter who constantly bobbed and weaved his head to make him difficult to hit. At 5’7”, he was already undersized for a fighter at 175 or 195 pounds. His bobbing and weaving made him a much smaller and more difficult target to hit. Qawi was attempting to take the less experienced Holyfield into deep waters. The first eight rounds were eerily similar to the Ali-Frazier Thrilla in Manila.

Holyfield had never gone past eight rounds before and was fatigued going into round nine. Qawi was fatigued as well, as he was no longer bobbing and weaving. Rounds nine through thirteen saw both men taking turns landing several punishing shots on each other. No matter how hard Holyfield hit Qawi, the champion would roar right back. Qawi had never been knocked down in his career and he was showing in this fight just how hard it was to penetrate his skull. This was the first fight in which Holyfield, who eventually would go down as having one of the greatest chins of all-time, proved that he had a great chin as well. After the end of the 13th round, we both thought that Holyfield had the edge going into the last two rounds because he was landing more often and the harder punches.

Qawi’s punch output in round 14 dramatically increased and Holyfield took advantage by landing a fusillade of punches to both the head and body. Qawi was completely exhausted and was unable to avoid the bulk of the shots coming his way. Despite the fact that he was landing at will, Holyfield was still unable to hurt the granite-chinned champion. Qawi, a testament of his lion-sized heart, came back strong and outfought Holyfield in the 15th round. Both men hammered each other with one missile after another, but it was Qawi who landed more often. The fans in Atlanta gave both men a standing ovation. They cheered even loader when their hometown hero Holyfield won a split decision and his first world title.

Holyfield would go on to completely clean out the cruiserweight division over the next two years, culminating in him becoming the first undisputed champion in the division’s less than a decade long history after destroying Rickey Parker and Carlos Deleon in capturing the IBF and WBC versions of the world title. After his April 9, 1988 destruction of Deleon, Holyfield abdicated his cruiserweight titles and moved up to heavyweight to begin his build to a super fight against the reigning heavyweight champion and most electric boxer in the division since Muhammad Ali, the seemingly indestructible Mike Tyson.

After four consecutive wins over heavyweight contenders Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, Adilson Rodriguez and Alex Stewart, Holyfield earned the number one ranking in the WBA, WBC, and IBF heavyweight rankings. The build for a superfight versus the undisputed champ Mike Tyson had already begun. All Tyson had to do was dispose of 40-1 underdog Buster Douglas. Well, you know what happened. So instead of fighting Tyson, Holyfield fought Douglas on October 25, 1990 for Douglas’ undisputed world title.

I took my father to see the fight on closed circuit at New York City’s historic Beacon Theatre. My father at first thought this would be a very difficult fight for Holyfield to win because he loved the way Douglas fought against Tyson. Pop felt Douglas looked like a young Larry Holmes in that fight in the way he moved and popped his jab. However, when we saw that Douglas was a flabby, 246 pounds the night of his fight versus Holyfield, 15 pounds heavier than the night he knocked out Tyson, he changed his opinion. He told me that no fighter that out of shape could defeat a hungry, great fighter like Holyfield.

The first two rounds were all Holyfield as Douglas fought very listless. Holyfield was out-jabbing the taller champion at will and landing his signature combinations as well. A minute into round three, Douglas made a novice mistake by attempting a right uppercut from the outside. Holyfield easily slipped the punch and countered with a picture perfect right cross that dropped Douglas. Douglas sat on the canvas like a wounded walrus, unable to get up. Evander Holyfield was now the heavyweight champion of the world. Buster immediately retired from boxing.

After defeating former heavyweight champion George Foreman in a classic title fight, Holyfield signed to fight Tyson in what was the most highly anticipated heavyweight title fight since Holmes’ June, 1982 one-sided beating of Gerry Cooney. After Holyfield was able to absorb Foreman’s iconic punching power, my father told everyone who would listen that Holyfield would outclass and knock out Tyson. He even bet upwards of $500 on Holyfield.

tyson holyfield

Poster for the canceled fight

Unfortunately, the fight was postponed due to a mysterious shoulder injury Tyson suffered just weeks before their November, 1991 fight was scheduled. Instead, Holyfield defended against Bert Cooper and found himself in serious trouble early before Holyfield finished him off in the seventh round. After a lopsided 12-round decision win over another legend in Larry Holmes, the 30-year-old champion would next defend his title on November 13, 1992 against 25-year-old Riddick Bowe, one of the most talented big men the sport had ever seen. Both my father and I agreed that Bowe was too big and too powerful for Holyfield to defeat. What we didn’t know was just how much of Holyfield’s warrior mentality would make this one of the greatest fights in heavyweight boxing history.

Bowe had the best jab in the division and we expected him to use it to control Holyfield and land everything else off of it. But in round one, it was Holyfield who was moving and landing a more effective jab. That all came to an end in round 2. Rounds two through four saw the two heavyweights stay inside and land one bomb after the other. My father and I were shocked that at 6’5” how great of an inside fighter Bowe was against the three inches shorter Holyfield. Bowe landed the harder and more significant punches, especially his right uppercut and left hook. Holyfield’s bombs were not moving Bowe. Bowe was hurting Holyfield, but Holyfield’s warrior mentality kept him coming.

Holyfield went back to boxing and utilizing his jab in the fifth round. Bowe looked very fatigued in the fifth and was outworked. Bowe came back strong in the sixth, as Holyfield was now fatigued as well and the fight stayed inside. Both men, visibly tired, took turns in rounds seven through nine, landing one vicious combination after another. After nine rounds, both fighters’ right eyes were dangerously close to being closed.

Bowe started round 10 by landing a stiff left jab and two pulverizing right uppercuts that had Holyfield in deep trouble. Bowe then landed over 35 consecutive shots to Holyfield’s head and body. I could not believe that Holyfield stood up against this brutal onslaught. After his barrage of punches, Bowe had punched himself out. Still hurt, Holyfield stunned Bowe with a right uppercut of his own and then again with a tremendous right cross. The round ended with both men landing huge combinations at the bell. It was one of the greatest rounds in the history of boxing.

Holyfield jumped on Bowe right away in round 11, sensing that Bowe was still hurt. Holyfield walked into a crushing left hook that staggered him and then seconds later Bowe landed a clubbing right hand that finally knocked the champion down. Holyfield got up and was both very hurt and tired. Bowe decided not to take a chance and instead used his jab to keep Holyfield at bay for the rest of the 11th and entire 12th round. Bowe won a decisive unanimous decision and was now the undisputed champion. A year later they would fight each other in a rematch simply known as the Fan Man fight.

On November 6, 1993, Holyfield outpointed Bowe in another tremendous battle that unfortunately was upstaged by James Miller’s asinine stunt. Miller, AKA The Fan Man, parachuted into the audience midway through round seven and for this criminal act he was justifiably battered and assaulted by Bowe’s security team. Miller’s stunt resulted in Bowe’s pregnant wife fainting and having to be rushed to the hospital. Despite being worried about his wife’s health, Bowe outfought Holyfield the rest of the fight after it resumed. It wasn’t enough to overcome Holyfield’s early lead as Evander became a two-time world heavyweight champion.

Holyfield’s second reign would be short lived. Five months later he would be out-hustled in losing a decision to Michael Moorer. Amidst allegations that Holyfield’s lethargic performance that evening was due to being diagnosed with a bad heart, Holyfield briefly retired from boxing. Thirteen months later, Holyfield returned to the ring and narrowly outpointed Ray Mercer in a 10-round war. Then, on November 4, 1995, he engaged in the rubber fight of his trilogy with Bowe. In another war between the two rivals, Bowe stopped Holyfield in the eighth round. At this point of time, for all intents and purposes, my father and I felt the 33-year-old Holyfield was done. A year later, who could’ve guessed that it would be the 29-year-old Bowe that would be a completely shot fighter and not the 34-year-old Holyfield.

After looking completely shopworn in a pedestrian stoppage of undersized Bobby Czyz in the spring of 1996, Holyfield finally got an opportunity to fight Tyson five years after they had originally signed to fight. Don King felt that Holyfield was no longer a threat and would be an easy night for Tyson before a possible matchup with Lennox Lewis. Even my father agreed that Holyfield was going to be a sacrificial lamb. Everyone felt that a Tyson blowout was unavoidable. Everyone but Holyfield.

On the night of November 9, 1996, Holyfield turned back the clock in completely dominating the WBA champion Tyson. Holyfield dissected Tyson with a superior left jab and inside punching. At the end of the 10th round, Tyson staggered to his corner after being battered throughout the round. A little over 30 seconds into round 11, referee Mitch Halpern stopped the fight and the 25-1 underdog Holyfield was now a three-time heavyweight world champion. He began to set his sights on once again becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion.

On June 28, 1997, Holyfield and Tyson fought the rematch which garnered a then record for most pay-per-view buys. Despite this being the most anticipated rematch in many years, my father and I were convinced that Tyson had absolutely no shot at defeating Holyfield. Rounds one and two saw the continuation of Holyfield’s domination of Tyson. Finally, during the middle of round three, Tyson committed one of the most heinous acts in boxing history. He bit Holyfield on both ears causing Tyson not only to be disqualified, but suspended from boxing for at least a year. My father felt Tyson’s frustration motivated him to get disqualified on purpose. Tyson, King and their camp all blamed the biting on Tyson being the recipient of several Holyfield headbutts. My father laughed at this excuse. The fact remained that Holyfield owned Tyson and deep down inside Tyson knew Holyfield had his number.

Despite having to have reconstructive surgery on both ears, Holyfield fought again four months later in a unification title fight against Holyfield conqueror and IBF champion Moorer. This time, Holyfield, at 35, looked years younger than their first encounter over three years earlier. Holyfield gained a huge measure of revenge in handing Moorer a thrashing so severe that Moorer quit in his corner after the end of round eight. Only business left for Holyfield to deal with was the WBC champion Lewis.

I took my father to see Holyfield and Lewis on March 13, 1999 at Madison Square Garden to see who would emerge as the first undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in six years. To the shock of both my father and I, the judges scored the fight a draw! Lewis was totally dominant throughout the fight by keeping Holyfield’s inside fighting at bay with his brilliant and punishing left jab. As soon as ring announcer Jimmy Lennon announced the fight as a draw, my father and I stormed out of MSG in a huff. It was the worst decision either of us had ever attended. Another dark night in boxing’s sordid history.

Eight months later, the judges finally got it right when Lewis won via decision and for the first time in seven years, boxing had an undisputed heavyweight champion. In my opinion, this would’ve been the perfect opportunity for Holyfield to gracefully retire from the sport at the age of 36. Incredulously, Evander would fight for another 12 years. During those 12 years, Holyfield took unnecessary punishment while trying to convince promoters and state commissions that God had ordained that he would once again become undisputed heavyweight champion. In those last 12 years, Holyfield fought 16 times and losing six times which resulted in his final record being a not too impressive 44-10-2 with 29 knockouts. It also resulted in damaging what should’ve been a top 10 ranking amongst fighters I’ve seen of the last 45 years.

Despite fighting way past his prime, Holyfield’s accomplishments, which included being the first fighter to become both the undisputed cruiserweight and heavyweight champion, and the resurrection of his career that resulted in two victories over Tyson cannot be ignored. These accomplishments alone justify his ranking as my 12th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

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