The Real Deal Part Six: Surpassing Ali & the Impossible Quest
Updated: Aug 7, 2019
On 19th September 1998, a month shy of his thirty-sixth birthday, Evander Holyfield defended his IBF and WBA heavyweight titles. He faced top International Boxing Federation contender Vaughan Bean, who was outpointed by then IBF champion Michael Moorer by majority decision in March 1997.
Holyfield, fighting in front of his home town fans in Atlanta, looked to be an old fighter at times. Many believed that Bean wouldn't give too many problems, as the man had only fought eight fighters with a winning record. Holyfield had to draw on all his experience to overcome Bean, who he knocked down in the tenth round as he ran out an unanimous decision 117-110 (twice) and 116-111 winner.
Seventeen days later Lennox Lewis, the WBC heavyweight champion negated twelve rounds against his mandatory contender Zeliko Mavrovic, winning by scores of 119-109, 117-112 and 117-111. The victory over the Croatian set up a unification battle against Evander Holyfield at the Mecca of boxing, Madison Square Garden (who paid $8 million to host the event), New York on 13th March 1999.
Lennox Lewis was born on 02nd September 1965 in West Ham, London. He moved to Canada at the age of twelve. He stayed unbeaten as an amateur for three years, before he lost to the eighteen year old Donovan Ruddock at the age of fifteen. He lost to top amateurs Tyrell Biggs and the Cuban Jorge Luis Gonzalez, as he represented Canada.
In the 1988 Seoul Olympics he stopped American Riddick Bowe in the second round to capture the gold medal in the super-heavyweight division. He teamed up with British boxing manager Frank Maloney and fought under his birth country as a professional. He made his debut on 27th June 1989, stopping Al Malcolm in the second round.
Exactly a year later he faced former WBA cruiserweight champion Ossie Ocasio, who extended him the full eight rounds for the first time in his career. In October that same year he stopped the European heavyweight champion, Jean-Maurice Chanet in the sixth round to claim his first professional title.
Lewis was then matched against the British champion and top five heavyweight contender Gary Mason, who sported a 35-0 (32 KO's) resume. Mason, who suffered a detached retina in his right eye after beating Everett Martin two fights previously, was considered too experienced and powerful for the 14-0 (12 KO's) Lewis.
The EBU champion boxed superbly and targeted the damaged right eye, forcing a stoppage after seven rounds. He then travelled to America and knocked out ex WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver in six rounds. He then faced former IBF cruiserweight champion Glen McCrory in defence of his domestic crowns, proving too big and powerful as he brushed aside his challenger in two rounds.
After two more contests in the states, Lewis returned to Britain to face Commonwealth heavyweight champion Derek Williams. After three rounds he added the title to his British and European championships, becoming the first man to do so since Richard Dunn defeated Joe Bugner in October 1976.
Lewis won one more contest before taking on Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock in a WBC title final eliminator match on 31st October 1992. It was seen as a real acid test against the Canadian, who had endured nineteen brutal rounds against Mike Tyson in 1991. Lewis put in a powerful performance, knocking 'Razor' down at the end of round one and crushing his man with a further two knockdowns in the next round, meaning he was next in line to face the winner of the first Holyfield/Bowe encounter.
With Riddick Bowe inflicting Holyfield's first defeat and claimed the undisputed heavyweight title, he and his team decided to relinquish the WBC belt rather than face the Brit. Bowe famously dumped the belt in a bin at a London press conference.
In January 1993 the WBC awarded Lewis the title and ordered him to make his first defence against Tony Tucker. The bout took place in Las Vegas and the former IBF champion had only one blemish on his forty-eight fight career and that was a points defeat to Mike Tyson back in 1987.
Tucker who had never been off his feet, was knocked down in rounds three and nine en route to a 118-111, 117-111 and 116-112 points defeat. Lewis then stopped Frank Bruno in seven rounds. The WBC bout was the first time that two British counterparts faced off in a world heavyweight tile fight.
Lewis then stopped Phil Jackson, before top contender Oliver McCall landed a righthand in round two to upset the champion and claim the green belt. Lennox Lewis was then frozen out of the world title picture and was forced to take on danger men like Lionel Butler, Tommy Morrison and Ray Mercer, before taking on McCall in February 1997 for the vacant WBC heavyweight title.
In a bizarre fight, where McCall seemed to have a mental breakdown in the ring simply refused to fight. With 55 seconds of the fifth round elapsed, referee Mills Lane stopped the contest, crediting Lewis with a TKO victory as he regained the WBC crown.
In his second tenure as champion Lewis beat Henry Akimande with a sixth round disqualification (for excessive holding), blew away the dangerous Pole Andrew Golota in 95 seconds, knocked down Shannon Briggs three times to claim the lineal heavyweight crown in five rounds and outpointed Mavrovic.
The fight with Holyfield was the high profile encounter he craved and the world were looking forward to having the first undisputed heavyweight champion since Riddick Bowe beat Holyfield in November 1993.
The sell-out crowd of 21,284 had already witnessed Fernando Vargas defend his IBF light-middlewight crown, stopping Britain's Howard Clarke in four rounds. The WBA flyweight title changed hands when Leo Gamez stopped Hugo Rafael Soto. Heavyweight contender John Ruiz stopped Mario Cawley in the fourth round as he made the first defence of the WBA-NABA title. Ruiz was also hoping for a shot at the winner of the main event. Plus WBA welterweight champion James Page out pointed Sam Garr on the chief support event.
The British fans were in fine voice as they sang "There's only one Lennox Lewis. One Lennox Lewis. Walking along. Singing his song. Walking in his winter wonderland," They cheered every British celebrity that were shown on the big screens above the ring and booed anyone that was American.
WBC champion Lennox Lewis walked out first to Bob Marley's Crazy Bald Heads, as Holyfield entered the ring to Gospel music. Lewis towered over Holyfield and came into the ring at 245 pounds (111.13 KG's) whilst the WBA & IBF champion weighed 215 pounds (97.52KG's). Arthur Mercante Junior was the referee and he emulated his father, Arthur Mercante Senior, as he officiated the first Ali-Frazier contest in Madison Square Garden on 08th March 1971, for the undisputed heavyweight title.
Lewis started fast and kept Holyfield on the back foot for most of the round. The jab, when thrown with force, snapped back the shaved skull of the older man. Holyfield wasn't allowed to do anything effective, but he did land a snappy left-right as the round drew to a close. On the bell Lewis leaned on his man, whilst Holyfield lifted him up and forced the bigger man onto the seat of his pants. The British contingent booed as referee ticked off both men.
Holyfield was backed to ropes in round two as Lewis teed off on him. Again the centre of the ring was dominated by the WBC champion, as the 'Real Deal' was unusually throwing very little in the way of leather.
"Predictions are for the weathermen," Holyfield said before the fight. "I have confidence in the word of God. I'm not predicting, I'm telling you: I will knock him out in the third round." Lewis did start the round fast, but it was Holyfield who actually got through with some good lefts and rights, as he backed his opponent to a ring corner and let loose with some haymakers. Holyfield won his first round of the contest, but he failed to knock out his man as predicted.
Lewis boxed well behind his jab for most of round four and was beginning to find the range with his right. Holyfield did have some success as he tried to force the fight in the last 60 seconds. In round five Holyfield threw a wild left hook, which was countered with a hard right to the side of his head. The smaller man was hurt and covered up on the ropes as his opponent landed some hard shots. Holyfield survived the crisis and tried to fire back.
Judges Stanley Christodoulou and Larry O'Connell scored this dominant round to Lewis 10-9, but Eugenia Williams controversially gave it to Holyfield. The Sunday Mirror ran a front page headline that she received thousands of dollars to score the fight for Holyfield. Williams successfully won substantial damages in the libel suit.
In round six Lewis dropped his hands and Holyfield exploded into action as he landed a left hook, followed by a right and another left to the Brit's unprotected jaw. Lewis weathered the storm and got back to work behind the jab and was landing some good right leads.
At the midway point of the contest both men grappled each other to the canvas. Lewis fired in a straight right hand as the referee waved them on. The shot stunned Holyfield, who covered up on the ropes. With Manny Steward banging the canvas, imploring Lewis to open up and use his power, as he watched his charge just pepper the 'Real Deal' with jabs. Holyfield recovered and tried his left hook off the ropes, but Lewis was able to nail him with rights and lefts. Another big round for the WBC title holder, as Holyfield's left eye was beginning to swell.
A lacklustre eighth round where Lewis was working behind a pawing jab, whilst Holyfield was looking to land the harder blows. All three judges scored it to the IBF and WBA title holder. Again round nine was pretty much the same as Lewis pawed at his opponent and Holyfield threw the harder shots.
Holyfield initiated a small cluster of punches on Lewis' head. He landed another good right hand, but had to ship one from his opponent. Both men looked tired as the bell sounded to end round ten. Lewis was content to box on the back foot as Holyfield looked to force the action. With the WBC champion appearing to fall asleep in the last few rounds, he allowed his opponent to make an inroad on his early points advantage.
Lewis finally came to life again in the final round as he used his jab and following right to good effect. Holyfield was still trying to force the action, but Lewis raised his fist in the air believing he had done enough to unify the heavyweight championship as the bell sounded.
The world held its breath as they waited for the scores to be tallied up and announced. South African judge Stanley Christodoulou scored the bout 116-113 (Lewis). Eugenia Williams judged it 115-113 (Holyfield) whilst British official Larry O'Connell had them dead level at 115 a piece, meaning that both men would hold on to their respected belts with a draw verdict.
"I felt I won the fight," said a disgruntled Lewis. "It was my time to shine, and they ripped me off. I'm the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and, the whole world knows it. He (Holyfield) should give me those two belts because he knows they're mine."
"I feel like the champ," Holyfield claimed. "I can't fight and score. The people around the ring aren't the judges."
There was an outcry from across the world, as many believed that Lewis had done enough to win. What really sparked controversy was Williams' scoring of round five, which Lewis had dominated and had Holyfield on the ropes hurt for at least 45 seconds, but the US judge gave the round to the 'Real Deal'.
From my vantage point in the arena I actually agreed with the draw, as Lewis seemed to keep backing away when he had Holyfield hurt. His jab was also an effective weapon when he used it properly as Holyfield couldn't get near him, but many times in the contest Lewis seemed to let Holyfield off the hook. As I left Madison Square Garden I heard one British fan say that they should've given the decision to Holyfield. Watching the contest again on a rerun I had Lewis the winner by three rounds.
Exactly eight months later on 13th November Holyfield and Lewis would meet again at the Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas. The boxing world were hoping for a winner and an undisputed heavyweight champion, in what was the last big contest of the millennium.
Lewis came in slightly lighter than last time at 242 pounds (109.77 KG's), as Holyfield scaled a bit heavier than in March at 217 pounds (98.43 KG's). Holyfield came to the ring snarling, looking mean and primed to take care of business, Lewis on the other hand was a picture of clam and calculated coolness as they they waited for the bell.
Lewis commanded the first round with his jab, taking the centre of the ring and catching his man with the odd right. Holyfield tried to force the action, but couldn't get close to the WBC champion. Round two was much of the same, Lewis even tried the uppercut as his opponent bored in with his head down. Holyfield did manage to get close to fire a quick combination to the body, but it wasn't enough for him to dent Lewis' dominance.
Lewis was just boxing Holyfield's head off in round three, then with 30 seconds remaining the 'Real Deal' connected with his best punch so far, a right to the head. Lewis took it well, but Holyfield wanted to bring it to the trenches as he held and hit his opponent at the bell.
Holyfield was getting closer in the fourth, but he couldn't capitalise on his mini success in the previous round as the Lewis jab wouldn't allow him. Holyfield finally got Lewis to trade with him in the fifth. He landed some good solid punches, but Lewis repaid him in kind. An accidental butt caused a cut on Lewis' right eye and shortly afterwards the WBC champion pushed Holyfield to the ropes and nearly out of the ring.
The referee intervened and told them to keep it clean as he sent Lewis to get the cut checked by the ringside physician. Lewis saw out the remainder of the round with some crisp boxing. Round six and the WBA and IBF champion forced the action, getting inside and letting some big hooks go and he was doubling up the jab to the chest, as Lewis seemed to be losing his concentration and some composure.
After being berated by his trainer in the minute's recess, Lewis started round seven aggressively. A huge left hook from Holyfield made the Brit give ground. This spurred the older warrior on as he caught Lewis with some big shots. The WBC champion looked to be on weary legs, but managed to fire back, but Holyfield was the master at close quarters action and finished the round stronger. Unlike the fascinating, absorbing first encounter, this contest had finally caught fire.
Lewis neglected the jab in round eight and stood with Holyfield, who seemed to be coming on strong in the second half of the fight, just like he did in their previous contest, as he began to eat away at Lewis' early points lead. Holyfield looked to swarm all over his opponent in the ninth. Lewis was looking arm weary as the smaller man was out-jabbing him. The Brit came alive as the round came to close, but the old warrior stayed with him as both men traded at the bell.
Lewis got back to his boxing in the tenth, but Holyfield was still trying to get close and drag the bigger man into a dog fight. Holyfield was peppered with jabs and rights as Lewis seemed to get a second wind and got back to his boxing in the penultimate round. Holyfield came back to the corner with his left cheek cut.
The final three minutes were close, but Holyfield was the aggressor as Lewis held on to hear the bell. This time there was a winner as the three judges scored the bout 115-113, 116-112 and 117-111 in favour of the new undisputed heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis. The former champion dropped to 36-4-1 (25 KO's), while Lewis improved to 35-1-1 (27 KO's).
Top WBA contender John Ruiz was next in line, but Lewis signed to fight Michael Grant instead. The World Boxing Association would sanction the contest as long as Ruiz would be next. Don King, Ruiz's promotor won a court order to strip Lewis of the WBA belt if he went ahead with the Grant defence.
With the WBA heavyweight championship now vacant, number one contender Ruiz would face the second ranked heavyweight, Evander Holyfield. The contest took place on 12th August 2000. John Ruiz had boxed professionally since August 1992. He had a record of 36-3 (27 KO's) going into the fight and his most notable defeat came at the hands of the Samoan, David Tua, who only needed 19 seconds to stop him.
After twelve rounds, Holyfield was seen as the new champion with an unanimous decision. However, many observers believed Ruiz had won the fight with an effective jab and apart from a shaky third round, wasn't in any real trouble.
Holyfield had won a version of the heavyweight title for the fourth time, beating Muhammad Ali's record. The championship fight wasn't seen as legitimate as the WBA belt was taken from Lennox Lewis in the courts, not a boxing ring. Plus it was noted that Ali had actually reclaimed the titles from lineal champions and his achievement should stand as precedence over Holyfield's.
Holyfield and Ruiz fought again on 03rd March 2001 at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas. This time the twenty-nine year old challenger put in a relentless twelve round assault on the thirty-eight year old champion. Holyfield had a point deducted in the tenth for a low blow and was floored in round eleven as Ruiz won by scores of 116-110, 115-111 and 111-114 and became the first Latino to win a version of the heavyweight title.
Ruiz-Holyfield III took place on 15th December 2001. The thirty-nine year old challenger broke Ruiz's nose in round one. The champion later claimed that it was caused by an elbow. Holyfield looked to have taken control of the contest from the middle rounds, as he dictated the action and landed the cleaner blows. After twelve rounds the bout was declared a draw. "Of course I thought I won the fight," said Holyfield. "I will not quit (retire)."
Holyfield next entered the ring on 01st June 2002 against former WBC and IBF champion Hasim Rahman in a WBA eliminator. Rahman upset the boxing world when he knocked out Lennox Lewis in April 2001. Rahman was sensationally knocked out in four rounds when the pair met again the following in November 2001.
This was Rahman's first fight since losing his belts. Holyfield was ten years his opponents senior, but he defied his age and outboxed his man at every turn. He jabbed and battered Rahman as he out-sped and landed combinations that put the younger boxer to the ropes. A head-butt in round seven caused a nasty bruise, the size of a baseball over Rahman's left eye. The bout was stopped by referee Steve Smoger one minute and 40 seconds into round eight and went to the judges cards.
Two Judges went for Holyfield by identical scores of 69-64, but somehow the third judge had Rahman winning by 67-66. The victory set up a bout with Chris Byrd for the vacant IBF championship on 14th December 2002.
Byrd, who was actually lighter than Holyfield, exposed him as an ageing fighter as he used his speed and reflexes to stay out of harms way. The 'Real Deal' tried all he could to bring the contest to close quarters as he looked for the knockout, but he dropped a twelve round unanimous decision 117-111 (twice) and 116-112 respectively.
Former IBF middleweight, super-middleweight and cruiserweight champion James 'Lights Out' Toney made his heavyweight debut against the former four-time heavyweight champion. Holyfield enjoyed a two pound weight advantage, but seemed to grow old as the fight progressed. Realising there would be no grand finish, Holyfield's trainer, Don Turner threw in the towel in round nine, to prevent his man from taking any further damage after a knockdown. "I'm sorry I had to do that to him," Toney said afterwards. "He's a great fighter, and I have a lot of respect for him."
The 'Real Deal' suffered his third defeat in succession as he was widely outpointed by Larry Donald for the vacant NABC heavyweight title on 13th November 2004 at Madison Square Garden. It looked like Holyfield had retired, but got back to winning ways as he beat Jeremy Bates in round two in August 2006.
He outpointed Fres Oquendo the following November and stopped Vinnie Maddalone in three rounds on 17th March 2007. Three months later he outpointed Lou Savarese over ten rounds. He then took on WBO champion Sultan Ibragimov, losing an unanimous decision on 13th October 2007, six days shy of his forty-fifth birthday.
In December 2008 he challenged the huge Russian Nikolay Valuev for the WBA heavyweight title. In what was described as the worst heavyweight title fight ever, many observers believed that Holyfield deserved the decision. Not because he boxed well - he didn't, but the statute like Russian did nothing all contest. But the judges had him a tight winner by scores of 116-112, 115-114 and 114 a piece.
Holyfield was inactive in 2009, but claimed the very lightly regarded WBF heavyweight title with an eighth round TKO over Frans Botha on 10th April 2010. In January 2011 he had a no contest against Sherman Williams due to a clash of heads opening up a cut on Holyfield's left eye.
On 07th May 2011 he made the second defence of the WBF belt against the Dane Brian Nielsen in Copenhagen. He stopped his opponent in round eight. "My goal still is to become the undisputed heavyweight champion champion of the world," said the forty-eight year old. "This fight showed other champions what I am able to do, but it also taught me I got to be better."
This proved to be Evander Holyfield's final fight, but he didn't officially retire until 26th June 2014. He left the boxing industry with a record of 44-10-2 with twenty-nine opponents stopped. He will go down in history as the first undisputed cruiserweight champion to win the undisputed heavyweight title and go on to win a version of the heavyweight championship four times.
Though many people will allege that Holyfield was taking performance enhancers throughout his heavyweight career, this was vehemently denied by him and never proved by the boxing authorities. Steroids or no steroids, Evander Holyfield would come to fight and would always be throwing punches at the final bell and he should always be remembered for his achievements in the ring. An absolute credit to the sport and boxing's ultimate warrior.
All the best fight fans