Updated: Feb 26
When referring to the heart, commitment and desire of the heavyweight fighters of yesteryear, it would be difficult not to mention the colossal match-up between two fighters who squared off in Vegas 1992 and seemingly threw punches with complete abandon for 12 arduous rounds.
Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe risked their respective unbeaten records and their rising reputations in a bid to be recognised as the undisputed world heavyweight championship, with the WBA, WBC, IBF and the Lineal titles on the line.
Both fighters had their own agendas in ensuring the fight was made, Bowe was a young 24-year-old, with a string of knockouts, fast becoming the one to beat in the division. Ranked as number 1 with the WBA and number 3 with the WBC and IBF, Bowe was well worthy of his shot at the champion.
However strange it may seem, Holyfield, although holding the belts arguably had the most to prove as he had received criticism for the opponents he had faced during his 2-year tenure as champion on the lead up to this fight.
The man nicknamed 'The Real Deal' took on and beat the man who beat the man in Buster Douglas, who of course famously upset the script defeating Mike Tyson. However, Douglas wasn't in the best shape against Holyfield and was disposed of in the third round of their contest. The newly crowned champion subsequently defended his titles against former champion George Foreman, who was attempting to become the oldest heavyweight world champion ever. Holyfield secured a unanimous decision and went on to face journeyman Bert Cooper after Tyson pulled out of a prospective fight through injury. Cooper handed Holyfield his first knockdown of his career and nearly his first loss before the man from Atlanta rallied to score a knockout victory.
Momentum for a fight between Bowe and Holyfield was beginning to gather pace and when a rescheduled Tyson/Holyfield fight became impossible due to the convictions of Tyson, the fight looked an inevitability and whilst opposing managers continually thrashed out the financial ramifications of a monster fight (the politics really weren't that different in the nineties despite our rose-tinted spectacles) the pair both took interim fights. Bowe knocked out fellow heavyweight contender Pierre Coetzer, whilst Holyfield beat another ageing former champ in Larry Holmes, with another unanimous decision.
The fights against Foreman, Holmes and journeyman Cooper meant that Evander Holyfield almost had to fight Bowe to legitimise his championship reign.
The first fight had Holyfield as a narrow favourite, he was the champion and had the experience, but Bowe had a 5-inch height advantage and was around 30lbs heavier. The 'styles make fights' phrase is churned out far too often in boxing but it's hard to imagine it encapsulating a match-up better than this one. 'Big Daddy' Bowe, an enormous mountain of a man who always appeared to deliver all of his weight through every punch, against Holyfield, who was the lighter, faster man, carrying up his athleticism from the cruiserweight division.
The fight started with Holyfield beating Bowe regularly to the punch, which gave him the confidence to come forward, but Bowe weathered everything that came his way and started to punish Holyfield's defensive disregard with vicious uppercuts and hooks to the body in round 4. Bowe was planting his feet and his shots appeared heavier and with more impact as round 7 saw Bowe through a right over the top, two left hooks and a right hook to the head, which set up a punishing right uppercut through the guard of Holyfield, snapping his head back. To the champion's credit, he refused to have Bowe impose his will on him without response and absurdly some would say, continued to trade in the centre of the ring with the bigger man.
In round 8, Bowe unleashed an attack that I'm convinced would undoubtedly prompt a referee's stoppage if it occurred in the sport we recognise today. What's more, I don't think it would have been queried too scrupulously even back then, such as the barrage of shots that rained down on Holyfield, sending him stumbling into the corner of the ring, with only the turnbuckle saving him.
Round 10 of the fight is a round that, despite knowing the intimate details of every flurry, every attack, I still find myself nervously shuffling to the edge of my seat, hunched over, getting ever closer to the screen and waiting for one of them to be felled by a massive shot as Holyfield responded in the last minute of the round, throwing his whole body into every hook, attempting to break the spirit of Bowe and turn the tide. The little show of respect at the end of that round, with Bowe tapping the midriff of Holyfield on the way back to his corner was a subtle sign that these two knew they were making history in what has to be considered as one of the greatest fights the heavyweight division has ever seen.
Bowe continued to look for the finish in round 11, knocking Holyfield down with a right hand but couldn't dislodge the stubborn champion, who bravely gave it everything in the twelfth, knowing he was behind on the cards.
Bowe duly got the win via unanimous decision with scores of 117-110, 117-110 and 115-112.
Just one year later, the two met again, the same city would it be the same outcome?
Holyfield only had to wait a year before getting the chance to avenge his defeat and once again become world champion, although only two of the three belts he had previously conceded were on the line after Riddick Bowe refused to grant Lennox Lewis the chance to fight for the WBC title following a breakdown in financial discussions, instead deciding to unceremoniously dump it in the trash at a press conference.
Holyfield will have known that he had to change his tactics for the second fight. He couldn't afford to just admire his own work and sit in the pocket after attacks, he had to offer more movement, not allowing Bowe to establish a rhythm from the jab was the key.
However, the man nicknamed 'Big Daddy' wasn't in any mood to follow Holyfield's amended script and came out swinging wildly, head-hunting and looking to settle the score early in round 1. The fight settled down after the first and Holyfield was clearly attempting to move more but appeared to be bouncing up and down on his toes in the same spot, as opposed to moving out of range, which Bowe quickly figured out and was able to time and ram home the jab. After the first 3 rounds Holyfield, who still had to figure out how to get inside that jab and work inside, started to have some success. Being first to the punch, moving away from an imminent retaliatory attack and then mounting another of his own started to become the blueprint for Holyfield to win rounds. He was even slipping Bowe's biggest attribute, his jab, with regularity, instead punishing the champion peppering him on the way in rather than crudely walking in to get on the inside. Bowe attempted to tie up and hold on the inside in an attempt to nullify his work and even on the occasions he was successful, he wasn't able to get his own shots away.
In the opening minute of round seven Holyfield looked to continue the trend, frustrating Bowe who appeared to start upping his work rate in anger and exasperation as much as anything. What followed was one of the most bizarre occurrences seen in a boxing ring. The fans who were sat ringside at Caesars Palace were so deeply ensconced in the action, that they probably didn't even see, nor expect to see a parachutist descend right into the ring, actually catching the cords on the structure around the top of the lighting above the ring. Chaos ensued with a melee of fans and security surrounding the incident.
The consequential 20 minute delay was probably more welcome from Bowe's corner who would have wanted in order to get their charge back on track and work on an earlier cut on the top of his nose that had been forced by a clash of heads earlier in the contest.
When they reconvened, it was in fact Holyfield who seized the initiative, sensing that he could press home his increasing influence in the fight and take a lead into the back stretch. The volume of punches and accuracy in round 8, which included a volley of 5 punches that all found their target, meant the scoring could only go one way and Bowe was starting to feel the fight sliding away.
Bowe remained a very dangerous opponent for the final rounds but Holyfield managed to catch the eye at the end of each one, almost always having the last say.
The end of round 12 perfectly encapsulated the spirit with which both fighters had fought, these two the boxing embodiment of bravery and desire. As the bell sounded they just carried on throwing huge shots. Holyfield probably was the main protagonist as Manny Steward had to do what the referee seemingly couldn't do and split them up, even if it meant rugby tackling his own fighter (well, falling over a camera man's trailing leg whilst holding Holyfield but you get the gist).
Somewhat surprisingly, one judge had the bout a draw, with the other two officials giving the fight to Holyfield with scorecards of 115-113 and 115-114. It handed Bowe his first professional defeat which proved to be his only defeat throughout his career.
Holyfield went in search of a unification fight with Lennox Lewis but the IBF and WBA refused to sanction it, instead insisting that he fought undefeated number 1 challenger Michael Moorer.
The threat of losing his titles was enough for Holyfield to adhere to the request and he faced the undefeated Moorer in April 1994. Holyfield lost the contest with Moorer upsetting the odds to win a majority decision.
Bowe wasn't able to negotiate a fight for any of the major world titles and instead fought Herbie Hide for the less recognised WBO title. He won and defended it twice before relinquishing the belt in favour of a third fight with Holyfield.
A third fight and the decider between the two was held in November of 95, two years after their second bout. The ferocity, the commitment and the pure will to win was there in abundance, just like the other two fights but this time the 12 rounds weren't needed. There was an underlying feeling that they both were desperate to unreservedly be declared the better fighter. Riddick Bowe ended the contest, scoring a technical knockout in round 8. But it took a monumental effort from him to stem the tide midway through the fight, he was on the brink in the sixth where Holyfield, much to the surprise of fans who didn't consider Holyfield a big single puncher, stunned Bowe, putting him down. Holyfield looked to be ready to finish the contest but after pouring everything into the attack, began to look jaded himself and Bowe, who had earlier grabbed, held and survived the onslaught, worked his way back into the fight and enjoyed his own period of success.
The scare appeared to have jolted Bowe into a purposeful mindset and during another period of unrelenting power-punches between the pair in round 8, Bowe came off better and a right hand on the inside as Holyfield came in, flattened him and although he dragged his weary body off the canvas, he clearly had had his senses scrambled as another clubbing right prompted the referee to intercept before anymore damage could be inflicted.
Holyfield did manage to win back the WBA and IBF titles against Mike Tyson, with a second fight ending very distastefully, avenged his loss against Michael Moorer and also had two fights against Lennox Lewis (a draw and a loss). Holyfield's last competitive fight was in 2011.
Bowe didn't fight for a recognised world title for the remainder of his career but the Holyfield defeat remained the only blemish on his record. He has recently been heard to be trying to coax Lennox Lewis out of retirement to the settle their long-running feud.