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Split Decision: Holyfield v Lewis I

Split Decision is a brand-new series where we look back at some classic fights from the past and evaluate if the right outcome was achieved. Of course, boxing is subjective, there are certain styles that appeal to certain fans and that is what we love about it. Two people can watch the exact same fight and have polar opposite views on it. It’s what gets us talking. In this series, we judge the judges and see how you think we’ve done.

The sight of a British heavyweight being denied a heavyweight championship victory against an American champion on American soil is not an all too unfamiliar one. The most recent example which will spring to mind is Tyson Fury being awarded a draw against then WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder in December 2018 in Los Angeles, when most felt he won the fight comfortably, after rising from the ashes in an unforgettable twelfth round. However, for some, that would be a case of history repeating itself as Lennox Lewis suffered a similar fate in a unification fight with Evander Holyfield back in March 1999.

In a bout billed as Undisputed (despite Brit Herbie Hide holding the WBO title) Holyfield was defending his WBA and IBF titles while Lewis brought his WBC belt and status as the Lineal heavyweight champion to the table. Holyfield had captured the WBA title in a surprising stoppage win against Mike Tyson, losing in only his first defence after beating Bruce Seldon. In opting to fight Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson relinquished the WBC title which created an opportunity for Lennox Lewis to avenge his loss to Oliver McCall and re-capture the belt. He did so, in bizarre fashion, as McCall refused to throw punches from round four onwards and began crying in-between rounds before it was finally concluded by the ref in the fifth.

Holyfield would then add the IBF title to his collection in a rematch with Michael Moorer, who had previously beaten the Real Deal in a close contest in 1994. This time, Holyfield floored Moorer five times as the latter would be denied the opportunity to come out for round nine by the ringside physician. Meanwhile, Lewis became the Lineal heavyweight champion by knocking out Shannon Briggs in 1998, thus creating an eagerly anticipated unification fight between the two.

The Fight

A packed Madison Square Garden would see Lennox Lewis struggle to make it into the ring during a ridiculously congested ring walk, something of which you just wouldn’t see anything like today. Holyfield had less trouble with his journey, looking focused on the job ahead and singing along proudly to his gospel ring walk music.

Round one saw Lewis establish his dominant jab from the outset – not allowing Holyfield to land a punch for the first two minutes of the opener. Much of the same followed in the second as Lewis looked calm and calculated, taking the first two rounds with ease.

Holyfield had predicted in the build-up that he would knock Lewis out in the third round and he galvanised himself to try and make that prophecy a reality. Holyfield landed a left hook to open a barrage which would be followed up by a straight right and another left, as he announced himself in the fight. Towards the end of the round, Holyfield landed a crisp cross right which seemed to stun Lewis and serve as a reminder that this fight was on.

Lewis came out for round four in a composed fashion, again working behind the jab and it seemed Holyfield had exerted quite a lot of energy in the third, now unable to get into distance to attack. Lewis enjoyed success with some stinging right hands and he appeared to be impenetrable when firing the jab in full flow.

Holyfield found himself in trouble in the first minute of round five, overstretching for a left hook, leaving himself exposed for Lewis to initially stun him with a shot near the back of the head and then with a flurry of composed, spiteful right hands. To further stamp his authority on the round, Lewis finished it by unleashing a wicked four-punch combination with the stats showing he landed an impressive 75% of the 57 punches he threw in the round.

Lewis landed the punch of a relatively quiet round six, a big uppercut, but it was in the seventh where he threatened to end things early. After a ripping left hook to the body, Lewis landed a straight right, later followed by two uppercuts in quick succession as Holyfield was unable to mount any sort of response.

Round eight was a much closer affair and there is certainly a case to award it to Holyfield, the left hook his most effective weapon again. Lewis, however, still looked supremely confident behind his jab which kept Holyfield at bay for the most part and unable to find a path to fight on the inside.

After a quiet ninth round, Evander Holyfield rallied in the tenth, seemingly realising the severity of the situation. Holyfield stepped up his aggression and began the round with a good combination sparked by another left hook. Halfway through the round he then landed a heavy right hand, easily the most success he had enjoyed for a while.

However, Lewis would take the sting out of the final two rounds of the fight, following the late great Emmanuel Steward’s advice to push back Holyfield and return behind the jab.

As the final bell rang, it was Lewis who tellingly raised his right arm up immediately in celebration as Holyfield embraced him, before returning to his corner looking subdued. Lewis would continue to celebrate in his corner as the announcement was about to be made.

My Scorecard – Holyfield 111 – 117 Lewis

I think Lewis had every reason to celebrate as he did after the final bell, he controlled the fight behind a career-best performance off his jab. He did this whilst power punching when the opportunity presented itself; it was a tremendous performance, one of which Holyfield just couldn’t get to grips with or work out.

The official scorecard – A Draw

The Reaction

“That’s a travesty. That is Ladies and Gentlemen, a travesty, an outrage, a highway robbery. Lennox Lewis has just been robbed of the heavyweight championship of the world. He won it and he didn’t get it.”

Above, the now-iconic words of HBO announcer Jim Lampley with his brutally honest assessment of the scoring and subsequent decision. That mood was also echoed by the deafening boo’s engulfing Madison Square Garden as, ironically, there was nothing undisputed about this outcome.

Understandably, Lewis left the ring in anger and without giving a post-fight interview to punctuate his disgust at the decision from the three judges. His trainer Emanuel Steward would say: “It was a terrible decision. Every time we try to move boxing forward and make a great fight like this, this kind of crap comes up. Evander Holyfield won three rounds of the fight, four at most. But it’s called a draw. This is what’s killing boxing.”

In his interview, Holyfield maintained he “felt like the heavyweight champion of the world” but conceded he had been on the wrong end of decisions himself in previous contests.

The Aftermath

One of the most shocking assessments came from the American judge Eugenia Williams who awarded Holyfield the spoils of round five, which by most accounts, was Lewis’ best round of an overall dominant performance. Williams would later claim she would declare the fight a draw in hindsight, the decision British judge Larry O’Connell gave on the night but one he would later regard as a mistake.

In an interview with Sky News during the aftermath of the fight, O’Connell would say “First and foremost, my scorecard is done in such a way that after every round, I hand my scorecard to the supervisor who then relates it to his scorecard. By the end of the twelve rounds, I don’t really know what my score is. It would be unethical for me to know where I stand when I’m scoring.

“I didn’t know what my score was, obviously my heart sank when it was a draw because one thing I do not like doing is giving a draw. In this case, I didn’t know my scores. I had a gut feeling which was I’d slightly given it to Lennox but I didn’t know.”

South African Stanley Christodoulou would be the only judge to come out of the situation with any credit from the public and boxing community, but even his scorecard might be too close for some.

The facts from the fight side with Christodoulou, showing that Lennox had landed 348 of his 613 punches thrown while Holyfield only landed 130 of the 385 punches he had thrown throughout the fight. Lewis’s superior jab, which was stellar on the night, was also proven to have landed 187 times compared to just 52 of Holyfield’s.

Ironically, the rematch, eight months later in Las Vegas in November 1999, saw Lewis judged the unanimous winner when some felt Holyfield had done enough to at least warrant another draw. Funny game boxing, but that is a discussion for another day.

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