World Heavyweight Champion: 1990-92 1993-94 1997-99 2000-01
Boxing history is littered with fighters from lower divisions attempting to step up and take the ultimate prize. The greater glory has been one motivating force; the huge purses up for grabs at the sport’s top table is the other. Evander Holyfield is one of an elite group who have reached the top in one division, then beefed up to scale the heights of another.
Holyfield was born in Atmore, Alabama, on October 19, 1962. He rose to boxing prominence in 1984, when he won the Golden Gloves light-heavyweight title, then followed it up with a bronze at the Los Angeles Olympics. In the latter tournament he was denied a certain gold medal when he threw a punch after being told to break. He turned professional at the end of 1984, and for the next four years set about conquering the cruiserweight division.
Cruiserweight had entered boxing’s vocabulary in 1979, when the WBC decided to institute a new division to sit between the 1751b light-heavyweights and the big boys. The cruiser limit was set at 1901b, which proved to be perfect for Holyfield. He took less than two years to capture his first world title, taking the WBA’s version of the cruiserweight crown from Dwight Muhammad Qawi in July 1986. Qawi was a class opponent. He had held the WBC light-heavyweight crown, and had defended his cruiser title against former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks. Holyfield and Qawi fought an exciting 15-round contest in Atlanta, Holyfield winning on a split decision.
In May the following year, Holyfield added the IBF title by beating the incumbent, Rickey Parkey, in three rounds. Then, in April 1988, he established his total supremacy of the division by stopping the WBC title-holder, Carlos De Leon, in eight. In systematically mopping up all these titles, Holyfield was matching the performance of Mike Tyson in the heavyweights. The difference was that Holyfield was king of a much smaller hill. Almost immediately, he set his sights on Tyson’s heavyweight crown, relinquishing his three hard-won cruiserweight titles so that he could strike for the greatest prize.
Holyfield’s progress was swift. He took out James ‘Quick’ Tillis in five, and followed it up with victories inside the distance over Pinklon Thomas and Michael Dokes. A couple of wins later, Holyfield put himself in line for a crack at Iron Mike himself.’Buster’ Douglas’s win over Tyson shook up the boxing world and changed Holyfield’s plans. The ‘Real Deal’ now had the new champion in his sights, and the two men duly met in Las Vegas on October 25, 1990. Most observers’ verdict on Douglas that day could be summed up in a single word: surrender. With $20 million dollars safely in the bank, Douglas saw little need to train hard or compromise his safety. He succumbed to a short right in the third, handing 28-year-old Holyfield the crown in one of the easiest fights of his career. The poor quality of the opposition left a question mark over the new champion. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that his first defence was to be against 42-year-old George Foreman the following spring. Just when heavyweight boxing seemed to be edging towards a disrepute charge, Foreman stepped in to restore the faith. Not for him a quick capitulation and even quicker exit with a sackful of cash.
Holyfield beats gutsy Foreman
The former champion took Holyfield the full 10 rounds, and although he went down fairly and squarely on points, Foreman acquitted himself very well. So did Holyfield. He was now earning the respect he wanted, and being hailed as a talented and worthy champion. These were fine credentials, though many reserved judgment until he came up against Tyson.
Notwithstanding the defeat by Douglas, Tyson was still regarded as the greatest fighter of the day. If Holyfield aspired to true greatness and universal acclaim, he would have to step into the ring with Iron Mike Holyfield wanted the fight and plans were set in train. The match was made for October 1991, only to be deferred a month after Tyson injured a rib in training. Tyson was soon to be put out of commission for a much longer time. He had been indicted on a rape charge in September 1991. His subsequent conviction and six-year jail sentence meant that the world would have to wait for a Holyfield-Tyson clash.
The veteran Bert Cooper was called up as a replacement for Tyson. Holyfield won, but the challenger had him in trouble in the fourth, putting him down for the first time in his career. Those who still harboured doubts about Holyfield would have found much support to their view in this somewhat hollow victory. Next up for Holyfield was another 42-year-old ex-champion, Larry Holmes. Holmes fought on the retreat, using a cross-armed defence to survive – but lose – round after round. It was a poor spectacle, most notable for Holmes’ post-fight comment. When asked if he should have done anything differently, Larry replied: ‘Yeah, I should have fought him in 1980.’
Holyfield left Las Vegas with his title intact but his reputation further tarnished. If he wanted to restore any degree of credibility, he couldn’t afford to take on another grandfather. In fact, there were three worthy contenders waiting in the wings: Riddick Bowe, ‘Razor’ Ruddock and
Lennox Lewis, the British and European champion. Holyfield agreed to take on Bowe, with the victor to meet the winner of the Ruddock-Lewis fight. The champion’s critics were to feel vindicated on November 14, 1992. Up against the first quality opponent of his reign, Holyfield was finally found wanting.
Atmore, Alabama USA October 19 1962 6’2’
World Heavyweight Champion: 1990-1992 1993-1994 1997-1999 2000-2001
Won 37 Lost 5 Drawn 2 (25 Kos)