Heart, courage and toughness have always been words affiliated with great champions in boxing, but no one in the history of the sport has possessed these traits in greater measure than Evander Holyfield. These abilities enabled him to become the first and only heavyweight to hold a world title on four separate occasions.
Holyfield's 11th-round knockout over the heavily favored Mike Tyson on Nov. 9, 1996, was epic, shocking and went beyond dramatic. Some believe it was the greatest fight ever. Their second encounter went to the "Twilight Zone" when a frustrated Tyson was disqualified for twice biting Holyfield's ears. The bizarre incident will live forever in sports infamy. Despite losing a chunk of his ear, Holyfield doesn't rule out a third fight.
"Remember when we were amateurs, we trained together," Holyfield said about Tyson. "I even sparred with him back then. They had to get him out of there because he was a heavyweight and I was a light heavyweight, and I was whupping him."
The Tyson episodes represent just part of Holyfield’s fascinating boxing career.
The Alabama native was favored to win a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, but a referee’s erroneous late-hit disqualification left him with a bronze medal in the 178-pound class. Holyfield’s stoic response while being wronged belied his age, winning fans and praise for him from around the globe. Holyfield’s gift for ultimate grace in pressure-filled circumstances has been, and continues to be, his best trademark in and out of the ring.
Holyfield's began his pro career with 11 straight victories before going into his first world title fight, which became one of many career-defining moments for Holyfield, against World Boxing Association cruiserweight champion Dwight Qawi on July 12, 1986, an opponent Holyfield still claims as his toughest.
"When I hit Qawi with a real hard punch, he just looked at me,” Holyfield said with a smile. “I knew I had done something to make him mad. He just kept coming at me."
Holyfield did more than make the champion mad: He won the 15-round decision and took Qawi’s title in what was considered a major upset at the time. Holyfield had a much easier time with Qawi during their re-match on Dec. 5, 1987, which he won by a technical knockout in the fourth round.
Holyfield finally unified the 190-pound division with a convincing eighth-round knockout of Carlos DeLeon on April 9, 1988, and felt it was time to move up to heavyweight. Not wasting any time, Holyfield disposed of ex-heavyweight champions James Tillis, Pinklon Thomas and Michael Dokes. The big Argentine, Adilson Rodrigues couldn't make it out of the second round against Holyfield. Knockouts followed against Alex Stewart and Irishman Seamus McDonagh that set up a bout against James "Buster" Douglas at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
Douglas had shocked the world with his upset knockout of Mike Tyson in Tokyo, and expectations were high coming into the match with Holyfield. Douglas turned out to be no match for the stronger Holyfield. Holyfield finished him with a third-round knockout, becoming the new undisputed world heavyweight champion.
Waiting in the wings was “Big” George Foreman, now a bible-thumping preacher who delighted the press and captivated the public. In his resurrected “second” career, the 40-something Foreman was mowing down younger opponents in pursuit of a world heavyweight title. Holyfield and Foreman waged a memorable 12-round battle, knocking each other around, and nearly out, while thrilling more than 18,000 fans at the Atlantic City Convention Center. In the end, Holyfield won on points to retain his title in the then-biggest pay-per-view event in history.
Holyfield was challenged in his next bout against a last-minute replacement, the always-tough Bert Cooper, who gave Holyfield a great fight in his hometown of Atlanta. Surviving a vicious assault by Cooper, Holyfield finally stopped him in the seventh. In his next bout, Holyfield won a 12-round decision over “The Easton Assasin” Larry Holmes, who had dominated the heavyweight division for over 7 years. The next phase of Holyfield’s career included three sensational fights against Riddick Bowe.
The powerful, gifted Bowe was at the height of his considerable skills when he wore Holyfield down in their first fight on Nov. 13, 1992, taking the heavyweight titles from Holyfield in a decision that also left Holyfield with his first professional loss. In the much-anticipated rematch a year later at Caesars Palace outdoor stadium (that will always be remembered for “Fan Man,” who crashed into the side of the ring in a para-glider during the fight), Holyfield came out strong and simply out-boxed the bigger Bowe. Holyfield had become the WBA and IBF heavyweight world champion again.
Holyfield then faced the No. 1 heavyweight contender in the world, undefeated Michael Moorer (34-0) on April 22, 1994. Holyfield suffered a shoulder injury in the second round but refused to quit, fighting for 10 rounds in excruciating pain. Holyfield lost the fight and his titles by decision.
After the fight and while still in Las Vegas, Holyfield received a variety of methods to treat the severe pain that continued after the bout. He was then hurriedly flown to Atlanta where he was examined by doctors who did not have the benefit of seeing the course of treatment he had received in Las Vegas. They concluded that Holyfield had fought Moorer in near cardiac arrest, had permanent damage to his heart, and should never fight again.
A few weeks later, Holyfield felt fine and went in for another check-up, and it was determined that the previous diagnosis was incorrect. Holyfield then visited the famed Mayo Clinic where he was tested extensively and cleared to fight. He then defeated Ray Mercer by 10-round decision on May 20, 1995.
The third and final meeting between Holyfield and Bowe took place in Las Vegas on Nov. 4, 1995, and has been remembered for many reasons. Back and forth they went: Holyfield knocked Bowe down and seemed to have all the momentum, but then, in the eighth round, a suddenly exhausted and dehydrated Holyfield was side-swiped by thudding blows from Bowe and collapsed to the canvas. Bowe won by technical knockout in the eighth round. “Big” George Foreman’s color commentary on the televised broadcast fanned flames of concern for Holyfield’s health. [Holyfield did not disclose until later in his career that he had also become seriously ill in the weeks leading up to the fight but did not reveal it at the time because he didn’t want to disappoint his fans with a postponement.]
The concern was so great among the members of the Nevada State Athletic Commission that they decided Holyfield should not be allowed to fight in their state. Holyfield’s heart was tested again, and he was cleared to fight in New York against Bobby Czyz, which Holyfield won by TKO in round five on May 10, 1996.
Before the Nevada commission would allow Holyfield to fight Tyson, they insisted he receive another clean bill of health, which Holyfield received from the Mayo Clinic. When he did face the legendarily tough Mike Tyson, he was a heavy underdog and many thought he would be seriously injured, or even killed, in a fight with the WBA champion. But Holyfield put his trust in God and his own ability and shocked the world by winning the fight convincingly. He also joined Muhammad Ali as the only man to ever win the heavyweight title three separate times, and many felt he had achieved all of his goals, but he wasn’t done yet.
He successfully avenged his previous loss in to Moore in a rematch on Nov. 8, 1997, with a TKO in round 8, and took the IBF title to go with his WBA crown, but he wanted to become the undisputed world. Holyfield’s determination was so focused that he passed up a $25 million payday to face “Big” George Foreman in a rematch, so he could stay on course for a possible fight against WBC champion Lennox Lewis. While waiting for the anticipated shot against Lewis, Holyfield continued to be an exemplary world champion. He visited schools, churches and did extensive charity work.
In a gesture that solidified his roots and commitment to his hometown of Atlanta, he joined his promoter Don King in co-financing a world title defense against Vaughn Bean on Sept. 19, 1998. Taking a massive reduction in salary, Holyfield's "homecoming" paid off as more than 41,000 people jammed into the Georgia Dome on the night of the fight. Holyfield did not disappoint them while Bean proved to be a stronger challenger than many people expected him to be. Still, Holyfield was the superior fighter through 12 rounds of boxing, and he emerged with a unanimous points victory.
The moment for the "trifecta" finally came for Holyfield against Lennox Lewis on March 13, 1999 at Madison Square Garden. It marked the first time in seven years that two men would enter the ring with the undisputed heavyweight title at stake. Holyfield was supremely confident and even went so far as to predict a third-round knockout of his towering English opponent. The Garden had been sold out for months, and, in addition to the then-largest record live gate, 1.2 million pay-per-view buys were made, then the eighth-largest buy rate in history.
Lewis established the jab early and maintained it throughout the fight. With a sizable height and reach advantage, Lewis' strategy was evident from the start: Work the jab and keep Holyfield from boring inside where he would be able to do more damage. Holyfield seemed most aggressive in his proverbial third round, and he did rock Lewis several times but was unable to produce the knockout he predicted. Meanwhile, the WBC champion hung on and turned the tables on Holyfield in the fifth. The two heavyweights battled evenly the rest of the way. To the disappointment of more than 19,000 spectators, including a robust 5,000 from England, the fight was ruled a draw.
The aftermath of the controversial judging created a ripple effect from fans, the media and meddlesome grandstanding politicians. In truth, after a perfunctory review of the fight, a case could be made for the fight going in favor of either fighter. Promoter Don King's response? "Let's do it again!" They finally did on Nov. 13, 1999, in Las Vegas.
This time, Holyfield was decidedly superior in working inside and battering Lewis with slashing uppercuts and pounding body blows. Lewis tried to implement the strategy that worked in their first fight: establishing the jab and beating down on the smaller Holyfield. But if there is one thing Holyfield possesses as an advantage in rematches, it is his ability to learn, adapt and adjust to his opponent. Lewis didn’t land nearly as many punches as he did in the first bout, but, incredibly, he got the nod from the judges in a unanimous decision. The sold-out crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center was stunned when ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. read scores of 115-113, 116-112 and 117-111—all in favor of Lewis.
In an unspoken protest of the decision, the unmarked and fresh-looking Holyfield went out dancing and socializing at the Las Vegas Hilton until 4 a.m. It was clear that he had been the better fighter this time around, silencing the critics who had thought he was overmatched by the talented Lewis based on their first meeting.
So many felt that Holyfield had won the second Lewis fight that Holyfield embarked on a mission to face Lewis for a third time in an attempt to unify the titles yet again. His first step turned into history when he faced Boston’s John Ruiz for the WBA titled that had been vacated by Lewis when he failed to agree to a mandatory challenge.
Ruiz stunned his critics, and a sold-out crowd of over 9,000 at Paris Las Vegas on Aug. 12, 2000, by gamely challenging Holyfield in a toe-to-toe brawl that went the distance. In the end, Holyfield walked away with a razor-thin unanimous decision.
The decision was so close that the WBA ordered a mandatory rematch and Holyfield vs. Ruiz 2 took place on March 3 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Holyfield began the fight aggressively, and a welt developed over Ruiz’s left eye. Ruiz began to bleed after an accidental head-butt in round four but refused to quit.
It was a close seesaw battle until round 10 when Holyfield was given a point deduction by referee Joe Cortez for a low blow. In round 11, Ruiz stunned Holyfield with a right cross that sent the champion to the canvas. (Ruiz joined Riddick Bowe as the only fighters in history to knock Holyfield down.) Holyfield recovered to finish the fight but lost a unanimous decision.
Promoter Don King then announced that Ruiz vs. Holyfield III would be the first world heavyweight title fight to take place in China on Aug. 4, 2001. A huge promotion ensued, but, with the fighters and their entourages assembled in Beijing, the event was postponed three days before the match after Ruiz pulled out with a neck injury.
Undaunted, King re-scheduled the rubber match on Dec. 15 at Foxwoods Casino Resort in Mashantucket, Conn. Holyfield shattered Ruiz’s nose in the first round and appeared to be winning many of the rounds, most of which were dominated by mauling and clutching.
Round 10 featured the best encounters of the fight when Holyfield landed solidly to open an exchange that Ruiz fought off with a right to the body. Now face to face and toe to toe, they exchanged solid hooks to the inside, spinning around from the blows as the bell sounded.
When the final round began, most ringside observers felt whoever closed the show would win the title. Holyfield landed three left hooks midway through the round that left Ruiz’s nose bleeding. For the first time in the fight, Ruiz looked truly hurt.
All three judges gave Holyfield the last round, but it wasn’t enough to win as the bout was ruled a split-decision draw. The sold-out crowd, most of whom were from Ruiz’s nearby hometown of Boston, erupted in a chorus of boos indicating that even they were willing to admit Holyfield had won. One judge had it 116-112 for Holyfield; the second judge had it 115-113 for Ruiz; and the third and determining judge had it a dead heat at 114-114. Ruiz retained his WBA title.
Holyfield was stoic after the fight. “Of course I feel as though I won, but when it goes to the judges, anything can happen,” Holyfield said. He added: I don’t quit, I will not quit. I’ll go to the back of the line.”
On June 1, 2002, Evander met former World Champion Hasim Rahman in a WBA/IBF Heavyweight Elimination bout in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. The crowd cheered as the pair exhibited skills and exchanges. An accidental head-butt caused a huge hemotoma on the forehead of Rahman and they went to the scorecards in the eighth round, with Holyfield winning on a very close split technical decision.
That fight propelled Holyfield to the mandatory position with the WBA and the No.2 spot behind Chris Byrd with the IBF. With Lennox Lewis electing not to face his mandatory with Byrd, and relinquishing that belt, Byrd and Holyfield met for the vacant IBF Heavyweight title in Atlantic City on Dec. 14, 2002.
Although he suffered a torn rotator cuff in the fight, Holyfield valiantly battled the elusive and skilled Byrd for 12 rounds but lost the decision.
Holyfield then met former cruiserweight world champion James “Lights Out” Toney in Las Vegas on Oct. 4, 2003. Holyfied lost by technical knockout in round nine.
His quest to become a world champion yet again continues on Nov. 13 when Holyfield will face Larry “The Legend” Donald, from Cincinnati, in Madison Square Garden. Donald possesses many of the boxing skills that Byrd used with great success against Holyfield, but the four-time heavyweight champion remains undaunted.
Don King said in regards to Evander Holyfield, "he's an old man just rolling like a river."
"This is the first step I have to take,” Holyfield said. “Looking over my past fights, I have made some adjustments and realized I have to be totally dedicated and ready to fight."
"I wanted a championship but that didn't happen. I couldn't let a whole year go by (without fighting), so I had to take this fight."