There are a lot of “What if?” situations in boxing, making for some interesting debates.
One of the more recent involved the May 2 matchup of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, a megafight many believe would have been much more compelling had it happened, say, five years earlier. When the aging superstars finally did square off, the 38-year-old Mayweather scored a rather easy unanimous decision over the 36-year-old Pacquiao, but what might have happened had they swapped punches in 2010, when the pairing would have taken place in the full bloom of their respective primes? Mayweather supporters insist that their guy would have won in much the same manner that he eventually did, but Pacquiao diehards will never be convinced that “PacMan” wouldn’t have fared far better had he not been kept waiting so long.
Which brings us to two equally and maybe even more intriguing dates in boxing history, separated by five years and one day, and a Grand Canyon’s worth of speculation. Nov. 8, 1991, was when WBA/IBF heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield and former champ Mike Tyson were to have clashed in one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts of all time. But Tyson sustained an injury to his left rib cage on Oct. 7, and the fight was postponed on Oct. 18. It was tentatively rescheduled for sometime in January 1992, in the hope it could be squeezed in before Tyson’s rape trial in Indianapolis, which was to begin on Jan. 27.
But Tyson’s sore ribs didn’t heal quickly enough and, well, we all know what happened. Tyson was convicted of rape, served three years of a six-year sentence in an Indiana prison and his confrontation with Holyfield didn’t happen until Nov. 9, 1996, when Holyfield – an opening-line 25-1 underdog (he went off as a more reasonable 10-1 longshot) shocked the world, or at least a large portion of it, by scoring an 11th-round technical knockout, dominating almost from the opening bell. The rematch, on June 28, 1997, was setting up to be more of the same when an enraged and frustrated Tyson chomped on Holyfield’s ears, resulting in his third-round disqualification.
Inquiring minds, of which I like to believe I have, were left to wonder what the outcome would have been had Holyfield and Tyson met on the originally scheduled date in 1991. Even though Tyson no longer was undefeated – he had lost his titles on that 10th-round knockout loss to Buster Douglas on Feb. 11, 1990, in Tokyo – he had strung together four victories, three inside the distance, and, at 41-1 with 36 KOs, was an opening-line 2-1 favorite over Holyfield (then 26-0, 21 KOs), who had dethroned Douglas on a third-round knockout on Oct. 25, 1990.
It was to have been a prime-on-prime confrontation with Holyfield having recently turned 29 and Tyson still a young, strong bull at 25. So why was Holyfield such a prohibitive underdog five years later? Well, he was just 4-3 in his preceding seven fights and was coming off a winning but unimpressive victory over Bobby Czyz on May 10, 1996, in Madison Square Garden. The widespread feeling then was that he was too used up to offer anything more than token resistance to the still-scary Tyson.
All of which points to one irrefutable fact: Boxing matches are won in the ring, not on paper. Styles count. Intangibles do, too. Maybe the Tyson of 1991 would have presented too steep of a hill for Holyfield to climb, and maybe the outcome of their later two meetings would have been the same. To help sort things out, I polled seven knowledgeable boxing people as to how Tyson-Holyfield, circa 1991, might have turned out had Tyson not injured his ribs or attended that beauty pageant in Indianapolis that led to his incarceration. The panelists include trainer Tommy Brooks, who at various times worked with both Tyson and Holyfield; former heavyweight champion George Foreman, who lost to Holyfield but never fought Tyson, although he wanted to; Nigel Collins, former editor of The Ring magazine; Steve Farhood, another former editor of The Ring, now a Showtime commentator; Larry Hazzard, then and now the head of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board; veteran boxing writer Michael Katz (a 2012 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame), and Ron Borges, Boston Herald sports columnist and the only media member of 49 polled who picked Holyfield to beat Tyson in 1996.
Their consensus opinion, in retrospect, might or not come as a surprise.
TOMMY BROOKS: “If that fight had gone off as planned in 1991, it would have been the same outcome as the one five years later. Evander just had Tyson’s number. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. Now, to me, both are beautiful kids and tremendous athletes. I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with them each of them. But sometimes one guy has something that gives him an edge over another guy of similar ability. Evander had the right style to fight Mike, and he had that incredible mental strength as well. I hear the same kind of talk about Mayweather and Pacquiao, what might or might not have happened if they fought five years earlier. I’m pretty sure it would have gone down the same way. Floyd had Pacquiao’s number and always would have had it, like Evander had with Mike.”
GEORGE FOREMAN: “Not only in hindsight, but even as I saw it then Mike Tyson wasn’t the best fighter in the world against guys that were not that big. He had an advantage, and I guess he got that from Cus D’Amato, against real big guys. He would hit them as hard as he could to the body, come back and touch them a little bit and then come on top with a shot to the temple and knock them out. That works with big, tall guys. But he didn’t really have the mechanics to beat guys more his own size. Holyfield didn’t hit as hard as Tyson, but he was so quick with combinations. He would have beaten Tyson then or later. That’s all there is to it.”
NIGEL COLLINS: “I think at the very top level of boxing, there is very little difference between the elites as far as the talent level goes. The secret to winning at that level is having a strong mind. Evander Holyfield could have fought Mike Tyson at any time in their careers and would have won 99 times out of 100 because he had such a strong belief in himself. After their first fight (the one in 1996), I went to (trainer) Don Turner’s house to watch the tape. Don commented on what was happening, and I turned that into a story. At one point he told me, `I can tell most fighters how to beat the other guy, but some don’t have the balls to do it. Evander does.’ And that pretty much sums it up. Really, there were only four or five years when Tyson was a truly great heavyweight. Holyfield had a much longer career at the top. Personally, I’m very fond of Tyson and always enjoyed covering him. But Holyfield will go down in history as the superior fighter.”
STEVE FARHOOD: “When they had the press conference to announce the (1991) fight, they tried to pose Holyfield and Tyson for one of those nose-to-nose staredowns. Both guys couldn’t stop giggling, maybe because they knew each other from their amateur days. This was at a time when Tyson still had that aura and was scaring everybody half to death. I think that moment was very revealing. Evander was not afraid of Tyson. That much was obvious. Look, if they had fought then, I certainly think Tyson would have done better than he subsequently did. The 1996 version of Tyson was severely diminished. In 1991, Tyson would have been much closer to his prime and he would have had more energy and skill, as opposed to ’96. But that said, we’re talking about an all-time great in Holyfield. It would be really hard to pick Tyson to win, knowing what we subsequently learned. I would pick Holyfield by decision, but I think it would be a very competitive fight, certainly more competitive than the two fights they had years later.”
LARRY HAZZARD: Five years earlier, based on what we saw (in 1996 and ’97), I don’t think the outcome would have been any different. Evander Holyfield, in my opinion, was always an equal of Mike Tyson, and maybe more than that. I actually picked Holyfield to beat Tyson in 1996, although I wouldn’t have said it publicly because of my position with the (New Jersey) commission. Everybody I did tell, though, thought I was crazy. My friend Butch Lewis, Denzel Washington and a couple more of those Hollywood types were at Butch’s house were at Butch’s house to watch the fight. I called Butch up and said, `Hey, Butch, you tell all the guys that are sitting there with you that Holyfield is going to win.’ Butch said, `Larry, you must have lost your bleepin’ mind.’ They were all laughing at me. When the fight was over and Holyfield had stopped Tyson, you couldn’t convince those guys that I didn’t have some kind of inside information. But it was just a feeling I had. I never saw a fighter that had as much heart as Evander Holyfield.”
MICHAEL KATZ: “I think it would have gone down the same way it eventually went down. The day they announced the fight (in 1991) I was in Virginia Beach for, I assume, a Pernell Whitaker fight. Holyfield was there. I interviewed him in his room. He had absolutely no hesitation about fighting Tyson; he was as calm and as sure of winning as I’ve ever seen any athlete. I think he knew all along what would happen. It was like a big brother, little brother kind of thing, that he was the man and Tyson was the boy. He knew he could take Tyson’s best shots and Tyson couldn’t take his. Later that day, word came that Tyson was under arrest in Indianapolis for some kind of sex thing.”
RON BORGES: “Oh, sure, there are a lot of people who say know that they always knew Holyfield would beat Tyson. Back then (in 1996), nobody thought Holyfield had a chance. There was a lot of talk after his fight with Czyz that Holyfield was damaged good and shouldn’t even be allowed to fight Tyson. I had a little inside information because I was fairly close to Holyfield during those years. One of the things I knew, dating back to to when Holyfield and Tyson were amateurs, was the pool table incident. Vinny Pazienza was Tyson’s roommate at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in 1984. One night they were all playing pool and it was one of those deals where if you lost, you gave up the table. Tyson lost and it was Holyfield’s turn to play. Tyson tried to bully him. Vinny was there and saw the whole thing. Holyfield walked up to Tyson, didn’t say a word and took the cue stick from him. Tyson left the room and nobody saw him for the rest of the night. I always had this image in the back of my mind that Tyson knew if there was one guy he couldn’t intimidate, it was Evander Holyfield.”