By Frank Lotierzo
The biggest mistake Evander Holyfield made during his stellar 27-year career was, like Roy Jones, fighting beyond his prime. He suffered a majority of his career defeats when he was on a gradual decline during the tail end of his career. Sadly, because he continued to fight so long after scoring his career defining wins, sometimes it’s hard to remember just how great he was after beginning his career 28-0 (22). However, when it comes to ranking fighters historically, what often sets the greats and near-greats apart is the level of opposition they confronted during the majority of their prime years. Having probably faced the best overall level of opposition as a heavyweight, aside from Muhammad Ali, has a lot to do with why Holyfield is a 2016 nominee to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Holyfield, who began his pro career as a cruiserweight, fought during perhaps the second greatest era in heavyweight history, the 1990’s — an era during which Evander, Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis were the mainstays at the top of the division. And Holyfield is the only one of the four who faced the other three of the quartet, going 3-3-1 (2). And he is the only one of the group who didn’t make his pro debut as a heavyweight. In addition to that, Bowe out-weighed him by an aggregate 86 pounds in their three bouts, Lewis by 55 pounds in their two bouts and Tyson by 7 pounds in two bouts. Yet only Bowe was able to stop him. It came in their rubber match in the midst of the lowest valley of Evander’s career during the 90’s.
Twenty-six years ago on October 25, 1990, Evander Holyfield became the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World via his third round knockout of James “Buster” Douglas. Holyfield turned pro in 1984 and won the cruiserweight title in July of 1986, deposing the very tough Dwight Muhammad Qawi in only his 12th pro fight. Many historians regard the Qawi-Holyfield title bout the best cruiserweight fight in the history of the division, something that I fully endorse.
As cruiserweight champ, Holyfield spoke often about fighting for and winning the heavyweight title. At that time not many viewed that as realistic. Most fans and boxing writers were becoming intoxicated by the emergence of a 20-year-old heavyweight named Mike Tyson. At the time, Tyson was going through the heavyweight division in much the same manner Joe Louis did before he was stopped by former champ Max Schmeling.
Holyfield was regarded as being head and shoulders above any other cruiserweight in the world, and today, 32 years later, he is regarded as the greatest cruiserweight in the history of the division. It was only when he talked about fighting Tyson for the heavyweight title that he wasn’t taken seriously. The thought of Tyson losing to another heavyweight didn’t exist, let alone a cruiserweight.
The presence of Tyson practically engulfed Holyfield. Even in a heavyweight division with no Tyson, Holyfield was viewed as being physically too small. Another common belief was that he lacked the strength and punch needed to defeat the upper-tier heavyweights. Despite the doubts and negativism hurled his way, he was never deterred and continued cleaning out the cruiserweight division.
After a couple of years of speculation, Holyfield abandoned the cruiserweight division and began fighting as a heavyweight. In March of 1989, not even a full year after moving up to heavyweight, Holyfield scored his biggest win when he stopped former WBA heavyweight champ Michael Dokes in the 11th round. The Holyfield-Dokes fight was one of the better heavyweight fights in recent memory. Holyfield had his hands full with Dokes and was tested physically and mentally throughout the fight. By the end of 1989, Holyfield proved he was at least a man among men in the heavyweight division.
When the first heavyweight ratings of 1990 came out, Evander Holyfield was first in line for a shot at Mike Tyson’s undisputed heavyweight title. By mid-January of 1990, Holyfield was on the verge of signing to fight Tyson. The only obstacle remaining was Tyson had to beat Buster Douglas in his next title defense. Since Douglas never beat an authentically top heavyweight prior to fighting Tyson, and folded in his last title shot against Tony Tucker, Tyson beating Douglas looked like the safest bet in history.
On February 10th, 1990, Tyson was knocked out in the tenth round by the 42-1 underdog, Buster Douglas. After months of lawsuits, broken contracts, and buy outs, resulting from Douglas’ contract with Don King, Douglas was finally free from him. Douglas signed to make his first title defense against number one contender Evander Holyfield for 25 million dollars at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
On the night of October 25th, 1990, Evander Holyfield knocked out Buster Douglas with a perfectly timed right hand counter in the third round to become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. In his first defense, Holyfield won a unanimous decision over 42- year-old George Foreman, the same Foreman that Mike Tyson declined to fight in June of 1990. Holyfield’s second defense was scheduled to be against Mike Tyson in November of 1991. The fight was cancelled when Tyson injured his rib training.
Holyfield was involved in just about every big PPV heavyweight bout during the 1990’s. He fought everybody and gave boxing some of its most thrilling fights. Seven of his fights between 1992 and 1999 were against the three greatest Heavyweights of the era—Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson, and Lennox Lewis. Holyfield lost and won the title from Bowe, won it and defended it against Tyson, and drew with and lost it to Lewis. He also fought every other top heavyweight in the division. Despite being the smaller fighter in stature in just about all of his fights as a heavyweight, he was always the biggest man in the ring.
From 2000-2011, between the ages of 38 and 49 and a faint resemblance of the fighter he was during the 1990’s, Holyfield fought the following who at one time, or on the night he fought them, held a version of one of the alphabet world titles……John Ruiz (three times), Hasim Rahman, Chris Byrd, James Toney, Sultan Ibragimov, Nikolai Valuev, Francois Botha and Brian Nielsen, going 4-5-1. There’s not one fighter among those eight who would’ve stayed with Evander when he was on his game, let alone beat him.
At his best Holyfield could really fight and when he cut loose with his full arsenal of hooks, crosses and uppercuts, he was very dangerous. He also had the ring savvy to change and adjust his style depending on the opponent in front of him and what he was confronted by. Holyfield had a way of figuring out what his opponent didn’t want to do, and gave him as much of that as he could. Inside his chest was the heart of a champion, and he could never be counted out in any fight. Not to mention he had a cast iron chin and a will to win that exceeded his own limitations. When it comes to heart and both physical and mental toughness, I never saw or knew of any fighter who had more than Holyfield, and that’s because it’s humanly impossible to be grittier and tougher than Evander.
Evander Holyfield was thought to be too small and lacked the strength and power to ever be a top heavyweight fighter in the 1990’s. Not only did he prove his doubters wrong but, in my opinion, when at his best only Larry Holmes ranks above him circa 1978 through to 2016, although a case can be made for Lennox Lewis.
Without question – Evander Holyfield is a Hall-of-Fame and all-time great fighter!
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com