By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
Man-on-the-street surveys and best-of (or worst-of) lists reflect public opinion of the moment, not necessarily incontrovertible reality. Still, it is notable that Fox SportsNet ranked the now-infamous “Fan Man” fight — in which a publicity-seeking motorized paraglider pilot named James Jarrett Miller attempted to land in the outdoor ring at Caesars Palace during the seventh round of the second of three Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield matchups — as its “Most Outrageous Sports Moment” of all time.
Such a designation, even if only some ESPN employee’s personal opinion or the consensus of a small group of list-makers in Bristol, Conn., with nothing better to do, is worthy of mention considering the histories of the two fighters who were sharing the ring on that chilly evening of Nov. 6, 1993, when Miller fell out of the sky, got hung up on the top rope and wound up in the lap of enraged spectators and enduring controversy. WBA heavyweight titlist Holyfield, remember, had a chunk of his right ear gnawed off by uncrowned “chompion” Mike Tyson in the third round of their totally bizarre “Bite Fight” rematch of June 28, 1997, and Bowe is the guy twice awarded victories over the “Foul Pole,” Andrew Golota, who despite being ahead on the scorecards somehow decided that his best course of action was to treat “Big Daddy’s” not-so-protective cup as a piñata. The first DQ, which came in the seventh round on July 11, 1996, resulted in a nearly half-hour riot in Madison Square Garden.
Certain aspects of the “Fan Man” fight heighten the dramatic effect of a boxing evening unlike any other, so much so that it almost seems as if they were planned beforehand by some devious deity. It was Miller’s intention to land in the center of the ring, but an overhanging truss blocked clear entry, so he adjusted his flight pattern, hopefully allowing him enough leeway to slide over the ropes near Bowe’s corner and join the befuddled combatants and referee Mills Lane. But as luck (bad) would have it, Miller tumbled backward into a group of spectators that included Minister Louis Farrakhan and his security detail, as well as Bowe’s manager, Rock Newman, and his crew, several of whom pounced on Miller like snarling Doberman Pinschers going after a slab of raw meat. Before the unfortunate Miller was rescued (and shortly thereafter arrested) by arena security and police officers assigned to the event, he had been beaten unconscious by men using the large and heavy cellular phones then in vogue as weapons.
When he came to, after having been removed from the arena on a stretcher, the bruised and battered Miller, whose injuries might have been far worse were it not for the protective helmet he was wearing, remarked, “It was a heavyweight fight and I was the only guy who got knocked out.”
So unnerved by the madhouse scene that was transpiring in close proximity to her was Bowe’s wife at the time, Judy, who was three months’ pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. She fainted, and after being revived was taken on a gurney to a waiting ambulance as nearby spectators in the announced crowd of 14,292 tore scraps from Miller’s nylon parachute for souvenirs.
If the fight had been called off then and there, the entire incident would have gone down as a prank gone wrong that, while curiously entertaining in a way, had spoiled what was shaping up as a terrific scrap involving two Hall of Fame-bound warriors who were so closely matched that their trilogy since has taken on the trappings of legend. But the bout had not been terminated; it merely was going into what proved to be a 21-minute intermission in the crisp, 54-degree Las Vegas night, the effects of which either helped or hurt each fighter (both of whom remained in the ring, shivering, wrapped in blankets), depending upon widely differing points of view.
Marc Ratner, the respected executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, reacted reflexively to a one-of-a-kind situation he could not have foreseen or prepared for, rushing from his seat at ringside to instruct the three judges — Jerry Roth, Patricia Morse Jarman and Chuck Giampa – to mark down the score of what they had seen of the seventh round to that point (1 minute, 50 seconds remained), should the decision be made to resume the round, and the fight, which ultimately proved to be the case.
Who benefited more from the unexpected delay? The prevailing opinion, if not necessarily the accurate one, is that it was Holyfield, who, at 6-2½ and an official weigh-in reading of 217 pounds, was giving away 2½ inches and 29 pounds to Bowe, although the weight disparity probably was even more at the time of the opening bell. Holyfield, seeking to regain the WBA and IBF titles he had relinquished to Bowe exactly 51 weeks earlier in Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center, appeared to return from the unscheduled break somewhat the fresher man, but then the “Real Deal” always had been known to be in terrific condition and capable of finding that extra gear when his battery appeared to be winding down.
Still, it came down to the 12th and final round, the outcome teetering in the balance. And when ring announcer Michael Buffer read the scorecards, it was Holyfield that came away with the majority-decision victory, outpointing Bowe by 115-113 and 115-114 margins, respectively, in the estimation of Roth and Jarman while Giampa saw it as a 114-114 standoff.
What is intriguing is that all three judges were in agreement on 11 of the 12 rounds, but broke in separate directions concerning the interrupted seventh round when Miller, who had tried the stunt at various sporting contests in the past and would do so again in the future, descended from the sky like a snowflake or, who knows, maybe a terrorist. One judge scored it for Holyfield, one for Bowe, the third a draw.
“If the judge who had it 10-10 in the seventh had scored it for Riddick, the fight would’ve been a draw and Riddick would have retained his title,” said Ratner. “The round changed heavyweight history.”
That it did. Had Bowe defeated Holyfield for the second time in as many tries, there likely would never have been a need for a third meeting, and thus the trilogy (Bowe won the rubber match by eighth-round TKO on Nov. 4, 1995) that rates just a shade below the epic Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier series would have been concluded after two bouts. And if Holyfield hadn’t gotten that middle episode win over Bowe, he wouldn’t have become the third heavyweight in history (Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali were the others), to regain the title from the same man who dethroned him, and thus couldn’t have become the first fighter to accomplish the feat twice.
But while Bowe and Holyfield differed on who should have gotten the nod on a night that came just six days after Halloween, each said Miller’s intrusion altered everything.
“I was befuddled,” Bowe said of the 21-minute stoppage that he believes blunted his momentum. “I didn’t see it, didn’t expect it, didn’t know what to do. Then my wife faints and vanishes. I didn’t want to fight anymore. I wanted to be where she was. To appease the public and my manager, who said I’d be labeled a quitter, I kept fighting, even though my mind wasn’t totally on the fight.”
Holyfield compared his immediate thoughts about Miller’s startling appearance from above to the attack on tennis star Monica Seles launched by a deranged, screwdriver-wielding fan of Steffi Graf on April 30, 1993, during a tournament in Hamburg, Germany.
“I didn’t know what (Miller) was going to do, attack me or Bowe, but I tried to get out of the way,” Holyfield said. “I was afraid he might have a gun or bomb.”
The debate about who would have, or should, have won Bowe-Holyfield II were it not for Miller is apt to go on for as long as fight fans argue the merits of each man’s case. Bowe, who was an opening-line 6-to-1 favorite, went off as a shakier 2½-1 wagering choice after familiar questions about his weight (he went into training at 286 pounds) surfaced, but he landed 353 of 786 punches (45 percent) to 253 of 514 (49 percent) by Holyfield, according to CompuBox. Holyfield partisans point out that he landed the harder, more effective blows, opening two cuts around Bowe’s left eye in round four, red splotches the former champion targeted with more than a little success the rest of the way.
Both Holyfield and Bowe have known glory and disappointment, the latter largely entailing the evaporation of their once-ample fortunes, but they are destined to forever remain storied figures in the fight game. The same cannot be said of Miller, who ill and depressed, went off into the remote Resurrection Pass Trail in Alaska’s Chugach National Forest in 2002 where he hung himself. His frozen, decomposed body was discovered by hunters on March 9, 2003.