Tyson-Holyfield I: Looking Back on the 20th Anniversary of a Shocker

TYSON-HOLYFIELD I. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were fierce career rivals who are forever linked via their fierce heavyweight trilogy. Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield are also forever linked, with their rivalry starting at the 1984 Olympic Trials when Holyfield, who made the team as a light heavyweight, was the only fighter who could give Tyson, a heavyweight who lost in the finals to Henry Tillman…any real work sparring. According to the boxers who made the U.S. Olympic team, Tyson and Holyfield really went at it during their sparring sessions. As pros, Tyson was a star almost the magnitude of Ali, whereas Holyfield was like Frazier, just a regular guy and a great fighter.

Another similarity is that Tyson was coming off a long layoff before he fought Holyfield the first time, as was true of Ali before he fought Frazier the first time. Ali had two fights after being inactive for 43 months and Tyson fought four times after being inactive for 50 months. The differences were that Ali was the challenger whereas Tyson was the defending champ and that Ali was two years older than Frazier whereas Tyson was four years younger than Holyfield.

Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield were on a collision course that began when Tyson started cleaning out the division and unifying the titles which culminated in August of 1987. Then in 1988 he knocked out Michael Spinks for the lineal title and became the undisputed champ.

By the end of 1988 Evander Holyfield had vacated his undisputed cruiserweight title and was 2-0 fighting as a heavyweight. By the time 1990 rolled around, Holyfield was the number-one contender. He and Tyson were scheduled to fight, but Mike was KO’d by Buster Douglas in February of that year, killing the match. Eight months later, Holyfield knocked out Buster and became the undisputed champion.

Holyfield was slated to defend his title against Tyson in 1991, but Tyson injured his rib training and the fight was postponed. Shortly afterward Tyson was indicted for rape. In early 1992 he was convicted and went to prison for three years. During those three years Holyfield lost, won and lost the heavyweight title.

Tyson was released from prison in March of 1995 and had his first comeback bout in August of that year. In November of that year Holyfield lost for the third time in his career when he was stopped by Riddick Bowe in their rubber match. In March of 1996 Tyson stopped Frank Bruno to capture the WBC title. Two months later, Holyfield looked terrible beating Bobby Czyz. An undersized heavyweight who turned pro as a middleweight, Bobby couldn’t answer the bell for the sixth round. This was Holyfield’s third bout after a brief retirement after losing his WBA/IBF titles to Michael Moorer. Four months after Holyfield beat Czyz, Tyson stopped Bruce Seldon in the first round to win the WBA title, which opened the door for Tyson and Holyfield to finally meet — even though there was no public demand to see them fight. The bout was made for Nov. 9, 1996 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Tyson was 4-0 since his release from prison and owned the WBC and WBA belts. In the eight combined rounds he fought, he looked to have maintained the same power he had before he was incarcerated. He also looked to have regained his desire, but his stamina hadn’t been tested. Conversely, Holyfield was in the midst of the biggest gully of his career two years after he was diagnosed with a heart problem after his lungs filled due to his heart not being able to pump the fluids out. This is what led him to retire shortly after losing to Moorer in late April of 1994.

The oddsmakers made Tyson a 25-1 favorite. In order for the fight to be cleared by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Holyfield had to submit to a physical at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, so the commission could be protected against lawsuits in case Evander was badly hurt during the fight. Tyson was such an overwhelming favorite some cable TV companies in the U.S. offered pay-per-round deals to spark sales.

When Tyson and Holyfield were scheduled to meet in 1991, Tyson was a 2-1 favorite. Five years later Holyfield was seen as a shot fighter with only his respected name left. As for Tyson, he had his swagger back and said “Holyfield’s in trouble.” And promoter Don King was on board with that because both he and Mike were convinced Evander was thoroughly washed up. Furthermore, Tyson knew Holyfield was his career rival and would be the fighter from his era who’d he’d be most measured against.

When the 30 year-old Tyson 45-1 (39) defended his WBA title against the 34-year old Holyfield 32-3 (23), it was Evander who relished the moment of finally getting to prove his critics wrong and show them he wasn’t a caretaker champion during Mike’s absence. Holyfield knew that until he conclusively defeated Tyson, he’d never get his due for being the all-time great fighter he was. And like Joe Frazier, who was always asked if he could beat Ali until they finally fought, Holyfield was repeatedly asked the same regarding Tyson for at least a decade before they finally met. And just as Frazier wasn’t the least bit intimidated by Muhammad Ali, the same applied to Holyfield pertaining to Tyson.

The Fight:

Both were in great shape – Tyson was a fit and solid 222 pounds and Holyfield was chiseled at 215. On the day of the bout, the odds favoring Tyson plummeted to 6/1. The bout was titled “Finally” and was a financial blockbuster.

Tyson came out for the first round like a wounded lion, and nailed Holyfield with a big right hand that rocked him back. Mike was looking to end the fight with every punch her threw, sending some massive left hooks and right hands Evander’s way. However, by the end of the round Holyfield was countering some of Tyson’s wide shots with his own left hooks and right hands.

In the second round a pattern started to evolve – which saw Holyfield counter Tyson’s lunging and reaching shots more frequently. As the fight progressed, Tyson slowed and fought lazy. He had no game plan other than to try and blast Evander out, but he lacked the tools for the execution. With Tyson looking for one shot and no longer really fighting as forcefully, Holyfield began to take the initiative and fight like the predator in many big chunks of the rounds. And because Holyfield was making Tyson pay for attempting to get inside, Tyson became more reluctant to work, and his insistence of trying to end it with one shot afforded Evander more distance and time to place his shots.

What became apparent as the fight moved along was that Holyfield had no trouble clinching and locking Tyson up off of a miss. And even though Tyson was trying to get inside, he really wasn’t that good of an inside fighter and became static. In the sixth round Holyfield dropped Tyson with a left hook to the chest. Mike wasn’t all that hurt but you could see his confidence dwindling. Holyfield was clearly the better in-fighter and with Mike not doing much inside, Evander had some big moments in spots where many thought Tyson would have the advantage. Holyfield’s cast-iron chin, underrated physical strength, and ability to back Tyson up, were huge factors in determining the outcome.

Holyfield fought smart and took away Tyson’s left hook by keeping his right hand high and then countering it with his right hand. Every time Tyson tried to take make a run and tried to take the play away from Holyfield, Evander flurried back and maintained the lead. By the tenth round Tyson was down to a slow walk and Holyfield was all over him scoring with some of his best hooks and right hands. Tyson was a beaten fighter and all but out on his feet at the end of the round. He came out for the 11th, and probably knew himself that it was just a formality. Holyfield unloaded on him immediately and with Tyson against the ropes and defenseless, referee Mitch Halpern halted the fight. It was over at the 37 second mark of the 11th round. With the win Holyfield got the proverbial monkey off his back and was the new WBA champ.

The Aftermath:

The lessons of the fight are that Holyfield, although removed from the fighter he was physically in the early 90’s, had more left than what he showed in his previous two bouts against Riddick Bowe and Bobby Czyz. Tyson probably under-estimated him, like Ali did Frazier the first time they fought, but that in no way changed the outcome.

Beginning about 1988, Holyfield proclaimed that he was a greater fighter than Tyson, and he was right. Tyson was/is the bigger star, and that makes it hard for many of his admirers to admit that Holyfield was an overall greater fighter. Evander was more versatile and tougher, and he also fought and defeated significantly greater opposition than Tyson during the same era. Because of Holyfield’s tremendous chin and durability, he could stand up to the best that Tyson had to offer and that would’ve been the case in 1988 or 1991, just as it was in 1996. Also, everyone knows Tyson became less effective as the fight progressed, and that had been the case ever since he turned pro in 1985. Add to that Evander was the better boxer and inside fighter…..if Mike couldn’t get Evander out of there inside of two rounds, and we have two fights proving that he couldn’t, there’s no way he can defeat Holyfield.

The first Holyfield-Tyson fight was voted Fight of the Year by The Ring magazine. It probably took place five years past its sell by date, but I doubt it would have been a greater fight in 1991 and I doubt the outcome would have been any different. The 20 years since the bout have flown by, and today Evander and Mike are good friends who respect each other along with being two of boxing’s greatest ambassadors throughout the world.

Tyson-Holyfield I

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Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com