How the ‘Omega Project’ Got Holyfield Ready for Qawi – and, ultimately, Tyson

They could have called it something else. They could have just said it was a more intensive, non-traditional type of training without attaching a fancy label to the different direction they wanted to take the 1984 Olympic bronze medalist. But Evander Holyfield’s management team dubbed the new strategy the “Omega Project,” which vaguely sounded as if it had something to do with secret agents or the development of a weapon of mass destruction in some remote underground facility known only to scientists with high-level security clearances.

What it was, in fact, was a long-range blueprint to transform Evander Holyfield, a cruiserweight with a stout heart and burning desire to succeed but limited professional experience and questionable stamina, into the human dynamo who someday would take down the seemingly invincible Mike Tyson.

“We call this the Omega Project because we feel Evander Holyfield is the last man who can beat Mike Tyson,” said Holyfield’s promoter, Main Events president Dan Duva, a sentiment which at the time, the spring of 1986, was shared only by his fellow true believers, and maybe not entirely bought into by even some members of Holyfield’s inner circle.

“My manager (Ken Sanders) was a car salesman,” Holyfield, now 54, recalled when contacted for this story. “He didn’t know much boxing, but he believed in me. He thought I could beat anybody.  I thought I could beat anybody. I wasn’t afraid of nobody. But the Duvas (Dan and his father, Lou, who, along with George Benton, served as Holyfield’s co-trainer) didn’t know exactly what they had in me. I’m not sure they were certain I could win that fight (a challenge of then-WBA junior heavyweight champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi). But I had a big contract with ABC and they put me in it.”

July 12 marks the 31st anniversary of the watershed event that, in many ways, helped put Evander Holyfield on the path to an undisputed cruiserweight championship, a record four reigns as heavyweight titlist and his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, which took place on June 11 of this year. The then-23-year-old Holyfield’s action-packed, image-buffing 15-round split decision over the Tysonesque Qawi in Atlanta’s Omni might have been “The Real Deal’s” 12th pro bout, but in some ways it was his debut as something far better than what many had presumed him to be, and maybe even the instrument by which Tyson might be brought down, although Buster Douglas beat him to that distinction.

“You see he now knows that stamina is not a problem,” Alex Wallau, the color analyst for the ABC Wide World of Sports telecast, said in the 14th round of Holyfield’s surprising staying power. “He is now officially a professional fighter. He can go these 14 and he will be able to go the 15 rounds. And trust me, that was a tremendous question in his mind. He may not admit it, but until you’ve done it you don’t know if you can do it.”

Even Evander, who was raised by his beloved mama Annie to believe that words like “quit” and “can’t” were not to be a part of his lexicon, might have surprised himself by going 15 grueling rounds when he’d never had to go beyond eight rounds previously as a pro, and that had happened only once. In Holyfield: The Humble Warrior, authored in 1996 by Evander’s brother, Bernard, his sibling admits to being concerned that the kid he and seven other older brothers and sisters had nicknamed “Chubby” for his fondness of junk food was wilting before his eyes as early as the fourth round.

“Evander found himself sitting on a stool, hurting as much as he had ever hurt, feeling as tired as he had ever felt, and wondering how he was going to finish this bout,” Bernard Holyfield wrote. “As I watched my brother bleed (note: Evander was never cut in the fight) and pant for air between the fourth and fifth rounds, I wondered if the experts weren’t right. The fight was scheduled for 15 rounds. Evander had never fought more than eight – a fact that the Qawi people hoped to exploit when they demanded the longer 15-round bout. They reasoned that Evander’s lack of experience in the later rounds would eventually show and make it easy for Qawi to capitalize on Evander’s exhaustion.”

Bernard Holyfield said Evander was able to courageously and effectively soldier on beyond the presumed limits of his endurance because of the presence of 9,000 or so of his hometown fans and friends, which might be true to some extent. It was a truly gallant effort, and in a classic slugfest in which there were virtually no clinches (making for a relatively easy afternoon for referee Vinnie Rainone), Evander averaged around 85 punches per round, an extraordinary work rate for a 6-foot-2, 186-pound man, although that number could not be quantified until much later, after an examination of the tape by punch-counters for CompuBox, a company which did not exist in 1986. But there was a price to be paid for the winner’s refusal to acquiesce to the little voice in his head telling him that the worsening pain in his back and diminished air in his lungs would have made it all right to give up and return to fight another day.

Examined by a ring physician in his dressing room, Holyfield was informed that his body was burning muscle, which could have caused his kidneys to fail. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was administered nine liters of intravenous fluids. When he awakened, it was at a weight of 201 pounds, or 15 more than what he had registered at the weigh-in just the day before.

So the Omega Project wasn’t yet a complete and indisputable success, but, as the ancient Chinese proverb goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Although Holyfield might have been spurred on by a desire to defeat Qawi and thus reward his phalanx of supporters for their loyalty, his triumph owed at least in part to R. David Calvo, an orthopedic surgeon who ran a sports medicine clinc in Sugar Land, Texas, and Houston-based conditioning specialist Tim Hallmark, who first worked with Evander in the lead-up to the Qawi fight (Holyfield would also win the rematch in more convincing fashion, on a fourth-round knockout on Dec. 5, 1987). Hallmark would remain with Evander for all but the final bout of a remarkable 27-year pro career, the indispensable recruit into what might be described as a noble experiment, and his input helped change the course of Holyfield’s life, and by extension boxing history.

Truth be told, there were more than a few skeptics who believed that Evander Holyfield was less of a prospect for professional greatness than other members of that 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team who signed with Main Events, a bonanza of a talent haul that included gold medalists and future world champions Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Mark Breland, who was considered the prize of the group, as well as super heavyweight gold medalist Tyrell Biggs.

It wasn’t as if Holyfield lacked self-confidence at that or any stage of his boxing journey. “I didn’t ever think about what would have happened if I lost (to Qawi) because I never thought about losing,” he said. “You can’t be afraid to take a chance to be the best, and I wanted to be the best. I just didn’t know what the best was.”

But Lou Duva had an idea of what Holyfield might become, if some needed adjustments were made. The rotund and pasta-enlarged Duva stormed into his snack-loving fighter’s apartment one day and confiscated his considerable stash of potato chips and single-serving apple pies, which he correctly figured did not constitute the dietary needs of a future world champion. OK, it was a case of do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do, but Cap’n Lou clearly was onto something. Still, there was more to be done to further the the development of a young, potentially outstanding fighter whose ceiling already was in danger of being reached.

Although Holyfield’s goal, from the time he took up boxing at eight years of age at the Warren Memorial Boys Club, was to become the heavyweight champion of the world, he turned pro as a light heavyweight and was still campaigning as a cruiserweight – the weight limit at that time being 190 pounds – which was chipping away at his mental resolve. Eating sweets and bags of potato chips might have helped him pack on enough pounds to become a heavyweight, but not the proper way, and training to remain a cruiserweight (the WBA then called its version of that division as junior heavyweight) was dampening his enthusiasm for going to the gym, torturing his Greek-god physique and maintaining that 29-inch waist. He had to move up at some point, and he and the Duvas knew it. After all, heavyweights made much more money than cruisers and were more widely recognized by the public. Mostly, though, Tyson was already a heavyweight icon and he represented that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if only a larger, more finely tuned Holyfield could find a way to claim it.

Thus was the launch of the Omega Project and Holyfield’s introduction to Hallmark, who had never worked with a big-time boxer. The concept of bringing in a relative outsider was not as radical as it might once have seemed, given the fact that New Orleans fitness guru Mackie Shilstone had helped bulk up light heavyweight champ Michael Spinks to upset IBF heavyweight champion Larry Holmes on Sept. 21, 1985, employing similar methods to those espoused by Hallmark. But, hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. At 5-foot-7 and 189 pounds, the aggressive, constantly pressuring Qawi, 33, was a mirror image of Tyson and the litmus test by which Holyfield would prove or disprove the merits of eventually targeting the compact wrecking machine from Brooklyn.

“Lou Duva knew Evander had a conditioning problem and that he didn’t have a chance (against Qawi),” Hallmark said in 1988, prior to Holyfield’s heavyweight debut against a onetime Tyson opponent, James “Quick” Tillis, on July 16 of that year. “So he sought me out. He said, `We’ve got a guy who has more skill than anybody else, but after three rounds he looks like he has no skill.’

“Evander would go five or six rounds against what you’d call easier competition. Everybody who knew anything about the fight business knew there was no way Qawi was going to be knocked out and everybody in the business knew Holyfield would be in trouble going more than four or five rounds.”

Hallmark eschewed such traditional staples of a boxer’s conditioning as long runs, jumping rope and shadowboxing and he put Holyfield on a regimen of cycling, treadmill jogging and exercise on a device known as a climber, which resembled a vertical torture rack. The pair went through the paces two hours each morning, six days a week, with Duva and Benton taking over in the afternoon for Holyfield’s standard boxing workouts.

Not that Duva, who had a hand in bringing Hallmark aboard, was always amenable to aspects of the out-of-the-box venture.

“There was a lot of doubt, but Lou is always looking for a better way, and I have to admire him for that,” Hallmark said of those early rough patches. “Lou and George were coming up and saying, `What’s wrong? He looks flat.’ I said, `Guys, I’m glad he looks flat. If you want me to pussyfoot around every day and make him look good every single day, it’s not going to work.’”

As it turned out, Holyfield – who later became an inveterate tinkerer in regards to his own training methods, no doubt in large part because of the benefits he perceived as having been derived from the Omega Project – might have bailed on the proposal before it even had a chance to get underway.

“Tim Hallmark was a Christian, too,” Holyfield, whose devout religious beliefs are well-known, recalled of someone who would become one of his closest friends and confidantes. “He asked me, `Do you mind if we pray before we start?’ Of course I say we should (pray). And that’s how everything started. It was a good thing, because Tim turned out to be a very good conditioning coach.

“He knew things I never thought about, like checking your heart rate and the right way to breathe. The right way to breathe? But I was willing to take chances because everything that I did, he did with me. I remember (Duva and Benton) telling me, `Man, he’s working you too hard.’ But I wasn’t a quitter. Quitting just wasn’t in my nature. I was brought up to give my best, each and every time.”

Getting past Qawi, the aptly nicknamed “Camden Buzzsaw,” was hardly a given. Qawi was a former WBC light heavyweight champ, an ex-con as hard as nails, and a perpetual motion machine whose modus operandi was to constantly come forward while winging hard shots with bad intentions. There was little question he would press Holyfield from the opening bell and for as long as the fight continued. He also either had no respect for the kid he was about to face, or was trying to mess with his mind, dismissing the challenger as “mediocre” in a TV interview the day before the showdown.

Wallau, who had taken over just that year as the successor to Howard Cosell as lead voice for ABC’s boxing telecasts (Al Trautwig handled the blow-by-blow duties), was merely echoing familiar concerns about the size of Holyfield’s gas tank as round after round rolled by.

“One of Evander’s biggest challenges here is overcoming the psychological barrier of going 15 rounds for the first time,” Wallau said before the fight started. Then, in the first round, he repeated what would become a near-constant theme, noting that “the 15-round distance is an intimidating thing. Even so great a fighter as Marvin Hagler, the first time he did it, in his first try for the world middleweight title against Vito Antuofermo, he was intimidated after round 10. He was in unknown territory.”

In round five, Wallau – who, curiously, was awarding Holyfield most of those early rounds – suggested to his audience that the guy he had ahead was melting like a wax figurine left out in Georgia’s blazing noonday sun. “He’s clearly very tired,” Wallau pointed out. “This is just trench warfare, and right now Dwight Qawi is winning it. He might not be ahead on points, but he’s winning the war.”

Came the sixth round, and Wallau was more certain than ever that Holyfield’s title quest would soon end in ignominious fashion. “He has no movement,” Wallau proclaimed. “None whatsoever. Standing right there. Not using the jab, not doing all the things that were laid out for him to do by Georgie Benton and Lou Duva. And the main reason is, he just isn’t strong enough. He doesn’t have the energy right now to execute.”

“He looks a little slower and slower as the fight moves along,” chimed in Trautwig.

But, as he had always insisted, Holyfield was no quitter. He answered every flurry by Qawi with one of his own, and somewhere in the later rounds he found that second wind the doubters were convinced would prove impossibly elusive once he exited his early-rounds comfort zone. The decision for Holyfield – judges Heffie Quintana and Harold Lederman had him up by respective margins of 147-138 and 144-140, while Gordon Volkman saw Qawi as a 143-141 winner – made him the first of Main Events’ 1984 U.S. Olympians to win a world title. The Omega Project, still in its infancy, had passed its initial test, and an acid one at that.

In time, people stopped talking about the Omega Project because it ceased to be a topic of discussion. Evander Holyfield, the onetime reluctant guinea pig, became fully immersed in the concept of self-awareness and improvement, to the point where he elected to become his own laboratory test rat. Even as changes were effected in Holyfield’s corner, Hallmark remained and newcomers brought in. For his April 19, 1991, heavyweight title defense against George Foreman, in which Holyfield retained his WBC, WBA and IBF belts on a 12-round unanimous decision, his expanded retinue included 69-year-old ballet instructor Marya Kennett, bodybuilder Lee Haney, strength coach Chasee Jordan and computer analysts Logan Hobson and Bob Canobbio, the founders of CompuBox. Some of those additions confounded Duva, who was instrumental in the creation of the Omega Project, and Benton, who wondered if too much experimentation was having more of a negative effect than a positive one.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Holyfield, who praised Kennett for greatly improving his flexibility, said of the constant fine-tuning. “I know better than anyone else what I need to do to get myself ready.”

But when some of the newer additions and even the old standbys drifted away or were excised, Hallmark remained, preaching a gospel of fitness that Holyfield clung to as zealously as he once did to his bags of potato chips.

“Tim was highly educated and he knew about a lot of things that I didn’t,” Holyfield said. “I wasn’t a guy who read a lot of books, but I was always interested in how things worked. I didn’t know about vitamins and nutrition, stuff like that. We were poor when I was growing up. All I knew was to eat whatever my mama put on the table.”

Relegated to the dust bin of an earlier era, the lessons Holyfield learned at the outset of the Omega Project reached full fruition the night of Nov. 9, 1996, when he dominated Tyson throughout en route to scoring an 11th-round technical knockout at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand.

“My biggest satisfaction in boxing was when I beat Tyson (the “Bite Fight” disqualification victory would come on June 28, 1997) because so many people were talking about all the bad things he was going to do to me,” Holyfield said, the memory of it as warm and comforting as flaming logs in the fireplace on a cold winter evening. “They didn’t look at nothin’ that I accomplished compared to him. But I was more prepared for that fight than any fight I ever fought. I pretty much watched all of his fights from the time we were amateurs.”

If you connect the dots, they trace back a decade earlier to a notion and to Dwight Muhammad Qawi, cast in the role of Tyson Lite.

“June 12, 1986,” Benton, a 2001 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame who was 78 when he died on Sept 19, 2011, said of the fight in which Evander Holyfield afforded the world at large a glimpse at all that he would someday become. “That’s when it all came together for Evander. That’s the day we knew we had something special.”

 

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