Evander Holyfield answered the final question last Saturday night. He hit Adilson Rodrigues on the head, knocking him silly. Rodrigues may not be the greatest heavyweight in the world—somehow, going into the fight, he was ranked second and third, respectively, by the WBC and the WBA—but he is 6'2" and weighs at least 221 pounds. When Holyfield caught him with an overhand right in the second round, Rodrigues was still fresh. And when he fell, he took with him any doubts that Holyfield is the only genuine challenger to heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.
Before the scheduled 12-rounder at Caesars in Lake Tahoe, Nev., suspicions lingered that Holyfield was nothing more than a cruiserweight masquerading as a heavyweight. O.K., so he has spent a good deal of time in the gym bulking up. Sure, he's stronger. Endurance? Lord, yes. Still, there was always that last question: How hard can he hit?
Even after Holyfield won his first three fights as a heavyweight, the answer had been: not hard enough. After moving up to heavyweight last year following a 17-month reign as world cruiserweight champion, Holyfield, 26, stopped James Tillis in five rounds, Pinklon Thomas in seven and Michael Dokes in 10. Impressive, certainly, but Tillis, Thomas and Dokes were the victims of attrition. They were chopped down by the quantity of Holyfield's punches rather than by the quality of them. Both Thomas and Dokes finished "on their feet. Tillis quit on his stool. Even though those three victories confirmed that Holyfield was the second-best heavyweight in the world, in the realm of King Mike, boxers who can't hit with power are better off in another line of work.
"You've got to smack the s.o.b. [Tyson] hard enough to make him back off," says Lou Duva, Holyfield's grizzled 67-year-old strategist. "If you can't, you're just in there for a payday. And we haven't spent all this time working with Evander just to make a few bucks."
Rodrigues, 31, a former bricklayer from S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo, was supposed to be a stern test for Holyfield. No one expected Rodrigues to win—despite a 35-2 record he went in as an 11-to-1 underdog—but he is big, strong and durable. "You could hit this guy with a baseball bat and he'd grin at you," said Angelo Dundee, Rodrigues's trainer, last Friday. "Holyfield's punches will bounce off my guy like raindrops."
Some raindrops. A year ago, when Holyfield began his run for Tyson's title, he could bench-press 190 pounds. "Today he's 33 percent stronger than he was last year," says Tim Hallmark, Holyfield's physical-fitness guru. "He does 10 repetitions with 360 pounds after his pulse rate has risen to 180 or 190 beats per minute. A football player can do 360 pounds, but that is with his normal heart rate. If you get his heart rate up to 180 or 190 and tell him to do 360, he'll look at you like you're crazy. There is a tremendous strength decrease [as the heart rate increases]. He won't be able to do it."
Hallmark, a former triathlete who also swam for the University of Houston, believes that Holyfield is the finest endurance athlete in the world. Holyfield's celebrated workouts are a carefully monitored combination of cardiovascular exercise and resistance weight training—an unusual regimen for a boxer. Every phase of the workout is done with Hallmark constantly checking Holyfield's pulse.
"He is a beautiful blend of strength, endurance and flexibility," says Hallmark. "Strength without flexibility is debilitating for a fighter. There is a cost in hand speed and punching accuracy. Holyfield trains the same as a triathlete or a 10-kilometer runner, but he also trains the same as a football player to get endurance and strength."
In one exercise, Holyfield spends 12 minutes jumping with his feet together on and off a 2½-foot-high block. Over those 12 minutes, says Hallmark, he will jump more than a basketball player does in an entire game. Holyfield's heart rate will hit 220, the same point it reaches at the end of three minutes of fighting. During the one-minute rest period between rounds, Holyfield's heart rate will fall as low as 130.
"Going back to the corner, Evander's heart rate and his opponent's are probably the same," says Hallmark. "But if you put them on a graph, the opponent's drop between rounds will be a gentle slope. Evander's is like falling from a cliff. His recovery is amazing."
The body fat of a lean heavyweight is usually around 10%. Holyfield carries between 207 and 210 pounds with a 31-inch waist, and his body fat is 7.8%. The more fat a fighter lugs around, the quicker fatigue sets in. "Strength is not bulk," says Hallmark. "This guy is so strong yet so lean, he has a tremendous advantage."
None of this impressed Rodrigues, though, who had studied films of Holyfield's three heavyweight bouts. Rodrigues decided that Holyfield was nothing special. "He has great hand speed," said Rodrigues before the fight. "When people talk about him, that is what they talk about. But I have good hand speed too. And he is not as quick as they say. He won't be a problem." A moment later, Rodrigues added that he didn't think Tyson was anything special, either.
Rodrigues had gotten all but one of his 35 victories against truly anonymous opponents in Brazil, which explains why few boxing observers gave him much of a chance against Holyfield. Even in his one defeat of a name opponent, a 10-round split decision over Bonecrusher Smith in S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo in 1987, the judge who voted for Smith gave him nine of the 10 rounds. Rodrigues would earn his $300,000 by testing Holyfield's improved punching power. For his part, Holyfield would make $1.25 million.
"This guy Rodrigues is an animal," said Duva. "He's got a good right hand, and he knocks people out. There's no such thing as an 11-to-1 favorite in a heavyweight fight. Any time one of those big guys hits you right, you can go."
On Saturday morning the Holyfield camp was momentarily dismayed. Two days earlier Holyfield had weighed 214. He expected to come in at 210, two pounds heavier than when he had fought Dokes in March. "I knew something was wrong," said Hallmark, "when we went in and some guy was pounding on the scale." Holyfield weighed in at 207. Hallmark said the scale had to be off. Rodrigues's people looked surprised when their man came in at 221. They had been expecting 230. After the room cleared, Hallmark weighed himself. He was relieved when the scale registered five pounds under his normal weight.
Holyfield had another cause for concern during the first round of the fight in Caesars' outdoor arena. Dundee had ordered Rodrigues, who's usually a slow starter, to jump on Holyfield right from the opening bell. He did, and Holyfield backed off. Midway through the round Rodrigues's right thumb caught Holyfield in the left eye. While Holyfield struggled, George Benton, his trainer, yelled for a towel. "Get a rag. Get a rag," said Benton. "He's got grease in his eye."
Using only his left jab to hold Rodrigues at bay, Holyfield lost the round. On his stool, Holyfield asked his corner men, "How bad is it?"
"No problem," said Duva, as he dabbed the eye with a towel. "I'll take care of it. You just listen to Georgie."
"Get rough," Benton told him. "Go right into this guy."
Both fighters came out nasty, and during several exchanges each landed solid blows. Nearly one minute into the round, a Holyfield left pushed Rodrigues toward the ropes, where Holyfield peppered him with combinations. When Rodrigues escaped to the middle of the ring, Duva yelled, "Short punches," and his fighter paid heed; Holyfield drilled a short right uppercut between Rodrigues's gloves. The punch found his chin, and as Rodrigues leaned forward and tried to clinch, Holyfield bounced a left hook off the top of his head. Rodrigues tried to hold off Holyfield with a jab, but Holyfield avoided it and loaded the right hand. The punch sailed in and down, catching Rodrigues high on the head. He came apart. His left knee jerked up, and he crashed on his back, where he lay with his arms outstretched.
Mills Lane, the referee, counted to 10, and then bent over and pried out Rodrigues's mouthpiece. It was over at 1:29 of the round. After lying nearly motionless for more than a minute, Rodrigues was helped up and placed on a stool in the middle of the ring. A few minutes later he was able to walk.
"I hope Tyson was watching," said Holyfield, who will be in Atlantic City this Friday night to watch Iron Mike defend his title against Carl Williams. "Now he has to know that Evander Holyfield is coming."
The question is, Will Don King, Tyson's promoter, stop dragging his feet and let the fight take place? "People tell me that King is waiting for my contract with the Duvas [Lou's son Dan is Holyfield's promoter] to run out, and then he can promote the whole thing," says Holyfield. The contract extends through late next year, and all the parties involved say it will be renewed.
Ken Sanders, Holyfield's manager, thinks King is pursuing a poor strategy. "I won't sign [a promotional contract] with Don King," he says. "Tyson is going to have to fight Evander anyway. The only thing King is going to get is a chance to be in the other corner."
Sanders is correct. Tyson won't be able to ignore Holyfield after Nov. 25. If Tyson has not signed to meet the WBA's No. 1 contender in a mandatory title defense by then, he would, according to the organization's rules, be stripped of his WBA crown. He must agree to meet the WBC's top challenger by next Feb. 25—the one-year anniversary of his last WBC defense, against Frank Bruno of Great Britain. Holyfield is the No. 1 contender in both organizations.
"Look, if King is waiting for me to get out of the way, we can sign tomorrow," says Dan Duva. "King can sign the fight, send me a ticket and have all the glory." While Duva didn't say it, he obviously would expect to be handsomely compensated for giving up the promotional rights.
Promoter Shelly Finkel, who has been serving as an adviser to Sanders, says that King has told him, "Sure, we'll make that fight, but I don't want to talk about it now."
"King may not end up making the decision," says Lou Duva. "Holyfield is challenging Tyson's street mentality. People are going to start asking Tyson why he's ducking Holyfield. Pretty soon Tyson is going to get mad and overrule King and say sign the fight. Sooner or later, this fight is going to happen."
Meanwhile, Holyfield is going back into Hallmark's salt mine in Houston. "In another six months I expect him to be 25 percent stronger than he is right now," says Hallmark. "We haven't begun to reach his strength plateau."