They invited two heavy-weights to a title fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas last Friday night, and neither came. Rather than a champion, they got Evander Holyfield, who was paid $16 million and who gave a 36-minute demonstration of caution. On the other side was Larry Holmes, once one of the great champions but now fat and 42. Like a lot of disgusted fans, Holmes threw up when the 12-round dance was done, right there in the ring. For all that, he got $7 million.
Somewhere Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano were screaming.
Holyfield won this charade of a fistfight by unanimous decision, probably because he grew cautious after Holmes accidentally hit him with an elbow late in the sixth round and chopped open a hole over his right eye. For the rest of the evening the closest that the bloodied 29-year-old Holyfield came to Holmes was at the end of each round as they passed on their way to their respective corners. Holyfield didn't run, he just remained well out of harm's way. Holmes didn't run because he couldn't.
The fans kept waiting for the old Larry Holmes to show up. What they got instead was an old Larry Holmes. The pride was still there, and that great heart which had carried him to 54 victories in 57 fights, but the old hammer of a jab was now more of a running back's straight-arm. When Holmes remembered to use his right hand, which wasn't often, he looked like an older sister trying to show her kid brother how to throw a slider.
Facing these enormous dangers, Holyfield the Hesitant circled the perimeter and studied the terrain for hidden dangers. A booby trap, perhaps, or an opponent who does not eat prunes for breakfast. "Look out!" came the cries from his corner. "Don't fall into a trap." Nobody hollered for him to hit the other guy in the mouth.
Somewhere Doc Kearns, Ray Arcel and Charley Goldman were screaming.
Early on, Holyfield tried to make a fight of it. He is a warrior, unafraid and fierce, but one unfortunately programmed by his strategists to perform with caution. George Benton is one of the finest trainers in the game, but none of his students will ever be caught leading a bayonet charge. "My old trainer taught me one important thing," says Benton, a former middleweight contender. "Win this fight. Look good in the next one." By that rule Benton runs a highly successful school, which is fine—for everyone but the heavyweight champion of the world.
Boxing fans are content to have the featherweight champion be an artist. Willie Pep, who once won a round without throwing a punch, had more moves than a Las Vegas chorus line. Welterweights are in a puncher's division, but Sugar Ray Robinson dazzled audiences even when he didn't knock anybody down. However, the big men are subject to different demands. Only Muhammad Ali, the ultimate craftsman, was forgiven for relatively nonviolent virtuoso performances.
Like Floyd Patterson, who followed Marciano as heavyweight champion, Holyfield is finding respect difficult to come by because his reign almost immediately follows that of Mike Tyson, one of the most powerful punchers in history. Perhaps because Patterson and Holyfield share kindred deficiencies, their careers seem closely parallel. Patterson was a laboratory-created small heavyweight; so is Holyfield, who was crafted by Benton, Lou Duva and a host of conditioning experts. Each was protected early in his career. Neither was or has been overly popular.
After he won the title in 1956, Patterson, a heavyweight with a middleweight chin, defended his crown against the likes of Pete Rademacher, an Olympic champion making his pro debut; Roy (Cut and Shoot) Harris; and Tommy (Hurricane) Jackson. In 1959 he lost the title to Ingemar Johansson, who dropped him seven times in the third round. "If they hadn't stopped it," said one wag, "Patterson would have won because Johansson was exhausted."
Patterson regained the title from Johansson, then beat him again in a third meeting, but the public had grown weary of his unappealing lights. Then came Sonny Liston, who destroyed Patterson twice.
Holyfield's heavyweight title path has pitted him against Buster Douglas, a fat champion with no desire to fight; 42-year-old George Foreman; journeyman Bert Cooper, who knocked him down; and, last Friday, Holmes. In 72 minutes of fighting, Holyfield failed to drop cither of two overweight 42-year-old contenders.
If Holyfield's reputation as a fighter has suffered, his bank account certainly has not. His purse total for the four fights was a little more than $50 million, a testament to the skill of impresario Shelly Finkel, his manager, and of promoter Dan Duva. They presented Holyfield's title defenses not as fights but as events. Come see Evander beat up fat folks.
Somewhere P.T. Barnum, Tex Rickard and Mike Jacobs are grinning.
But like all fads, nostalgic fights are going the way of the pogo stick. The public has had enough. If the champion is ever again ordered to fight another old, fat man, he is going to have to do it in a saloon. For nothing. At least 2,000 of the 16,000 seats in the outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace went unsold. Early returns indicate that the TVKO pay-per-view audience was well below expectations. You can only sell a poke-in-the-pig so many times.
"People are getting frustrated with the performances they are seeing now," said Lennox Lewis, the British heavyweight contender. "Mike Tyson would have beaten both these guys the same night. Evander is just a blown-up cruiserweight. He doesn't have the power to take out the big young fighters."
Quick to agree is Rock Newman, manager of Riddick Bowe, the big young fighter in line for the next shot at Holyfield, provided Bowe beats South Africa's Pierre Coetzer on July 18. "Whatever charm the public may have thought Holyfield had is gone," says Newman. "They want to see him get beat, and they don't care who does it—Bowe, Lewis, Razor Ruddock. Everyone is tired of paying to see a fight and getting the runaround."
Well, until Holyfield was cut, it was almost a fight. Under orders, Holyfield fought a cautious but well-paced first round. Then came the second, and his warrior instincts overrode the caution. Holmes backed up into a corner, and Holyfield followed, forsaking the middle of the ring, where he could stay away from Holmes's right hand, a weapon that both Benton and Lou Duva feared, needlessly as it turned out.
The second was Holmes's best round. Saving his old legs, as he did while upsetting Ray Mercer on Feb. 7, Holmes battered Holyfield with hooks, right upper-cuts and short right hands. Once in the trenches, Holyfield is reluctant to retreat; when hurt he fires back. Outside of the ring, Benton shook his head in disgust.
At the bell, right before the 70-year-old Duva came bounding into the ring, Holmes patted Duva on the head and grinned. A moment later Duva was telling Holyfield, "Stop fighting his fight." The next four rounds brought more of the same: Holmes retreating to the ropes and Holyfield following. At that point the fight was close, although all three judges were scoring big for Holyfield. One judge, Glen Hamada, gave the champion all six rounds, including Holmes's big Round 2.
Just as the bell rang to end Round 6, Holmes missed with a right hand, and his huge forearm smashed against Holyfield's head, ripping open a deep, long cut on the champion's right eyelid. Holyfield has the best of everything in his camp, including cut men. Ace Marotta took control of the ugly gash, and while it would later require 12 stitches, the injury was never a physical factor for the remainder of the fight.
Still, concerned about the first wound of his career, Holyfield began to follow his corner's advice. He took the fight to the center of the ring, where he was supposed to have taken it from the opening bell, and Holmes, tired but devoted now to finishing the fight, went with him. There Holyfield piled up the points, but it was a boring exercise, and at the end the crowd booed lustily. Then Holmes, totally exhausted, barfed into a dark green trash bag.
Somewhere a fight fan cheered.
The scoring was academic, all for Holyfield: Hamada 117-111, and Chuck Giampa and Carol Castellano both 116-112.
If Holmes had beaten Holyfield, Holmes's promoter, Bob Arum, would have had the champ make his first defense against Foreman. A megabuck fight. The Geezers at Caesars. "It will still be a great fight," thundered Arum, moments after the decision. "The public deserves it."
"No, Bob," said the world, walking away quickly.