At a ballroom in the mirage hotel in Las Vegas early last Saturday morning, Evander Holyfield was dancing. In his suite 26 floors above, Riddick Bowe had more pressing duties. He took a long, hot bath, followed by a 45-minute massage. Finally, dressed in a comfortable dark-blue sweatsuit, he emerged from his bedroom. He was on his way to a party to celebrate the world heavyweight championship he won two hours before, but numbing weariness had won out over high fashion. He held an ice bag against his swollen right eye. He made only a fleeting appearance at the party, and then, with the same grim determination that had carried him through 36 minutes of brutal combat, he walked to the suite of his manager, Rock Newman. Bowe wanted to watch the videocassette in Newman's VCR.
Gone was a tape from the 1988 Olympic Games, banished forever; in its place was a brand-new tape of Bowe's 12-round unanimous decision over Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight title. No more would Bowe watch his loss to Lennox Lewis in the super heavyweight final in Seoul. No longer would the 6'5", 235-pound Bowe, who was said to have quit under fire four years ago, watch and wonder why the world continued to question the size of his heart. "I've looked at that damn tape hundreds of times." he said.
The damn tape always showed the same thing. Against Lewis, Bowe had taken two standing eight counts in Round 2. As referee Gustav Baumgardt counted off the second one, Bowe raised his arms above his head and bounced on his toes. Alter reaching eight, Baumgardt put his arms around the shocked Bowe and said the fight was over.
Even after he had gone on to win 31 professional lights without a defeat, the loss to Lewis was the yardstick used to measure Bowe's fortitude. "Keep watching the fight," Eddie Futch, Bowe's wise old trainer, had ordered. "Just remember that they won't forget that one until you win the heavyweight championship."
Futch was never more right. In Friday night's historic bout Bowe emphatically erased all memory of that earlier fight. Ernie Pyle should have covered this war from ringside. Neither man danced, and neither took a voluntary step backward. Each man waded fearlessly into the guns of the other, no quarter asked, none given. Through 12 rounds Bowe and Holy-field painted a portrait of courage that will hang forever in the memories of those who watched.
The 25-year-old Bowe, who had fought his way out of a crack-ridden Brooklyn housing project, allowed himself a brief smile as the new videotape began to play in Newman's suite. Scenes of unimaginable courage filled the 20-inch screen. The pace of battle was furious as the two figures hammered each other with murderous volleys. "Yowser" was the tired champion's most vivid comment.
No one had expected anything less. Each fighter was out to prove something to a disbelieving public. Holyfield was unbeaten in 28 fights, but he was still regarded as a 30-year-old cruiserweight hiding inside a weightlifter's body. He won his title two years earlier against flabby Buster Douglas, who had shown up only for a payday. Holyfield had subsequently defended his crown against two overweight senior citizens—George Foreman and Larry Holmes—and an undertrained former drug addict, Bert Cooper.
Not that it had been a bad ride for Holyfield. For those four fights he earned $56 million, nice padding for a bank account already fat with the $9 million he had made in his 24 previous fights. For fighting Bowe, Holyfield will earn another $15 million to $18 million after all the pay-per-view returns are in.
Holyfield was out to show the doubters that he could fight the young, big and strong heavyweights, a category exemplified by Bowe. But during his recent bouts as a heavyweight, Holyfield made a distressing discovery: Added muscle does not mean increased punching power; the blows that had made him a dominant cruiserweight weren't enough once he started hitting the big people. They simply hit him back.
In the weeks leading up to the Bowe fight, Holyfield cut his weightlifting from four days a week to two. He was training for speed and mobility. "Thank god," said George Benton, Holyfield's trainer, an old Philadelphia fighter who views the modern boxer's retinue of ballet teachers, nutritionists, conditioning experts and weightlifting coaches with contempt. "In the old days all a fighter did was train and spar," he said. "That's all you need. Evander used to be so tired, he couldn't do either."
Bowe trained as he always did, under the watchful eye of Futch, the 81-year-old guru who had already guided five men to the heavyweight championship. Futch has trained Bowe since 1989, when the then 21-year-old picked pro boxing over a career in the Army. After the loss to Lewis, said Bowe, "I was on my way to the recruiter when Rock came to Brooklyn and said he had faith in me. Everybody else had given up. Since then it has been just me and Rock and Papa Smurf." Papa Smurf is Futch, a gentle man who tutors Bowe with the no-nonsense demands and love of a father.
To his support staff for Friday's fight—an $8 million payday for the challenger—Bowe added Dick Gregory, the onetime fat comic who has become a slim, self-proclaimed expert on nutrition. In early September, when Bowe began training for Holyfield, he weighed 281 pounds. Gregory put Bowe on a diet of 300 vitamin and protein tablets a day. Each day Gregory would arrive at camp with two or three six-inch-tall jars of pills. He would stand by waiting for Bowe to swallow them all, which usually took 15 minutes.
Gregory's other specialty was an ungodly concoction that Bowe called "maggot juice," a thick beverage of beets, carrots, celery, lettuce, cucumbers, garlic, onions, bananas, maple syrup and anything else that was within Gregory's reach and could fit into the blender. "I was afraid to put my hat down in the kitchen," said Newman.
According to Gregory, Bowe's innards represented a monumental challenge. The first thing he had to do, said Gregory, was clean Bowe's bowels, lymph glands and red blood cells. "The hard part was to clean out the 50 trillion cells in his body," Gregory said. "And each cell has three billion genetic bytes, and damn if I didn't have to clean out all of those, too."
But Bowe trimmed down to 235, and hours after the Nov. 11 weigh-in, he celebrated at Sadie's Southern Dining, a Las Vegas soul-food restaurant, with a repast of red beans, ham hocks, beef tips, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese.
And so the cast was in place, the good little man with all the experience against the good big man with the question-mark heart. Holyfield got off to a strong start, but his fondness for trench warfare soon had him in trouble. Tossing aside speed and mobility, Holyfield chose to fight inside, a place where big men are usually at a disadvantage. Not Bowe. In close he hammered Holyfield with short rights to the body and clubbed him hard with both hands to the head.
After nine rounds Holyfield's right eye was closing; his left one was cut. Bowe's left eye began to swell in the fourth round. In the eighth his right was almost closed by a Holyfield thumb. In the corners both cutmen worked furiously to keep their fighters' eyes open.
Still, neither man would give ground. By the 10th round Holyfield's jab and right hand had almost been forgotten. Instead he had taken to loading up and trying to take Bowe out with hard left hooks. But he was hunting a bear with an air rifle. And the bear had a sledgehammer.
Upon leaving his stool for the 10th, Bowe, ahead on all cards, decided that enough was enough. "I decided it was time for him to go," he said later.
After an early exchange, a Bowe right uppercut jerked Holyfield's head up hard and spun him to his right. Bowe jumped on the dazed champion, missed with two chopping punches and then drove him hard into the ropes with a hook to the head. As Holyfield reeled away, Bowe followed, firing hard with both hands but always with discipline. Unable to escape, Holyfield pressed forward, trying desperately to smother Bowe, who calmly backed away, firing as he went. At last, after the 40th punch of the assault. Bowe ran out of ammunition.
Only a minute had passed in the round. Time stood still; for a split second both men were frozen in a clumsy embrace, their burning lungs sucking deep for oxygen. Holyfield's recovery time was astonishingly short. One moment he was under attack; no one knew what was keeping him on his feet. The next he was peering through swollen eyes, ready to mount an assault of his own.
It was magnificent. A hard right hand from Holyfield started the second minute of fighting. Then the exhausted fighters came together in a clinch. With a minute remaining, Holyfield launched a hook, then two combinations and three upper-cuts. Badly winded, Bowe could only hang on and ride out the storm. He tried to keep Holyfield off with a lazy right hand, then three pushing jabs. Holyfield ignored them all. Firing wildly, technique abandoned, he unloaded on Bowe, slamming a right hand and two hooks to his head but not with enough power to save his title. Then Bowe, despite being pounded by a salvo of 14 shots in 15 seconds, found a hidden reserve. His punches began to regain their sting.
As the round ended, both men stood with their feet planted, retreat forgotten. They were exhausted, but still they hammered at each other, wondering if this hell would ever end. A combination caught Holyfield at the bell. The 18,000 fans in the Thomas & Mack Center gave the fighters a standing ovation.
No heavyweight champion and challenger have ever fought a more heroic round. Other boxers have been linked in three-minute essays in raw courage—Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler—but none can claim to have been in a round fought more ferociously.
Later, in Newman's suite, Bowe stared at the flickering images on TV. "I was rumbling, that's all I know," he said of the magnificent 10th. "I was trying to take him out. I wanted to prove to him that I could be just as strong in the late rounds. In the corner before the round, I'd said to Eddie, 'I think I can take him out and put him on the canvas.' Eddie had told me to go ahead and get him. Then after I shook him, I realized he was still strong and determined. He somehow made it through my barrage, and after that I said, 'I'm just going to box him the rest of the way.' "
Holyfield, amazingly, came out strong to open the 11th. But the champion was caught by a left hook that drove him back. Moving quickly, Bowe tagged Holyfield with a right uppercut and then nailed him with another from the left side. Holyfield fell forward, lunging for Bowe, whose back was to the ropes. As Bowe dipped down and away, the champion toppled forward across the top rope. A Bowe hook swept down and crashed against the side of Holyfield's head, slamming his throat against the ropes. Holyfield went down on both knees. Instinctively he flung his right hand up and behind his head to guard against another blow.
As Holyfield regained his feet, referee Joe Cortez counted to the mandatory eight. "How you feeling? You all right?" Cortez said. Holyfield allowed that he was line.
Moving in, Bowe summoned one more big burst, a well-disciplined 13-shot volley that failed to dent Holyfield's resolve. After the last punch Holyfield grabbed the challenger. For a moment the men clung to each other, stealing a moment's respite. When they separated for the last half of the round, it was the indefatigable Holyfield who went on the attack, but Bowe's flicking jab held him at bay.
Holyfield spent the last three minutes valiantly trying to do what he had failed to accomplish in the first 11 rounds. He had the will, but he never had the power. Showing remarkable stamina after such a punishing fight, Bowe boxed well in the last round. Fittingly, each man threw a punch at the final bell. The scoring went as expected. Judges Jerry Roth and Dalby Shirley scored it 117-110. Judge Chuck Giampa had it 115-112. As ring announcer Michael Buffer recited the speech that would make the decision known to all—"...and new heavyweight champion..."—Holyfield pointed to Bowe. Bedlam broke out in Bowe's corner.
Leaning far out over the ropes, Bowe shook his right fist at Lewis, who was at ringside doing color for TVKO. Lewis, the British champion and the WBC's top contender after his stunning KO of Razor Ruddock on Oct. 31, is eager to have the first shot at the new champion, and in the giddy moments after his triumph, Bowe seemed ready to oblige.
"You're next!" Bowe shouted.
"Sign a contract!" Lewis shot back.
Newman suddenly entered the impromptu negotiations. "Maybe," countered the man who now controls the biggest prize in sports.
The WBC is demanding that Lewis be Bowe's first challenger and has said it will strip Bowe of its share of the title if he meets anyone else. Newman has said all along that if Bowe were to win the championship, he would be happy to have him fight Lewis—perhaps as the second part of a two-fight package. The first part? Sadly for the sport, which regained a healthy dose of credibility on Friday night thanks to Holyfield and Bowe, Newman talks about fighting 44-year-old George Foreman. In boxing only the names of the champions change, never the back-room intrigues.
For his part, Holyfield remained a champion to the end. At noon on Saturday, he telephoned Bowe in his suite and congratulated him for a great fight. Bowe, whose sore body had prevented him from sleeping, nodded happily as he listened.
"Hey, Champ," Bowe said, "I was going to call you. You put up a hell of a fight and have nothing to be ashamed of. You always were a class act in my book, and my thoughts have not changed. I just hope we can get together and hang out. I want you to know we are still buddies. I want you to know you got me good, and I am going to have to sit down now."
After hanging up, Bowe talked about Holyfield. "What a classy guy," he said. "You know what he told me? To just keep doing the things I'm doing and to watch my money. He said everyone is going to try and get into my back pocket, and that I should put my money away for a rainy day. What a gladiator. He fights his heart out, he's gracious and he's humble, and for him to call and say how highly he thinks of me, well, wow...."
Bowe suddenly turned reflective. "Heavyweight champion of the world," he said in the voice of a man who has just pinched himself to make sure he's not dreaming. Bowe's former home in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, a cramped two-bedroom apartment in a building in which crack dealers stationed armed lookouts on every landing, seemed a world away. Murders there were commonplace. One victim, shot in the head one floor below where Bowe lived, lay in the hall for 11 hours before anyone moved the body. In 1988 Bowe's sister Brenda was murdered near the apartment, knifed by a drug addict who was trying to steal her welfare check.
"I knew somehow, someday I would get out of there," said Bowe, who now lives in Fort Washington, Md., with his wife, Judy, and their three children. "I lived there, I survived and I fought my way out, and they said I had no heart." He smiled. "The heavyweight champion of the world," he said for the hundredth or perhaps the thousandth time in the last 14 hours.
Someone knocked at the door. The caller was Alex Fried, a local jewelry salesman and acquaintance. "At no profit for myself," said Fried, as he displayed a variety of watches, rings and bracelets. "Let me show you these."
"How much do you charge?" asked Bowe, recalling Holyfield's advice.
For a moment the two men negotiated in whispers. "My hand hurts," said Bowe suddenly, while trying on a pinky ring. Fried was unflappable. "Put your hand in a towel full of chopped onion," he said. "In four hours you don't feel a thing. It's the onion juice."
Bowe bought a watch and wrote Fried a check, telling him not to cash it for a week. "I haven't been paid yet, and I want the check to clear the bank," he explained. "I don't want you to think I am doing a job on you."
With Fried gone, Bowe ordered from room service: three eggs, corned-beef hash, a ham steak and a large order of watermelon. As he hung up, Judy came into the room. "Uh-oh," Riddick said, reaching for the phone. He grinned sheepishly as he spoke to room service: "This is Riddick Bowe again in room 26002. I forgot to order for my wife." He asked for fried shrimp.
Time drifted on. Riddick flipped through the TV channels with a remote control. He paused at a nature program about beavers, one of which was shown creeping toward an outstretched hand offering food.
"Look," said Bowe, "he's afraid." He waited until the beaver had taken the food and sailed safely downstream. Flip. A Ricardo Montalban movie. Flip. A Chinese-cooking show. Flip. A program in Spanish. Flip. The Streets of Sun Francisco. Flip. College football. Bowe went back to the Chinese-cooking program and learned how to make a hot pepper sauce.
This nice big kid from Mike Tyson's old neighborhood was beginning to wear the championship like a pair of old slippers. A few hours earlier, as Bowe returned from a press conference, the elevator in which he was riding had briefly become stuck on a lower floor. Bowe waited out the crisis seated on a bench. After a moment he lifted his head and said, "This whole thing is a big deal, isn't it?"
He knew he had the money. He was just looking for assurance that there was more than wealth at the top of the mountain. He liked the neighborhood, but he wasn't about to buy a house until he was sure it was really where he wanted to live.