Boxing is hardly ever a pretty thing, and the latest championship turnover does not seem likely to improve the sport's standing among the God-fearing and law-abiding—that is to say, the kind of good people who can afford pay-per-view. Evander Holyfield, who likes to sign chapter and verse after his autograph, was belted back to his Bible after 12 rounds of heavyweight fighting last Friday night in Las Vegas, leaving him without title or much moral influence, not to mention earning power. Installed in his place as the new WBA and IBF champion was Michael Moorer, a man whose idea of Sunday-go-to-meeting wear seems to be a black T-shirt with the inscription U HAVE THE RIGHT 2 REMAIN VIOLENT, and whose arrest record for assault has been slightly more convincing than any charity work he has done.
And so boxing seems—seems—once more to descend to thuggery, its majority heavyweight championship now held by a man who was promoted as "Nasty"; a man whose entourage announced his appearance at a press conference by overturning trays of dishes; a man who once told an interviewer, "I want to break a cheekbone to see what it looks like pushed in"; a man who, in his formative years, started a brawl at a high school football game by pounding another kid in the head. The kid's father swore Moorer used a hammer, but no charges were pressed, and Moorer may have employed only his right jab, the same one a surprised Holyfield ate for most of 12 rounds.
Boxing is dangerous again, and the world, after Holyfield's off-and-on reign of decency, is no longer safe for women, children, high school football players or any heavyweight fighter foolish enough to think he'll be the first to solve a lefty. We are all, so it would seem, at risk.
So it would seem. Two days after his title fight, an upset that was scored closely and controversially, Moorer gathers his posse of punks, bad boys and tray-turner-overers at the Original House of Pancakes in suburban Detroit. They spread out over several tables and become a virtual panel of malevolence; looking upon them you guess that civilization is going to be up against it for as long as there are buttermilk pancakes to stoke their fury. Moorer seems to glower behind his bug-eye sunglasses. And taking that cue, none among the posse dares smile at the good fortune that has befallen them all.
It is up to Moorer, as it always is, to break the silence. "I can't wait any longer," he finally says, "to see my son." The posse, which upon inspection reveals a cadre of older men, all of whom are now or have once been in law enforcement—they're all cops!—recognize this as a cue for a road trip. They fold napkins, settle bills and pile into Moorer's Land Cruiser for the ritual homecoming. Soon they have collected Michael Moorer Jr. from the boy's mother, Bobbie, landed at the Northland Mall and stripped the shelves of almost anything that will fit a 20-month-old boy. The tray-turner-overers double, in a pinch, as carriers of playsuits.
Moorer walks through the mall, recognized by some as the new champion but conspicuous mostly by the attention he lavishes on the boy. Moorer, who grew up without a father and who has often sought authority figures among his boxing elders, is nearly ridiculous in his own opportunity for fatherhood. He cradles his boy, hugs him, kisses him, leads him by the hand, carries him on his shoulders. He hasn't spent time with him for 7½ weeks, although he phoned him as many as six times a day when Bobbie—she and the new champion are in the process of divorce—allowed his calls.
"What's your name?" the father asks the son.
"MikeyMoorer," the boy says rapid-fire.
"How old are you?"
The father asks the son if he knows what his daddy does.
"Daddy go boom-boom."
So it would seem. Before the fight at Caesars Palace, it was suspected that Moorer could go boom-boom. He had won all 34 of his fights, 30 of them by knockout. But his main credential—he is a former WBO light heavyweight champion—impressed nobody. Whom had he ever beaten? Although he was given a puncher's chance against Holyfield, in addition to a lefthander's chance, the 26-year-old Moorer was regarded only as an interim payday of about $12 million for Holyfield, while the two-time champion waited to unify the title with the WBC ruler, Lennox Lewis.
Indeed, as the fight approached, Holyfield and much of the boxing world began to look past even Lewis, who had groped through two miserable outings since being granted the WBC crown after Riddick Bowe forfeited it. Holyfield had been so impressive in regaining his titles from Bowe five months ago that it was difficult to think of the heavyweight division without him at its head. Several days before the fight, Holyfield discussed his purpose in life: "I keep asking myself, Why do I keep fighting? Well, I prayed about it... and it seems God meant for me to be in there until Tyson comes out."
The timetable had Holyfield reigning until the Summer Olympics of 1996, which will be held in his hometown of Atlanta. By then, Mike Tyson would have served his sentence for his 1992 rape conviction and would have had time to get into trim for a bout to be staged during the festivities in Holyfield's home city. Tyson would be 30, Holyfield 33. Holyfield's prophesy did not include details of the purse, although some estimated the take at more than $100 million. "I think it's predestined," Holyfield said.
It was a reasonable scenario, at the very least. Having already earned $100 million, Holyfield has remained the ultimate professional. His own entourage tends to include bodybuilders, conditioners—anybody who can devise and enforce new physical regimens. "What continues to intrigue me about boxing," he said several weeks before the fight, as he trained in Houston, "is the work. I love the work."
Moorer, on the other hand, was known as someone who would do almost anything to get out of work, and a succession of trainers could testify to the truth of that reputation. Even Moorer recognized as much, and as the $5 million payday against Holyfield loomed, he asked his management team to seek out a trainer who could push him hard. What about Teddy Atlas, Moorer wondered. Atlas, a Cus D'Amato disciple who had trained Tyson as an amateur until the day he held a gun to the young fighter's head in a dispute, is regarded as a take-no-prisoners trainer. Moorer's manager, John Davimos, wasn't so sure this would be a great pairing. "Michael, he put a gun to Tyson's head! He'll shoot yon for sure."
There was no gunplay, but probably only because weapons were unavailable to either party. During training in Palm Springs, Calif., Atlas was constantly on edge, awaiting every confrontation. "I can never back down," Atlas said. "If I am going to lead him through these lands, I have to be real." Hearing that his charge did not intend to train one day, Atlas went to Moorer's room and stood toe-to-toe with the larger man. Moorer tried to move past him, and Atlas shuffled in his way. It was childish and wearying. On the other hand, Moorer trained every day.
"It's not that he's lazy or crazy," said Atlas at the time. "It's the fear and pressure. He's unsure of himself." Confronting fear was the central theme of D'Amato's approach to training fighters, and while Atlas has discarded some of D'Amato's teachings as "hogwash," he has seized on the old man's insistence on emotional control. A fighter must deal with the natural fear of getting into a ring and recognize any self-destructive behavior—drinking, say, or refusing to train—as a way of avoiding that fear. Atlas allowed Moorer to avoid nothing.
Still, perhaps because Atlas talks so freely about a fighter's fear, there was concern that Moorer had more of it than most. Offhand comments seemed to fan this speculation. Davimos, for example, said that Moorer should beat Holyfield easily. "But you never know," he added. "Michael could get in there and freeze." Even the day before the fight, Atlas wondered if Moorer would be able to "initiate," take the fight to Holyfield instead of waiting on the outskirts, coming to violent life only when he had to, in a highly reactive way. "It's part of that silent contract," Atlas explained. "I won't hurt you if you won't hurt me."
All this made the fight enough of a mystery that even Atlas began looking for signs. He lay awake one night last week wondering about numbers—what sounded more correct, 34-1 or 35-0? He admits that he was waiting for some kind of vision; why did Holyfield get to have all the visions? So against his instincts he crept down to the roulette table in the casino and placed $25 on 35. He didn't even see the ball bounce around the wheel, but he did hear the croupier announce the winning number. Atlas picked up $875 and went back to bed.
And yet there was nothing especially mystical about what happened Friday night. Moorer, who definitely did not freeze, did initiate the action, sticking his right jab into Holyfield's face whenever he wanted. It was not a marshmallow jab, either. Holyfield's head regularly recoiled, and each time he seemed surprised. Lou Duva, who has trained both fighters but who was more closely associated with Holyfield over the years, was astonished as he watched. "It was like this was the first he knew of Moorer being lefthanded," he said later.
As the fight wore on and as Holyfield started to bleed from a cut above his left eye during the fifth round, it began to appear that the defending champion had made some administrative mistakes coming into the fight. He had refused to rehire Emanuel Steward to supervise his corner when Steward, who had engineered Holyfield's comeback win against Bowe, demanded a cut of the purse. "A man should be happy to have $250,000 for six weeks' work," Holyfield said in explaining why he rejected Steward's bid for a payday that might have run to $500,000. And then he refused to part with $25,000 to retain cutman Ace Marotta, who had been in his corner for most of Holyfield's career.
Instead, he hired Don Turner, formerly Larry Holmes's trainer, to assume both duties. His mouth full of cotton swabs, Turner was able to do very little coaching on Friday night. And for whatever reason, Holyfield did not adapt during the fight. Perhaps it is the veteran boxer's prerogative; after all these years, he knows best. But in this case it was flawed thinking. After the fight, Holyfield went to the hospital, where it was revealed that he had a serious injury to his left shoulder, and stayed overnight. He told his promoter, Shelly Finkel, that the injury had occurred in the second round. Yet during the fight his corner never suggested, nor did he take it upon himself to initiate, a change in strategy.
And Moorer's jabs continued to pile up over Holyfield's apparently useless left arm. Moorer threw 309 jabs and connected with 180 of them, only 14 fewer punches than Holyfield landed all night.
Lewis, who watched from afar as a mega-payout disappeared, commented the next day on the goings-on in Holyfield's corner: "I was surprised to see he had no real game plan. Then the cut happened, and the corner was busy taking care of the cut and not talking to him. Then they started telling him, 'God is with you,' and not giving him any water. I knew he was in trouble."
Still, it was no shutout. Holyfield floored Moorer in the second round, something more than a flash knockdown, and was at times able to become his brawling self. But as long as Moorer kept pushing his jab out front, Holyfield was foolish to close in.
Occasionally Moorer reviewed his old silent contract and hung back, waiting. But if he thought he was going to get away with this in Las Vegas anymore than he had in Palm Springs, he was badly mistaken. Atlas knew that if he didn't build points with his jab, Moorer would have to win by knockout. "That's like winning the lottery," Atlas says. So as he returned to his stool after the eighth round, Moorer was surprised to find Atlas sitting on it. "You don't want to do what it takes to become champion, let me do it," Atlas yelled at him. "You can go outside and watch." Atlas, vowing he will never do anything like that again, says, "What if Michael had taken me up on that?"
Perhaps by then anybody could have beaten Holyfield. His enormous resolve seemed to have departed him when he was staggered in the fifth round, and he found himself getting flipped around, turned and repeatedly stunned by that jab. "When did you ever see Evander Holyfield flounder like that?" asked Duva. "Did you see Moorer throw him across the ring? Who ever did that to Evander Holyfield?"
And still, Holyfield nearly won. Or rather, almost didn't lose. Judge Dalby Shirley called the fight even, Chuck Giampa scored it 116-112 for Moorer, and Jerry Roth had it 115-114 for him. Roth scored the knockdown round even, which was not as odd as it might seem, because Moorer had hammered Holyfield for most of the round. Had Roth made it 10-9—knockdowns often mean 10-8 rounds—for Holyfield, the decision would have been a majority draw, and Holyfield would have retained his title.
Scoring aside, there was little question as to who won this fight. The question is what happens next. Atlas joked that he wasn't so sure he would sign up for another tour, and Moorer didn't know how much more boxing he wanted to do. Moorer is smart enough to know that the huge commerce of boxing will sweep them both toward other fights, but he is not especially driven by the prospect of additional titles or money.
"I just want to be happy," he says. What that means for him is uncertain. Maybe a house that costs $400,000 or, at the outside, $800,000. He's not sure. Maybe he would like to become a policeman like all his friends. He thinks he would. Maybe all it means is talking to his son. One day in Palm Springs, sitting in a room with the curtains drawn, he seemed entirely forlorn as he waited for his fight. He was talking about his phone calls to his little boy, "my main man." Even if his main man was just 20 months old, he said, the conversations were surprisingly full: "He can count to 10, say his ABCs; he can say lots of stuff." There was no end to their discussions, it seemed. "He can even say, 'Daddy, I love you.' "