This time it was supposed to be different. That was the whole point of the promotion: Two vigorous heavyweights would step into the ring and, on the basis of their skill and courage alone, decide boxing's most important championship. So this was going to be unlike almost any other bout in recent history. It was without artifice, without intrigue, without any angle that played to our cynicism. No ex-con on the loose, no white hope, no bellowing publicity machine inflating a sorry event--just two guys whose careers had led them to a logical and much anticipated conflict. In boxing's chapel, too. New York's Madison Square Garden was just the place for a fight to establish, for the first time in six years, who really was the baddest man on the planet. Tradition, horribly riddled by Mike Tyson's troubled tenure and by the corrupt inefficiency of greedy sanctioning bodies that had given us 10 champions since 1992, might be restored here, in the mecca, as WBA and IBF champ Evander Holyfield and WBC champ Lennox Lewis put their belts on the line.
But one thing we've learned is that boxing is never really different. The sport, as it is today, will defeat the best intentions every time. Short of the on-the-spot surgery by Mike Tyson that gave boxing a black ear two years ago, last Saturday's title-unification bout, in which bizarre scoring turned a fairly one-sided fight into a draw, was as definitive a disappointment as is possible to deliver.
Looking at Holyfield after the fight, bruised and then cramping in such distress at a press conference that a doctor had to be called, you realized that boxing was never going to get it right. Holyfield kept his belts? He looked lucky to be alive.
Then seeing a jaunty Lewis, largely unmarked but without the belts he deserved, gave you that old familiar feeling: shame. So much had been invested in this bout--millions of dollars, but hope besides--that you couldn't help but feel embarrassed once more at the paltry way boxing rewards its fans. A draw.
March 22, 1999
The outrage that followed was so absolute that even the three sanctioning bodies had to acknowledge the game's disgrace. On Sunday the three of them ordered a rematch within six months that, because of the usual politics, would otherwise never have happened. Well, let's face it, because of the usual politics, it still might not happen. But the fact that they acted in unison gives you an idea of how absurd the decision was.
Lewis, the big Brit who had been ducked most of his career, came into the fight an uncertain prospect. At 6'5" and 246 pounds, with a hard jab and a detonating right, he was a tantalizing specimen. But by virtue of both his cautious temperament and the lack of a superfight in his 10-year career, he was considered something of an underachiever, or at least an unknown. Holyfield, though smaller and older, was the kind of gutsy fighter who would finally test him.
So Lewis peppered Holyfield from Round 1, popping him with stiff jabs and--not as often as he should have--following with rights and uppercuts. Holyfield, giving away 2 1/2 inches and 31 pounds, had no recourse but to attempt lunging, rushing right hands, gambling that he could slip behind the jab and be on top of Lewis before he could do anything about it.
It was an insufficient plan. For the most part Lewis held him off. Only once, in the third round, Holyfield's self-proclaimed round of destruction, did Lewis appear to be in trouble. But once the round passed, Lewis cruised until late in the bout, when Holyfield's desperation began to count again.
It was, according to almost any ringsider you spoke to, a resounding victory for Lewis. Perhaps he could have come in on Holyfield in Round 5, after driving him straight back with an overhand right, and maybe even finished him off. Then again, Lewis might have been correct when he said, "That's just how Holyfield suckers you in." But that was about all on which you could fault Lewis.
Even the fight stats, raw data that are not always persuasive, bolstered that conclusion. Lewis had connected with 348 punches over 12 rounds, compared with Holyfield's 130. According to those stats, Lewis nailed 65% of his power punches, compared with 36% for Holyfield. Yet judge Larry O'Connell saw it even, and Eugenia Williams called it 115-113 for Holyfield. Stanley Christodoulou had it 116-113 for Lewis.
At least Holyfield and his camp didn't insist on the correctness of the decision. "We'll just do it again," said Holyfield, careful not to be too righteous in his relief.
Promoter Don King, who has the rights to Holyfield's lucrative bouts, took pleasure at the idea of a rematch. "What do you do when you have a dispute?" he asked. "You resolve it!"
Lewis's side was not so reasonable. The fighter, who had been particularly provoked by Holyfield's guarantee of a third-round knockout, kept proclaiming that he'd been robbed. So did his trainer, Emanuel Steward, who said Lewis had to work no harder against Holyfield than he does against "his sparring partner. It wasn't even a close fight."
"It's disappointing," said Seth Abraham, president of HBO Sports, which broadcast the pay-per-view event. "It was such a wonderful promotion, and to end like this...."
It had been a wonderful promotion, in no small part because it happened at all. Keep in mind: Lewis is an HBO fighter and Holyfield a Showtime man. More problematic, King is...King. For him to put into jeopardy the heavyweight meal ticket, which he'd been dining on for 25 years, required a magnificent waiver of risk. What would King do if Holyfield, his primary inventory in the glamour division, lost, and the balance of power tipped to HBO, which has not just Lewis but a stable of young contenders such as Michael Grant and David Tua? King wouldn't do much, was the problem.
But like any good promoter, King can be made adaptable by an enormous payday. For a $3 million minimum, he gathered important powers of reconciliation. Don't forget: The man who once rushed past his fallen heavyweight titlist to embrace the victor ("I came with the champ, I'm leaving with the champ," he said) had already made one significant switch in allegiance by lining up behind Holyfield.
Anybody remember King's endorsing the Tyson camp's prediction of justifiable homicide before Tyson's first meeting with Holyfield? "I have touched the hem of his garment," King said of Holyfield before the fight, explaining a condition unique to boxing promoters who have hedged their bets by obtaining rights to opponents' future bouts. "Evander Holyfield said to me, 'Believe in me, and I will set you free.' And he did set me free. I was a Tyson believer. But Evander has converted me. I was blind, and now I can see."
For King, the prospect of a sold-out Garden, more than one million pay-per-view buys, and purses of $20 million for his fighter and $10 million for Lewis was the equivalent of cataract removal. For this fight, and perhaps this one only, the enemy HBO would be suffered and Holyfield rendered majestic in King's booming rhetoric.
Then, on top of King's cooperation, came Holyfield's. The truth was, Holyfield wanted Lewis, and HBO would pay him the money, so there really wasn't much King could do one way or another. But once the fight was signed, Holyfield joined King with some out-of-character blustering, naming the round, which came from God's speed dial.
After that, Lewis chimed in on the matter of Holyfield's supposed moral fiber, noting that Holier-than-thou-field had fathered five children out of wedlock. "I'm not questioning his faith," said Lewis, "but he breaks a commandment every other day."
It was wonderful stuff. Then, to top it off, each boxer delivered an admirable effort, fighting as if something important was at stake. Between the long buildup and the actual bout, most of us allowed ourselves to be convinced that, indeed, this mattered. But haven't we been this way before? Don't we know better? Shame on us then for thinking, against all odds, it would be different this time.