With a barrage of head punches, eight in all, Holyfield had hurled Mike Tyson back against the ropes and pounded him until the referee, Mitch Halpern, called a halt to the contest. It was not meant to be like this. The image that had filled most people's minds was of Holyfield being borne from the ring on his shield, a warrior in one fight too many, the end for him, Tyson's reign of terror brutally extended.
Now, as stunned cohorts crowded around Tyson in his corner, Holyfield crossed to where he could look down on us, the people who had doubted him and, yes, feared for him. He did not leap excitedly on the ropes, brandishing a clenched fist, shouting "eat your words" as Muhammad Ali did after turning the odds upside down against Sonny Liston. Holyfield simply held up one hand and smiled.
If it was not one of the greatest heavyweight contests, if the result was not as sensational as the loss of Tyson's undisputed title to James "Buster" Douglas more than six years ago in Tokyo, it secured Holyfield a place in the lore of boxing.
Before three rounds were completed you could sense that something remarkable was going to happen. Where Tyson was expected to blast through Holyfield's short hooking style and end the contest quickly, sending the challenger for his World Boxing Association championship back into retirement, he was frustrated by hit-and-hold tactics.
Shortening the space between them so that Tyson was unable to get off punches, making such dangerous use of his head that the defending champion complained repeatedly to Halpern and was left with a mass of abrasions as well as a cut in the corner of his left eye, Holyfield soon justified support that had seen him shorten from 16-1 to 5-2 in the Las Vegas betting emporiums.
Such was the effort that Holyfield put in that Tyson would say that he could not remember anything after the third round. They were about level at that stage but Holyfield was growing more and more in confidence. If the rest was instinct, Tyson took the next two rounds, the fifth by a clear margin when Holyfield looked to be tiring.
Then things turned dramatically in Holyfield's favour. A short left sent Tyson over and when he regained his feet a nick that had appeared above and slightly to one side of his left eye was leaking blood.
It began to bleed again in the seventh round, and after sending Tyson to his corner for examination by the ringside doctor, Halpern issued Holyfield with a stern warning about the use of his head, threatening to deduct a point unless he was more careful.
Whenever they clinched, which was frequently, Tyson did plenty of holding himself to prevent Holyfield from finding room for short head punches, but he did very little that could be thought of as organised aggression. Oblivious perhaps to the instructions he was getting between rounds, or simply disregarding them, Tyson seldom employed his left jab or moved his head enough to prevent Holyfield reaching it with leads and counters.
No combinations either, the punches coming not in clusters - Holyfield never once made the mistake of allowing room for uppercuts - but singly, as though from a novice pinning his faith in one decisive haymaker.
A curious thing came to me, personally. The further the scrap went, Tyson appeared to shrink physically. Thinking of all the men who have trembled visibly in his presence, you began to wonder if this was not somebody giving an impersonation.
An interesting thing was that the audience got behind Holyfield completely. Taking up the underdog's cause, they bellowed his name, standing to cheer him. A smile crossed the challenger's face and every now and again he spoke to Tyson, as though utterly confident of victory.
At the start of the 11th round one of the three official judges, Frederico Vollmer, had Holyfield ahead 100-93. The others, Dalby Shirley and Jerry Roth, had him in front by 96-92. Tyson, who had gone back to his corner on unsteady legs, could only win by a knock-out or draw level with two big sessions. If that thought still figured in the champion's mind, and from his remarks afterwards it is doubtful, Holyfield was not about to grant him the opportunity.
A left began the storm that exploded around Tyson's head. He was wide open, held up by the ropes, powerless to prevent the punches Holyfield fired in at him. Pandemonium filled the MGM Grand arena as Tyson staggered beneath the barrage, finding himself in the unfamiliar role of victim. Then Halpern stepped in and led him to safety. Tyson's aura of invincibility had gone forever, torn down by a man who came to fight sure of his God and with the heart of a true warrior.
To Tyson's immense credit, he could not have been more generous to the new champion when he spoke to him afterwards. "I want to commend you, I have the greatest respect for you," he said. "I just want to shake you by the hand."
Holyfield smiled and nodded and recalled a time when he thought Tyson was unbeatable. "I'd seen Mike grow from a boy into a great champion, one of the greatest there has ever been, and I used to think that nobody had a chance against him. I've always believed in myself but when I went into training for this fight, and I trained harder than ever before, the sparring partners were jumping all over me.
"At first it was depressing to read that I didn't have a chance but gradually it worked for me. Apart from anything else I'd been in with good heavyweights who are a lot bigger than Mike, knocked them down too, so what was there to fear?"
Past experiences in the ring and the fact that Tyson had not felt a punch to the head since before serving three years in prison - none of the four men he had subsequently fought landed a serious blow on him - possibly worked best for Holyfield. The object was to deny Tyson the initiative and take him into the later rounds, where he might prove vulnerable. A simple if dangerous policy, it meant trying to be first off with punches and roughing up his man inside whenever possible. Allowing for Tyson's lighter skin, in a comparison between their faces, Holyfield's barely showed how successfully he had been.
Immediately, there was serious talk about a rematch, this further complicating things for Lennox Lewis, whose associates will reappear in court next Thursday to challenge the purse offer Don King claims to have won for a contest between Lewis and Oliver McCall for the vacant World Boxing Council heavyweight title scheduled for Nashville, Tennessee, next January.
When Dino Duva of Main Events, the American organisation that acts for Lewis, heard this he gave a thumbs down signal. Basically, it is to do with an ongoing tussle between the rival cable networks. On the one hand Home Box Office; on the other Showtime, who work closely with Tyson and King. "Who controls boxing now?" a senior representative of Showtime said. "We have Tyson and Holyfield, they have Lewis and Riddick Bowe."
Showtime have Holyfield for a rematch with Tyson next year because the contract for Saturday's contest gave King the right to promote what he thinks will be by far the richest fight in history.
Tyson looked bad enough for someone to raise with him the possibility of retirement. "Quit? Man, I get $30m [pounds 19m] every time I fight," he said dismissively. When this was also put to Holyfield, he left room for consideration. "I'm going to have a rest and talk things over with my family."
King moved in quickly to spike Holyfield's apparent uncertainty. "Hey, you just won back the world title and they want you out of there," he cooed. King was thinking in multiples of seven figures.
Until Saturday, the plan for Tyson was a contest next March against Michael Moorer, who retained his International Boxing Federation title by stopping Francois Botha in the 11th round of a hard contest, then, if successful, a unifying match in June against the winner between McCall and Lewis. Holyfield has thrown those plans asunder, putting Lewis' hopes of meeting Tyson back where they started.
A consolation for the Duva family is that they backed Holyfield at 12- l and cleaned up $250,000.
As for the outcome of a rematch between Holyfield and Tyson, it is worth remembering the difficulties Ali found in three contests against Ken Norton, who was far from being the best-equipped of his opponents. As Holyfield said, and many have said before him, styles make fights. Tyson might again find Holyfield's style unfathomable. If so, this is indeed a bad time in the heavyweight division.
n Despite again revealing an irritating tendency to go off the boil, Henry Akinwande retained his World Boxing Organisation heavyweight title when he easily stopped Alexander Zolkin of Russia in the 10th round of their fight in Las Vegas.
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World Boxing Association heavyweight title: Evander Holyfield (US) bt Mike Tyson (US, holder) rsf 11th.
International Boxing Federation heavyweight title: Michael Moorer (US, holder) bt Francois Botha (SA) rsf 12th.
World Boxing Organisation heavyweight title: Henry Akinwande (London, holder) bt Alexandre Zolkin (Russia) rsf 10th.
WBO light-middleweight title: Ronald Wright (St Petersburg, Florida) bt Ensley Bingham (Manchester) pts.
WBO featherweight title: Naseem Hamed (Sheffield, holder) bt Remigio Monlina (Arg) rsf 2nd.
WBO super-middleweight title: Steve Collins (Dublin, champion) bt Nigel Benn (Ilford) rtd 6th.
How Holyfield tamed Tyson
Tyson immediately tried to throw a big right hand as he signalled his intentions from the start, but Holyfield responded with some fearsome punches of his own. Tyson threw a punch as the bell sounded and Holyfield, in no mood to give ground, replied to end an even round which the crowd loved.
Holyfield went to work behind his left jab while Tyson continued to search for the telling punch. Holyfield brought the crowd to their feet when he stunned the champion with a right hand and followed up with a left which forced him back on to the ropes.
The referee, Mitch Halpern, warned both men as they repeatedly clung on to each other at close quarters. Tyson threw more punches in an untidy round.
There was still too much holding but Holyfield continued to stand his ground and landed one good right to the head. Tyson's best shots were two lefts to the body.
Tyson produced his best punch of the fight so far, a right uppercut, which stunned Holyfield early in the round. A bit of tape came loose from one of Tyson's gloves and the referee ordered it to be removed, giving the challenger a welcome breather.
A cut appeared over Tyson's left eye and the referee sent him back to his corner to have blood wiped away. Holyfield saw his chance and went on the attack. He floored Tyson for an eight count with a left hook. Holyfield followed up with more big shots as the champion suddenly looked vulnerable.
The crowd were urging Holyfield on and Tyson looked increasingly bemused as he repeatedly protested to the referee. A clash of heads resulted in Tyson having to have more blood wiped from the corner of his left eye.
Holyfield used his left jab repeatedly and moved well to present Tyson with an elusive target. Tyson was looking increasingly frustrated.
The better work was still coming from Holyfield, who was landing punches in neat combinations while Tyson connected with several stinging blows towards the end of the round.
Tyson was showing signs of tiredness and appeared out on his feet as Holyfield finished the round with a sustained attack of telling combination punches. Only the bell saved Tyson from defeat.
Holyfield went on to the attack again and Tyson was soon in deep trouble. As his legs buckled, the referee signalled the end.Reuse content