Boxing: Holyfield in Lewis' sights: Bowe dethroned as he pays heavy price for his slothful preparation

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CLEARING his mind of a bizarre drama that could have resulted in tragedy at Caesars Palace here on Saturday night, Evander Holyfield opened up the heavyweight division when he boldly regained two versions of the championship from Riddick Bowe.

The contest was interrupted for 21 minutes after a parachutist landed on the ring apron in the seventh round. When they resumed the fight, Holyfield, who was coming from behind on the official scorecards, pounded out the victory that brought him the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association titles, narrowly outpointing Bowe.

Probably this will result in a unifying contest next April against the World Boxing Council champion, Lennox Lewis, although a third contest between Holyfield and Bowe remains a possibility. 'Next year will be a tremendous one for the heavyweight championship,' said Dan Duva of Main Events, which promotes Holyfield.

First, Holyfield has to be sure that it makes sense to continue in the ring, but as he can earn a further dollars 18m ( pounds 12.6m) against the dollars 10m on offer to Lewis, the decision is unlikely to be difficult. 'After Bowe beat me I decided to retire without taking enough time to think about it,' he said. 'I've achieved what I set out to do, but this time I want to be absolutely sure.'

A truth about the first fight between them, and verified by his trainers at the time, Lou Duva and George Benton, is that Holyfield felt so confident of being able to walk through Bowe that he did not train properly. Holyfield gave only 70 per cent of himself to the task. Some times he did not even bother to show up for training.

Now the roles were reversed. Holyfield was in excellent shape and kept to the strategy of his new trainer, Emanuel Steward, almost perfectly. This time it was Bowe who paid the price for idleness, in his case, an unfortunate characteristic. A glutton by nature ('What else to expect of a guy who has a kitchen built into the bedroom?' somebody said), the effort of getting down from a slovenly 20 stone was ultimately debilitating. 'Bowe had to work extremely hard to get into condition,' his manager, Rock Newman, said, 'and this will have to be corrected.'

It takes nothing away from Holyfield, who frequently outboxed and outfought the defending champion, doing his best work inside. On a computer count Bowe landed more often but not with the greater number of hurtful blows.

When the referee, Mills Lane, failed to hear the bell at the end of the fourth they carried on going at each other. By the end of the fifth Holyfield had rallied so well that Bowe was looking in trouble, weary, with blood seeping from a cut on the bridge of his nose.

The sight of Holyfield's head being snapped back by heavy jabs encouraged Bowe's supporters, and the instruction from his trainer, the 82-year- old Eddie Futch, was to keep on using it. Futch, who hyperventilated after the fight and was taken to hospital, could see the titles slipping away.

When the interruption came, Bowe had his jab going well, but he was fighting in bursts and Holyfield kept coming back at him. 'Waiting for things to settle down I wondered how the delay would affect Bowe,' Holyfield said. As it turned out, Bowe did not pick up where he had left off. He had been winning the round but that was not the way of things at the bell.

Bowe was cut again, alongside his left eye, and although he landed some heavy punches Holyfield did not wilt. Sometimes his mouth fell open but his chin withstood everything he had to take on it.

By the end of the ninth most ringside observers had them level, but Holyfield decisively took the next two sessions, getting in heavy hooks to the head.

Occasionally Holyfield yielded to his instincts and traded with Bowe. In the first contest he had to do this to survive against the younger man. Now he was protecting a lead. It was Bowe that had grown desperate.

The excitement became intense and when the bell sounded to start the 12th and final round it seemed that as long as Holyfield remained on his feet he would regain the titles. From the way Bowe came out, this was what his corner had concluded. He went for Holyfield, hurting him badly enough for a sensational knock-out to become a possibility. Bowe won the round clearly, but he had not done enough to win the fight. One of the three judges gave a draw, 114-114, and when that was announced, the crowd booed. The other scorecards favoured the challenger, 115-114, 115-113.

Bowe had no complaints. Before going off to visit his pregnant wife, who had collapsed after the airborne intrusion, the beaten champion made a brief, but gracious, appearance. 'Evander fought well,' he said. 'When he shows up tell him I said so. You should all applaud him. It was a tremendous effort. Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali came back after losing and I'll be back.'

Meanwhile, negotiations were under way. The long wait for Bowe versus Lewis was over. Now it was Holyfield versus Lewis. An agreement for that was cautiously in place before Saturday's contest but nothing had been signed. It can only happen if Michael Moorer, the leading IBF and WBA challenger, is prepared to step aside. Moorer is promoted by Main Events, the Duva organisation which also promotes Holyfield and has a share of Lewis. No wonder Dan Duva had a broad smile on his face.

(Photograph omitted)