In a fight of fluctuating fortunes and occasional high drama, Lewis won a unanimous decision from all three Nevada judges. But the shenanigans immediately before and after the fight, and the circumstances in which the International Boxing Federation withdrew its sanction, certainly threw a shadow of mystery and confusion over Lewis's triumph.
It was in some ways a curious encounter, in which long periods of mutual circumspection were interrupted by furious conflict. There were times, particularly in the middle of the fight, when both men were momentarily in big trouble. Two colossal rounds, the seventh and ninth, allowed the fighters to show the kind of raw aggression and courage that would have graced history's finest heavyweight championship collisions, but there were other rounds in which they stood off each other, reluctant to commit themselves to an assault.
So the generous margin of the judges' scoring surprised almost everyone. There were few in the arena who did not think it was a tight call, and it was not hard to find experienced ringsiders who had Holyfield slightly ahead. Most of them, but not all, were American. After the furore surrounding the verdict in the drawn fight at Madison Square Garden, New York, last March, the points totals took on a special significance, and the scorecard showed that there was no doubt whatsoever in the minds of these officials, whose deliberations produced an emphatic result. Jerry Roth gave it to Lewis by 115 points to 113, Chuck Giampa by 116-112, and Bill Graham by 117-111.
Many observers would have found no quarrel with a second draw. The outgoing champion said he felt he had done enough to win, but refused to quibble with the outcome. The victor claimed that at times he had been playing with his opponent, while agreeing that the fight was of a much higher quality than their first meeting.
There were still plenty of $500 and $1,500 tickets for the Thomas and Mack Centre available on the afternoon of the fight, but the hall appeared to be full to its 18,000 capacity when the fighters arrived in the ring. Among those present to watch Lewis attempt to gain his revenge for the New York verdict were Michael Douglas, Frank Bruno, Rupert Murdoch, Bruce Willis, Naseem Hamed, David Coulthard, and tennis's new golden couple, local boy Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. The 6,000 British fans, many of whom had been up before dawn to watch the Scotland-England match on a big screen at the Tropicana Hotel, set up an enormous din, their football- style chants drowning some of the announcements as their favourite planted himself ostentatiously in the centre of ring for the preliminaries while his opponent waited in his corner.
When the bell sounded, however, it became immediately apparent that eight months of contemplation had not persuaded Lewis to amend his cautious strategy. It was Holyfield who came out on the front foot, looking for opportunities to get in close and unload his right hook. Neither fighter genuinely did enough to win the first two rounds, although all three judges gave them both to Lewis. By the end of the second the fighters were circling each other warily, Holyfield pawing away Lewis's jabs.
The third round found Holyfield dancing forward and Lewis trying to stroll out of range, although the American found his target with a solid right hook which landed flush on his opponent's left ear. A left and right combination backed Lewis into a corner in the final few seconds, and the smile with which he disengaged at the bell seemed at the time like nothing more than bravado.
Lewis held back in the fourth, as if he were waiting for Holyfield to tire, but he nevertheless landed a solid right cross to Holyfield's cheek. The roles were reversed in the fifth, when Holyfield looked to be trying to suck Lewis into danger, the bigger man responding with two more big right crosses. As they pounded each other on the ropes the referee, Mitch Halpern, warned Holyfield about the use of his head, and sure enough Lewis returned to his corner at the end of the round with a small cut to the side of his right eye.
Perhaps trying to make the most of it, Holyfield spent most of the sixth round boring forward from a crouching position, to Lewis's vociferous displeasure. But no further damage was done, and his cornermen succeeded in closing the nick so that he was not to be further inconvenienced as the fight went into the second half of its scheduled span.
The seventh started with a brawl, but ended up just about as close to magnificence as boxing gets. With Lewis moving up a gear, starting to take the fight to his opponent for the first time, Holyfield countered with a snaking left on the break. Lewis leaned back on the ropes, his body suddenly looking soft. But he recovered, and the two spent the final minute of the round toe to toe, trading punches without a care for self- preservation. They took a breather in the eighth, but the ninth contained similar ferocity, Holyfield landing two lefts to the side of Lewis's head in the space of a heartbeat and both men scoring with big right uppercuts.
Feinting and nuzzling through the tenth, they again took the chance to recuperate. Holyfield started to move forward again in the 11th, only to walk on to an uppercut that shaded the judges' marking in Lewis's favour. The final round also failed to catch fire, although it ended with a wild flurry of punches, none of which looked remotely like concluding the affair. Two of the judges gave it to Lewis and one to Holyfield, which seemed to sum up the narrowness of decision.
After the verdict and the celebration came the controversy. Nothing, however, can obscure the fact that Lewis, the holder of the World Boxing Council title, was legitimately adjudged to have beaten Holyfield, the owner of the World Boxing Association and the IBF belts, which means that he is in moral terms the undisputed champion of the world, whatever the lawyers may say in the coming days.
Does he deserve the title more than Don Cockell, Brian London, Henry Cooper, Joe Bugner, Frank Bruno and all the other British boxers who reached in vain for the same pinnacle? Probably he does. Whatever his defects, he is a remarkably well-equipped athlete and, it seems, a pretty well-equipped human being. After picking up his first belt from the rubbish bin where Riddick Bowe's manager threw it in 1993, he has waited patiently for his chance to realise his ambition. Now, at 34, he has finally triumphed over the politicking and the chicanery. However many belts he woke up with yesterday morning, there can be no doubt who stands on boxing's summit now.
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