One day in January 1990, at a hotel in Beverly Hills, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson announced the world’s most lucrative fight, with Don King boldly talking of both boxers making $40m.
The pair finally met in November 1996 after they had each survived and suffered through either years in prison, knockout defeats, addiction, white tiger attack, bankruptcy and all the afflictions that bless the houses of troubled boxing men.
It was a brutal fight but not as memorable as their immediate rematch, which ended with Holyfield howling and gazing in astonishment at a large lump of his ear on the canvas that Tyson had ripped off with his teeth and spat out in frustration. The fights were, trust me, worth the years of waiting.
Both Holyfield and Tyson were involved in other outrageously delayed and high-profile fights with Lennox Lewis during the same decade. Holyfield fought Lewis in 1999 at the end of six hard years of negotiating. Lewis finally met Tyson in 2002 and knocked out the knackered bruiser in a fight that took nine years of deals to fix.
A hefty cabal of boxing’s finest movers, shakers and fixers had broken bread in a thousand restaurants, bars and Las Vegas suites looking to make the Holyfield, Tyson and Lewis fights happen. Frank Maloney, Don King, Dan Duva, a storm chaser, lawyers, convicted conmen, arrogant television executives, hustlers and old-school rogues all enjoyed a split from the spoils of fights that happened far too late. Nobody was prepared to take the blame for the delays and many drifted away from the sport, pocketing several million dollars on exit.
Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao have taken the tradition of delayed fights to a new and unwanted level. They should have met at the MGM in Las Vegas in November 2009. The fight was never announced but at that stage several deals were in place, far fewer egos were involved and both boxers could have demanded a meeting, a fight to settle any disputes. At the time it was being talked about as boxing’s greatest fight, not just a necessary cash carnival conveniently pitched once the alternatives had been exhausted.
“It’s been a long road for Manny,” said Freddie Roach, the man who taught Pacquiao how to box and not just brawl. “Floyd has never wanted to fight Manny – he knows that Manny is too fast, too fresh and too powerful.” Sadly, Roach told me this in 2010, when another deal was close to final signature for a fight in a makeshift stadium of 40,000 that Bob Arum, the promoter, was planning to erect. Bob never built his cash castle and Manny, like Mayweather, is no longer too fast, too fresh or too powerful.
When Lewis met Tyson it was a painful spectacle to witness from the third row, once the 30 police had left the ring – they had been installed behind a wall of ludicrous hype to keep the pair at a safe distance. Tyson, in his bravest performance, offered his soul as sacrifice, never threatened Lewis and was stopped in eight rounds. Lewis against Holyfield was less violent and not much of a fight but is remembered for the controversy of the drawn verdict; the years of waiting and posturing had ruined the fights.
It is unlikely that either Pacquiao or Mayweather will enter the ring on 2 May to fight like Tyson did against either Lewis or Holyfield. Poor Mike was ravaged by the time he met the pair, having left and lost his best on filthy ring canvasses, prison sheets and velvet sofas in too many brothels. It is possible that the Lewis and Holyfield draw is the model, with Pacquiao and Mayweather reluctant to take too many risks as they split about $200m. If it is close enough there will be a rematch. When people talk about fights being like a “chess match” it is not necessarily a compliment. When was the last time 19,000 people paid to watch chess live in an arena and millions watched it live on TV? There you go.
They are no longer feared punchers, which is what they both were in late 2009, and it is hard to make a clear case for either hurting the other right now — and a fight like this needs some violence.
Pacquiao has not managed one stoppage win in his last nine fights but he had stopped six men in the previous nine. Mayweather has not had a legitimate stoppage in his last eight fights and he had stopped four of his previous eight. In the definitive twilights of stunning careers these two men have become true artists in the noble art of self-defence, which is what boxing is meant to be.
Old men can get it wrong and deliver, just like Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali did in their long overdue third and final instalment in Manila in 1975. They, like Mayweather and Pacquiao, were no longer fearsome but their pride made them fight. The Thrilla in Manila is, in many ways, nothing to brag about because it ruined both fighters and secured for the men a status that very few modern fighters will ever achieve.
On May 2, we have a glorious spectacle which is impossible to ignore, but I can’t guarantee a great fight.
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