Evander Holyfield: Is he Really An All-Time Great Heavyweight

06.07.05 - By Colin G. Davis: When the name of Evander Holyfield is mentioned in articles or postings, there's a more than even chance it will be accompanied by the words "all-time great." His claim to this status is obviously taken for granted by many people, but I believe it to be an overestimate. Already I can hear the cries of outrage, the rattle of keyboards as abuse is hurled at my head, but let's calm down and spend a few minutes examining the only evidence that really matters: Evander Holyfield's record.

He seems to have been around for so long, it's hard to realise he's had no more than 48 fights (38-8-2). As my title indicates, it is his heavyweight career I want to examine, specifically his career since he first won the WBC, WBA and IBF titles from Buster Douglas in October 1990.

Douglas was a notorious under-achiever who had fought the fight of his life to defeat a Mike Tyson who, for whatever reasons, was just starting to lose his edge. Had Buster come into the ring against Holyfield in the same mental and physical condition, he would probably have won. If you disagree, consider the Bert Cooper fight, which we'll come to shortly. As it was, Douglas was ill prepared (14 pounds heavier than for the Tyson fight) and was stopped in 3 rounds. A job well done, but hardly the stuff of greatness.

Holyfield's first defence was against George Foreman, whose example unfortunately convinced so many other fighters that it's a good idea to carry on into middle age. Big George was now 42 and, though dogged and strong, with a still formidable punch, was very slow, and Holyfield won a unanimous decision. Again, not a great victory.

The next defence was supposed to be against Tyson, but Mike had a rib injury and was replaced by Francisco Damiani. He too was injured, and Bert Cooper stepped in at short notice. The WBC wouldn't recognise the bout, as they didn't rank Cooper as a contender. He was down in the first, but the third saw a spectacular turnaround. Holyfield, reeling under a fierce attack, was almost knocked out of the ring and looked out on his feet. Fights have often been stopped with a man in less trouble. The famous Holyfield resilience enabled him to survive and win in the 7th, but he had made very hard work of the less-than-celebrated Cooper.

Back to the oldies. Evander's next challenger was Larry Holmes, a fine champion in his day, but now 43 years old and on a comeback during which he'd been demolished by Tyson in 4. Another unanimous decision for Holyfield.

As I recall, the prevailing opinion at this time was that an outstanding light heavy had failed to produce the same form after he bulked up. Holyfield was regarded as an unexciting, no more than adequate heavyweight champion. If anyone had used the words "all-time great heavyweight" in those days, they'd have been greeted with hoots of derision.

In November 1992, Holyfield lost his title on a unanimous decision to Riddick Bowe, in a stirring bout which saw Evander once again on the verge of being stopped, but fighting his heart out and gaining more fans than he'd had as a winner. The warrior had gone out on his shield, they said. But the fact remains, he did lose. Bowe was for a short time possibly the best heavyweight around, but nobody calls him an all-time great, do they?

A points win over Alex Stewart, then in November 1993 came a return with Bowe which turned into one of the strangest nights boxing ever saw, as a para-glider crashed into the ring, triggering general confusion and the suspension of the fight for some minutes. Holyfield was already improving on the first encounter, intelligently avoiding mixing it with the bigger man, and now he handled the lengthy interruption better than Bowe did, going on to win a majority decision and regain the title. A fine performance and, since it was a winning one, probably Holyfield's best so far as a heavyweight.

April 1994 brought a defence against Michael Moorer and, just when Holyfield seemed to have established his credentials, everything went wrong. In a lacklustre fight Evander, hampered by a shoulder injury, lost a majority decision, and it was announced that he had heart trouble. This looked like the end. However, the diagnosis was mistaken, and in May 1995 he was back in the ring, outpointing Ray Mercer, who was a tough opponent for anyone. Maybe Holyfield was on track again.

In November came a third meeting with Riddick Bowe. Holyfield floored Bowe this time, but then ran out of gas and was stopped in the 8th. It really did appear that Evander was on the slide, but a TKO of Bobby Czyz in May 1996 proved you still had to be good to beat this man. However, when it was announced that Holyfield was to take on Mike Tyson in November, a lot of people, myself included, were alarmed. Possible health problems, the loss to Bowe, we might see someone die here!

We all know what happened. The undignified image of Tyson, legs in the air, skidding on his backside when Holyfield floored him in the 6th, and the subsequent rescue by the ref in Round 11, showed what Holyfield could still do, and what Tyson couldn't still do, at least against class opposition. This must be Holyfield's best performance, along with the second Bowe fight. It was also his last really outstanding victory. But he was a champion again (WBA).

The return with Tyson in June 1997 left Holyfield with a ragged ear, and was over too soon to prove much about the winner's form, but in November Michael Moorer was dispatched pretty effectively in 8 rounds. Now Holyfield had the IBF belt too. At this stage of his career, maybe he should have fought more often to keep in shape, but his next bout was not until September 1998, when he ploddingly outpointed Vaughn Bean. The unification fight with Lennox Lewis was looming, and the same month Lewis had a similarly uninspiring victory against much smaller Zeljko Mavrovic. I remember one writer saying "Holyfield and Lewis had better get together soon, or nobody will want to watch!"

Lewis, although maddeningly cautious, deserved a decision in the "drawn" first fight, and Holyfield, the comeback king, was no longer able to raise his game enough to win the return, though some thought he deserved the decision. I think Holyfield at his best, with his higher work-rate, would very likely have beaten Lewis, and I'm British, so don't say I'm not objective!

So, was Evander Holyfield really an all-time great heavyweight?

Out of the seventeen fights mentioned above, how many could be called truly outstanding performances on his part? Surely only three: the first two bouts with Riddick Bowe, and the first with Mike Tyson. Only three, and one of those was a loss.

In his first three defences he made hard work of two men in their 40s, and the un-famous Bert Cooper so nearly beat him.

Riddick Bowe defeated him two out of three, the last time by stoppage and, as I said, you don't hear anyone calling Bowe an all-time great.

Moorer, in their second fight, was well beaten, but this was a man who managed to get himself knocked out by middle-aged George Foreman, and was on the slide.

Holyfield's first defeat of Tyson was a terrific performance, but after all, Tyson had been knocked out by Douglas years before, and could hardly have improved during the inactive time in prison.

I am not attacking Evander Holyfield as a person, I am not disputing his courage, his toughness, or his admirable fighting skills. I am suggesting that a boxer must be judged on his record. Two fine wins are not enough to make someone an all-time great.

Article posted on 06.07.2005

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