20 years ago today: revenge, a mental breakdown and the weirdest heavyweight title fight ever seen!

It was February 7, 1997 and heavyweights Lennox Lewis and Oliver McCall met in Las Vegas to both decide the vacant WBC title and to box a rematch. Lewis, who had been shocked by McCall in September of 1994, being bowled over in the 2nd-round, had revenge uppermost on his mind. McCall? To this day nobody really knows what the state of his mind truly was.

What followed twenty years ago today ranks as one of the craziest, weirdest and most disturbing of all heavyweight title fights.

McCall, appearing to be in good physical shape, fought reasonably hard in the opening two rounds, perhaps believing he would be able to repeat his quick 2nd-round win. Soon, though, “The Atomic Bull” began acting very strangely. Known as an unpredictable figure, McCall totally lost it on this night.

Having had a far from adequate training camp for the rematch – McCall getting into all sorts of legal problems: vandalism, resisting arrest and a return to rehab for existing drugs problems – McCall really should not have been fighting. Still, money talks and the return meeting did go ahead.

After the 3rd-round, McCall began to self-destruct. Refusing to sit on his stool at the conclusion of the round or listen to his corner, consisting of former heavyweight champ Greg Page (himself an ultimately doomed heavyweight) and the wise George Benton, McCall was in his own little world. In the 4th, the teak-tough Chicago warrior dropped his hands, turned his back on a bemused Lewis and refused to fight back. Walking around the ring, appearing totally uninterested in fighting back, Oliver was clearly having some sort of mental episode.

By the 5th, the tears started. In the past, McCall was known to burst into tears before a fight, in an effort at psyching himself up, but now he seemed to be in very real distress. Later it was confirmed how he had indeed suffered a mental breakdown. Referee Mills Lane tried to talk with McCall but he had gone; unreachable by anybody. The “fight” was over and Lewis regained the WBC belt he had lost to McCall two-and-a-half years earlier (the belt had been vacated by Mike Tyson, who regained it by beating McCall’s conqueror Frank Bruno the previous March and then declined to face Lennox).

McCall, at the post-fight presser, tried to explain his weird ring antics but no-one was buying his “rope-a-dope” claims. Oliver was deemed to be mentally ill, unable to box and he was sent to a psychiatric ward. Astonishingly, McCall returned to the ring just nine months later. McCall fought on until 2014, his time in the ring even outlasting Lewis.’

The questions still get asked today: why was McCall allowed to fight, what if he had been badly hurt, should the correct result have been a no-decision? What everyone did agree on at the time was the fact that the heavyweight division had turned peculiarly crazy; what with the Fan Man incident of late 1993, the farce of Tyson’s comeback against Peter McNeeley and then the fainting act Bruce Seldon put on against Tyson, and now this bizarre fight. And there was more craziness to come. In his very next fight, Lewis scored a DQ win over a clutching and grabbing HenryAkinwande; while we all know what unreal scenes were to come in Tyson’s June ’97 rematch with Evander Holyfield.

The mid 1990s: a very strange time for the heavyweight division.