One of the last 15 round fights, the cruiserweight classic Evander Holyfield and Dwight Muhammad Qawi put on 35 years ago today in Atlanta ranks as one of the greatest fights in boxing history, regardless of weight class. 23 year old Holyfield and 33 year old Qawi combined to thrill fans with a fight that had it all apart from knockdowns: an intense pace throughout, an almost impossible number of punches thrown, switching momentums, savage trading…….and controversy.
Qawi, the short and stocky former light-heavyweight champion who had learned his trade behind bars and had dazzled fans and opponents with his clever defensive moves along with his relentless approach, was the ruling WBA cruiserweight king and he was in no mood to lose his belt to upstart Holyfield. Never has a fighter had a more apt nickname – Qawi being known as “The Camden Buzzsaw.” Despite being just 5’7,” Qawi was able to defeat bigger men, to out-jab them, to beat them to the punch, to take their heart.
But now, at the then somewhat advanced age of 33, Qawi, 26-2-1, was facing “The Real Deal.” We were not sure back in the hot summer of 1986 if Holyfield, at just 11-0, was the real deal. Evander had been unlucky in the ’86 Olympics, coming home with a bronze due to his being controversially disqualified for hitting opponent Kevin Barry on the break. And as a pro, the word was Holyfield was susceptible to running out of gas after a few rounds. So not only was Holyfield giving away a sheer ton of pro fight experience against defending champ Qawi, he was also a man with a stamina problem (or so the feeling was).
Would these two ingredients serve up a dish of disaster against the tough, clever and fierce Qawi? Plenty of people felt so. But if Qawi put on a great performance in the fight, Holyfield somehow managed to top it. Just.
These two men, so different in style, approach, physical build and personality, took the best each had to offer while at the same time giving all they had. We saw both men’s chins tested, we saw both guys have to find, from some place, a second (maybe even a third) tank of gas, we saw both men rocked and hurt, and we saw both warriors refuse to yield. We saw in this fight, for the first time, Holyfield’s amazing ability to unload a seemingly endless fusillade of shots, all thrown with bad intentions, with a don’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude and determination.
In turn, the tough as leather Qawi took the shots and then roared back, his heavier bombs thrown in less numbers but with the effect of steadying his challenger’s assault. It was mesmerising stuff and it went on for 15 rounds, with some of the best, most stirring action saved for the later rounds.
In the end, having fought the fight of his life, Holyfield proved he was indeed worthy of his boastful nickname. Holyfield had also shown he was a world champion, taking Qawi’s belt via split decision. Qawi felt he had won, but this was no robbery.
Now to the controversy.
All these years later, and Qawi still believes Holyfield had to be “on something” in the fight, that this is the only explanation for his ability to come on strong in the middle and late rounds, this after being “dead-tired” quite early on.
Here, Qawi (speaking with this writer a couple of years ago) explains:
“There was no way I thought he could go the distance – 15 rounds,” Qawi began. “I had seen Holyfield on TV and he couldn’t even go six rounds without [struggling]. He fought my sparring partner, Lionel Byarm, and he struggled. After our fight, he went to the hospital for two weeks. The way he was able to push his body, I always thought there was something else going on.
“After 15 rounds he was still jumping around. I was dead-tired, as he had been so much earlier. [At the end of the fight] I had that burn in my stomach, what you get from sheer fatigue. He was still jumping around like it was the first round. I think his body went into shock, with him going to the hospital later. I’m very disappointed by how that fight went. It’s the biggest disappointment of my career, let me put it that way.”
It’s worth noting that Holyfield is said to have lost an alarming 15 pounds in fluids due to the efforts he made during the course of those brilliant yet also agonising 45 minutes of warfare. So was it as superhuman effort on the part of “The Real Deal,” or was there something else in play? We will never know, and you know what – it don’t matter.
We got a fight for the ages courtesy of Holyfield and Qawi and nothing can ever spoil or diminish the battle these two Hall of Fame fighters put on 35 years ago today.
Never, ever will there be a greater cruiserweight fight.