On This Day: Evander Holyfield Boxes His Heavyweight Debut

By James Slater - 07/15/2023 - Comments

Remember, older fight fans, when Evander Holyfield was “too small” to be able to mix it with the big guys, the heavyweights? This was the knock on Holyfield back in 1988, with the experts, almost all of them, stating how the unified cruiserweight king would not become heavyweight king. Certainly not with Mike Tyson around, on top of the world, taking out all in his path.

But Holyfield knew better, he believed. Holyfield might not have been a proven heavyweight, not yet, but he knew something very few people knew. Holyfield had sparred a young Tyson, he had gotten the better of things (the brief spar stopped quickly) and “The Real Deal” was one guy Tyson could never, ever intimidate. Still, at the time of Holyfield’s heavyweight debut – against James Tillis, the first man to take Tyson the distance – Tyson was seen as invincible. Nobody was ever going to beat him, nobody. But for some, Holyfield was the biggest fight/test out there for “Iron Mike.” Holyfield was the ONLY test out there for Tyson.

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Holyfield went on a hi-tech bulking up regimen, his 190 pound frame adding some 12 pounds of muscle prior to the Tillis fight. Holyfield stopped Tillis after five rounds, Tillis never going down but quitting after five, his status as a reliable trial-horse well established by this time. And talk of a Tyson-Holyfield showdown got louder and louder with each next step Holyfield took up the heavyweight ladder.

Tyson, at his peak and just a month removed from his crushing one-round win over Michael Spinks, had ran out of suitable opposition. When it came to someone who might – might – give Tyson a real fight, Holyfield stood alone. But Holyfield would have to defeat some top contenders first. Holyfield, who added extra weight and muscle ahead of each further heavyweight bout he had, really got the fans on his side when he defeated former heavyweight titlist Mike Dokes in a classic battle in March of 1989, while Evander’s icing of Adilson Rodrigues four months later served as a pretty encore.

Holyfield was now knocking forcefully on Tyson’s door. 22-0 overall and 4-0(4) as a heavyweight, Holyfield was clearly Tyson’s most interesting and formidable foe. A tough win over Alex Stewart cost Holyfield some credibility points as far as being in with a shot at upsetting Tyson, and then, incredibly, in fact earth-shatteringly, Buster Douglas beat Holyfield to the Tyson fight and won! Buster pulled off the Upset of the Century and no longer was anyone talking about a Tyson-Holyfield fight.

As we know, it would be a heck of a long time before Holyfield and Tyson did eventually meet, this in 1996, some 12 years and a whole lot of fights for both men after Holyfield’s win over Tillis. As things turned out, we never got to see Tyson and Holyfield fight when both men were at their peak. Tyson had lost a lot due to the Douglas defeat, and he had also served time in jail. While by the time Holyfield fought Tyson, he had been beaten three times and he had suffered a so-called heart attack in one of these losing fights.

But “Finally,” Holyfield and Tyson got it on, with “Warrior” Holyfield getting the win he believed as far back as the mid 1980s he would get over Tyson. Some fights are worth waiting for. Rewind to July 15 of 1988 and Holyfield’s heavyweight debut, and we had no idea how long we would be made to wait to see if cruiserweight ruler Holyfield could beat heavyweight ruler Tyson.

Also, Holyfield could not have had any idea it would take so long for the so-called experts to stop saying he was too small to live with the heavyweights.