Evander Holyfield was born on October 19, 1962 in Alabama. His family moved to Atlanta, Georgia when he was 2 years old. He took up boxing at 12, winning many local and regional youth boxing events. He then won the light heavyweight 1983 Pan-American Silver Medal, the 1984 National Golden Gloves, and won a Bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as part of that famed US Boxing Team. He concluded his amateur career with a record of 160-14. He turned pro on a televised fight at Madison Square Garden in November 1984.
Although Holyfield fought his first bout at the light heavyweight limit of 175lbs, he moved up to the more comfortable cruiserweight limit of 190lbs for his second bout. Holyfield was a 6’2″ man with a 78″ reach. He came equipped with good hand speed, solid skills as an all-around boxer-puncher, a concrete chin, and a mean left hook to the body. A devoted gym rat, one could never accuse Holyfield of coming to a fight out of shape. In fact, sometimes he was his own worst enemy as he would over-train and leave his peak performance back at the gym. However, at his best, Holyfield would show up with incredible stamina and remarkable recuperative powers. As a cruiserweight, he was a wrecking machine.
“The Real Deal” had quickly put together a record of 11-0 when he met his first big test in the form of 33 year old 26-2-1 WBA Champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986, in the last of the great 15 Round fights. Known as the “Camden Buzzsaw,” the short and compact Qawi had been a formidable light heavyweight champion with a punches-in-bunches style, giving the great Michael Spinks all he could handle 3 years before. He was a thoroughly dangerous opponent, and the result was a thrilling war where neither man gave an inch, and the leather flew like machine-gun fire. Holyfield won the bout by a narrow Split Decision, on the basis of simply throwing more punches that the punches-in-bunches Qawi. It was an amazing performance for a fighter who fought every minute of all 15 Rounds, but had never fought past 8 Rounds before that night. Holyfield had fought so hard he lost several pounds in the ring, and had to be rushed to the hospital to prevent kidney damage.
In 1987, Holyfield defended his WBA crown against Henry Tillman, the Heavyweight Gold Medalist of 1984 Olympic Team, and knocked him out in the 7th. He then fought IBF Champion Rick Parkey and beat him, taking his belt in a 3rd Round knockout. He traveled to France and met veteran contender Ossie Ocasio and knocked him out in 11. He then closed out a superlative year by meeting Qawi in a rematch and knocking him out in the 4th.
1988 opened with Carlos De Leon, the WBC 190lbs champion . Holyfield thoroughly dominated him and stopped him in the 8th. “The Real Deal” now stood as the first Undisputed World Cruiserweight Champion. However, rather than defend his crown, Holyfield moved on to bigger and better things.
Holyfield as a Heavyweight
Evander Holyfield at 26 was a small heavyweight. He typically scaled at about 205lbs for fights in an era when heavyweights routinely weighed in at 220lbs.On his road to the heavyweight championship, everyone he fought was bigger than he was. In fact, Holyfield would not meet a smaller fighter again until 1996!
Holyfield beat James “Quick” Tillis, former champ Pinklon Thomas, and Michael Dokes in quick succession. However, these men were all examples of the faded remnants of the “Lost Generation of Heavyweights.” In November 1989 he met his first fresh challenge as a heavyweight: rising 24-0 contender Alex Stewart. Stewart won the early rounds, but Holyfield came back, busted Stewart up, and stopped him on cuts in the 8th.
By now Holyfield was considered the #1 contender for “Iron” Mike Tyson’s world title, and simply waiting for his shot at the undefeated champion. He would not get it, as an unmotivated Tyson went to Japan and was stopped by a very motivated James “Buster” Douglas. Holyfield would have to fight Douglas for the crown. While he utterly destroyed Douglas, the result was that because he never fought Tyson, no one took Holyfield seriously. He was just a “blown-up cruiserweight” who had never faced the “real champion.”
Holyfield burned to prove them wrong. For his first defense, he met the aged-but-dangerous comebacking George Foreman. Holyfield weighed 208lbs; the slow, strong, powerful Foreman weighed 257lbs. Yet despite the size difference, it was Holyfield that was the aggressor. The result was a classic slugfest, and while Holyfield couldn’t knock Foreman down, he did stagger him repeatedly. Foreman would later say that Holyfield packed the “meanest left hook to the body [he had] ever tasted,” and this from a man who fought infamous left-hooker Joe Frazier. Yet it was Foreman who came away with his stock improved; the world still refused to take Holyfield seriously.
Holyfield then gave the critics even more fuel when he fought fringe contender “Smoking” Bert Cooper in November 1991. The bout was a substitute for a fight with Mike Tyson, who had pulled out because of a “rib injury.” Holyfield put Cooper down with his patented left hook to the body in the 1st. Yet Cooper was a hard puncher, staggered Holyfield with a counter right hook in the 3rd, and put him down with a follow-up flurry. Holyfield got up, caught a vicious uppercut, but survived the Round. Although he stopped Cooper in the 7th, the fact that he had been hurt in the first place made everyone who loved Tyson pour yet more scorn on Holyfield.
Holyfield made his next defense against a comebacking Larry Holmes. He was supposed to fight 1988 Olympic champion Ray Mercer, but Holmes had beaten Mercer in a title eliminator. Although aged, Holmes was a skilled and crafty veteran. Unlike with his bout with Mike Tyson, Holmes was now thoroughly prepared and showed no signs of rust. However, the wielder of the “Golden Jab” was cleanly outpointed by Holyfield, who used his youth and energy to outwork and overcome Holmes’s jab and guile.
By now Holyfield was thirsting for respect. In November 1992 he met another young and undefeated heavyweight in the form of Riddick Bowe. In large part because he was so hungry to be taken seriously, Holyfield slugged it out with the bigger, stronger 6’5″ 235lbs Bowe. He was knocked down in the 11th, but recovered and roared back to stagger Bowe. It was not enough, however, and Bowe won the Unanimous Decision. Holyfield had lost his first bout and his title, but had finally done enough to quiet (albeit not silence) his critics.
Comeback to the Title
In 1993, Holyfield began his comeback by meeting Alex Stewart in a rematch. The critics were soon lashing Holyfield with their tongues, however. Stewart came not to fight, but to survive, so he lasted to a lopsided decision defeat. However, because Holyfield could not knock him out again, the word was that at age 30 Holyfield was “washed up.”
November saw a lucrative rematch with Riddick Bowe in the infamous “Fan Man” fight. The bout had to be stopped for 21 minutes in the 7th. In this fight, Holyfield boxed Bowe instead of brawling with him. The result was a bout that was not as exciting as the first fight, but was one Holyfield could win. On scores of 115-113, 115-114, and 114-114, Holyfield won a Majority Decision and the WBA-IBF titles. Although a Majority Decision means none of the judges thought that Bowe had won the fight, the non-stop criticism of Holyfield continued because it had been a close victory.
Holyfield now wanted to fight the man that Bowe had shamefully ducked: Lennox Lewis. However, the IBF demanded that he first meet their #1 contender, Michael Moorer . In April 1994, and in a rare fight with an opponent who was the same size, Holyfield put Moorer down in the 2nd with a counter left hook. However, it had only been 5 months since his hard rematch with Bowe, and pitching that bomb threw his shoulder out. Reduced to fighting on one good arm, he lost a Majority Decision, and with it his second, brief reign as champion came to a close. Going to the hospital to have his shoulder looked at, Holyfield was diagnosed with a heart condition: Holyfield had almost kept his title on one arm and with a bum ticker! However, with that news Holyfield was forced to announce his retirement from boxing at the age of 31.
Sources: Live Fight Footage; The Ring; ESPN Classic Sports, boxrec.com; personal recollection; YouTube; Sports Illustrated