They should have fought this one in a hospital ward. Evander Holyfield, the world's best heavyweight after champion Mike Tyson, said he had a bad cold and was bothered all night by cramps in his neck and legs. That, of course, may explain why it took him eight rounds last Saturday to finish off Alex Stewart, a 13-to-1 underdog who fought most of the way with a jammed hand and blood pouring down his face and for the last three rounds on legs that looked like they were fashioned from Silly Putty.
Somewhere Tyson, who recently postponed a fight with Razor Ruddock because of a virus, must have been laughing. Surely Don King, Tyson's promoter, was chortling. Following the Holyfield-Stewart bout in Atlantic City's Convention Center, King said on the Showtime telecast that he would match Holyfield's end of the purse and fight winner-take-all. "Holyfield will go back home to Georgia on a midnight train, without no money," said King.
"Hell, if that's what it takes to get Tyson in the ring," countered Lou Duva, Holyfield's top strategist, "then let them laugh. I hope the Stewart fight is the only tape they look at. One thing they won't see is the size of Evander's heart. He reached deep and won this one on sheer guts."
What's also missing from the tape is the Holyfield who had won 22 straight fights. In the early rounds against Stewart, there was little snap to Holyfield's punches, and his usually quick combinations were reduced to single punches. He seemed uninterested, almost sleepy. "You're not backing this guy up," Duva screamed at him after Round 4. "You're getting lazy out there. This guy is only strong coming forward, and you're letting him. Punch, for chrissakes. You've got to throw punches."
Across the way, Stewart was complaining about the pain in his left hand. After Round 2 he told his corner he had broken his knuckle connecting with a hook. Actually, he had torn the ligaments around the knuckles of his first two fingers, but the effect was the same. "You've got to finesse it, son," advised Eddie Futch, his 78-year-old strategist. "Let him see your left, then nail him with the right hand."
Stewart, the WBA's No. 2 contender, had come in with a 24-0 record. All of his victories had been knockouts within four rounds. His right, which he usually loops after a lunge, is his most devastating punch. But his record was dubious because the fighters he had beaten were unknowns like Lorenzo Canady, Dave Jaco and Fernando Montes. However, Stewart proved better than that list might imply. He can fight, and when Holyfield finally figured that out, it made him angry.
In the fifth round, Stewart, a London-born Jamaican now living in Brooklyn, opened up a stinging attack. Holyfield backed away briefly, his dreamlike state shattered. It was a short retreat; his eyes blazed, his legs stiffened, he started to fire back. After getting another blistering from Duva between rounds, Holy-field charged out for the sixth, wide-awake. He had opened a thin cut beside Stewart's right eye in the second round; three crisp left hooks now ripped the cut wider and deeper. As Stewart reeled about the ring under the furious assault, blood streamed down his face, and his legs wobbled. One good punch could have ended it, but in the seventh round Holyfield once again had the look of a man trying to remember what his wife wanted him to buy at the store for dinner. Finally, at 2:51 in Round 8, after having Frank Doggett, the ring physician, examine Stewart, referee Tony Perez called off the fight. "If he hadn't, I would have," said Mike Jones, one of Stewart's two comanagers. "We had promised Alex every chance in the world, but enough is enough."
For Stewart, in defeat there was victory. Before this bout his biggest purse had been the $13,500 he earned fighting some guy named Arthel Lawhorne last March. But in losing to Holyfield, the 25-year-old Stewart not only was paid $225,000, but he also became a world-class fighter. "I thought he was just a guy who threw three punches," said Holyfield after the bout. "But he throws eight or nine, and he throws them a lot faster than I expected. No, I didn't look good out there, because I didn't feel well. But another reason I didn't look good was Stewart. Anybody who takes him lightly is in for a long night."
Holyfield saw the fight as a growing experience. "I learned something about myself tonight," he says. "I learned that when things are going badly. I can reach deep within myself and pull out what I need to win. Going into a fight, I'll always know that it's there if I need it."
It's another weapon he'll take in against Tyson, whose bout with Ruddock has been reset for Jan. 20 in Edmonton. Tyson is also committed to fight Buster Douglas in Tokyo as early as Feb. 12. "Then we'll have to decide on Holyfield," says King. "It could be in June. If not, it will be in the fall."
Holyfield is not likely to spend his time waiting by the phone. Showtime has made him a lucrative offer for a March bout against an opponent who has not yet been named, and Holyfield, who was paid $1.25 million to fight Stewart, will not turn down a similar payday. "I'm not the kind to sit around waiting for anybody," he says. "I enjoy fighting, and I want to fight often." Then he grins. "It's also nice that I can make a lot of money doing it."
Toward the end, the cut that Holyfield had opened beside Stewart's eye was streaming.