The promotion was not without entertainment value. A pleasant-faced lad from Ireland, with impressive academic credentials, was taking a break from his studies to step up to the heavyweight big time. This is story enough in boxing, where the plot lines have not evolved much beyond Rocky. What's more, 27-year-old Seamus McDonagh, nine credits shy of a degree in English literature from St. John's in New York, provided the angle of the boxing bard. Going into last Friday night's fight at the Convention Center in Atlantic City, so much was made of McDonagh's scholarly pursuits that a prefight press conference turned into a public reading. McDonagh's trainer provided an excerpt from Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. The other side quoted from Macbeth.
But the bagpipes, inevitable when a man from County Mayo fights, had scarcely been stilled when Evander Holyfield, the top-ranked heavyweight contender, removed the fight from the provinces of literature and restored it to reality. In the first round, Holyfield knocked McDonagh down twice and tackled him twice. The tackles showed the effects of the weight training Holyfield had been receiving from Lee Haney, a six-time Mr. Olympia. Finally, 44 seconds into the fourth round Holyfield smacked McDonagh with a left. The young student sagged to the bottom rope, the sound of those bagpipes back in his head, and referee Joe Cortez stopped the fight.
The McDonagh story had been diverting, but the real entertainment in the heavyweight division was still being provided by boxing's back-room operatives. At the postfight press conference, the fighters were dismissed and replaced on the dais by lawyers. "This is what boxing has come to," moaned Holyfield's promoter, Dan Duva, himself an attorney.
By the end of the evening, order of a sort had been restored to the heavyweight division. Holyfield, top ranked since April 1989, appeared headed for a title fight at last. The chaos that began last February in Tokyo when Buster Douglas unseated Mike Tyson seemed under control, and the idea of a unified heavyweight division had been saved—at least for the moment.
Lately, it has seemed that Douglas's improbable victory was not the best thing that had happened to boxing as had been widely proclaimed, but the worst. By insisting that his fighter have some time "to enjoy being champion," Douglas's manager, John Johnson, failed to keep the momentum of the upset alive. Beyond that, Douglas and Johnson devoted much of their time to suing Don King in order to free Douglas from King's promotional clutches. King, of course, countersued. The case is scheduled for trial on June 26. All of this conspired to delay the making of a title fight, of which Holyfield is most deserving. Some promoters even imagined scenarios whereby one or more of boxing's sanctioning bodies would strip Douglas of his title for failing to defend soon enough and return the division to its pre-Tyson confusion.
The stage had originally been set for a Tyson-Holyfield fight last November. But King, Tyson's promoter, asked Holyfield to step aside for a bit so Tyson could conduct some effortless business in Tokyo. Dan Duva and Ken Sanders, Holyfield's manager, agreed to wait until June for a guaranteed $12 million, nearly twice what he would have gotten for the November fight. They got an agreement that, should Douglas beat Tyson, the new champ would fight Holyfield within 120 days.
But in the hours after the upset, King tried to have Douglas's title voided on the grounds that Douglas had been saved by a long count after being knocked down. King later backed off, but Johnson was sufficiently aggrieved to try to prevent King from promoting Douglas's title defense. In short order, Johnson received a bid of $60 million from Steve Wynn, owner of the Mirage casino-hotel in Las Vegas, for Douglas's fights against Holyfield and Tyson, though there is considerable doubt that those fights could produce enough money to pay for the purses.
And yet, as Douglas became more and more invisible—he was not in Atlantic City last Friday—the value of a Douglas-Holyfield fight dropped, and again there may be economic reasons for a heavyweight champion to sidestep Holyfield. Trump Plaza's Bernie Dillon still wants Douglas-Holyfield in September, but he wanted it more in June. Even Dan Duva agrees that the meter is running. "You had the biggest sports story in the world," he says. "You play that out for a couple of weeks, let Buster do Johnny Carson, then you talk with Evander and play that out for two weeks, and you run the publicity right into June."
Dan Duva claims a Douglas-Holyfield fight is still worth $35 million, though no other promoter thinks it's more than $24 million. He does concede that as much as $5 million has been removed from the table because of the delay.
Bob Arum, who is promoting 41-year-old George Foreman's comeback, says Holyfield-Douglas "has become a nonevent." There is so little demand for it, he says, that purse bids (an auction for the right to promote the fight) will be disappointing, and Douglas, with a much larger figure in his head, will duck the fight. If he does, says Arum, Douglas will fight Tyson for the big money even if it means being stripped of one or more titles.
Arum, who shrewdly has Foreman fighting on the undercard of Tyson's June 16 bout with Henry Tillman, says, "You know what would be a bigger fight? Tyson-Foreman, without the title."
Does it sound as if Holy-field, whose moniker has been Real Deal, is getting a raw deal? The WBA is in charge of conducting purse bids for a Douglas-Holyfield match, but on May 19 Dan Duva's attorney, Pat English, heard that Jose Sulaiman, who runs the rival WBC and is a close ally of King's, had implied that he was not going to recognize the WBA purse bids. But after the Holy-field-McDonagh fight, James Binns, the WBA counsel, declared that purse bids would be conducted by his organization on June 10 and that boxing's third governing body, the IBF, would go along. Then English stood up and said he had been told by an attorney for the WBC that that organization would honor those bids as well. Meanwhile, Douglas still intends to fight Holyfield, no matter how disappointing the purse.
To forestall Holyfield any longer would be absurd. He has fought five ranked boxers in a row, and it is interesting to note that Tyson and Foreman have found their own comeback fodder—Adilson Rodrigues and Tillman, respectively—among Holyfield's KO victims. That alone, says Dan Duva, qualifies McDonagh for a big payday with one of the two.
Holyfield's willingness to fight the likes of McDonagh is laudable, given that he had everything to lose. Had he been tagged with a lucky knockout punch—he has been hit hard in each of his last three fights—or even been disappointing in victory, Holyfield could have lost his No. 1 ranking and thus his right to a title fight.
"My main concern is to be active," Holyfield had said to Dan Duva, who had been torn by the idea that Holyfield might risk all by fighting a nobody. It now seems likely that Holyfield will get his shot at a unified title, however reduced in economic worth it might be. If he does, we need only recall the words of Lou Duva, Dan's father and Holyfield's trainer, to characterize this past week in boxing: "All sound and fury, signifyin' nut'n."
For McDonagh, the fourth-round KO could be the start of a fine literary career.
The champ didn't show, but Maria and Donald—discreetly apart—were at ringside.
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Holyfield's formidable figure and record have earned him a shot.