Early in the seventh round last Saturday night, just as Evander Holyfield was settling into a pace that he thought would carry him to victory over heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, a paraglider descended out of the chilly Las Vegas night sky and crashed onto the ropes of the outdoor ring. Holyfield forgot about Bowe. Instead, his thoughts turned to Monica Seles, the tennis player who was stabbed by a demented fan in April. "I didn't know what he was going to do, attack me or Bowe, but I tried to get out of the way," said Holyfield. "I was afraid he might have a gun or a bomb."
Fortunately the paraglider, one James Miller of Las Vegas, was unarmed, as well as being slightly unhinged. After a 21-minute delay, during which Miller was removed on a stretcher, Holyfield was once again on his way to reclaiming the title that Bowe had taken from him a year ago. "Bowe and I fought two different six-round fights tonight," said Holyfield shortly after his victory by a majority decision. "In the first one, I was just getting ready to go toe-to-toe with him when that guy dropped in. I was in a rhythm, and I felt like I could outgun him. I started to get upset [during the delay], but then I realized it was the same for both of us. With that cleared from my mind, I just went out and got my rhythm back."
In those first six rounds it was Holyfield the bulked-up cruiserweight throwing sand against a brick wall. Through the last six it was Holyfield the 217-pound heavyweight slamming his 246-pound nemesis at will, backing Bowe up and nearly closing the champion's left eye. Battered and bloodied, Bowe fought back gallantly, but he couldn't match Holyfield's assault.
This was a far different Holyfield from the one who had lost a lopsided decision to Bowe in their first battle. For that bout Holyfield trained as though Bowe were still only his sparring partner, a happy-go-lucky amateur without a lot of heart. "You couldn't get him to do anything," says George Benton, Holyfield's trainer at the time. "Some days he refused to work at all. Every day he had a different ache or pain."
Holyfield admits that he grew lazy before that first fight. "I stopped liking what I was doing," he said last week, "and when that happens, you no longer exert yourself. I stopped going to the wall."
Worse, on fight night he refused to follow the battle plan that had been mapped out for him by Benton and Lou Duva, his other strategist. "We wanted him to box Bowe, to move on him," said Duva. "Instead, he stood there against a 235-pound giant, trying to knock him down."
It was a matter of pride, says Holyfield. When he had knocked out a bloated Buster Douglas to win the championship in 1990, critics scoffed that he had succeeded only in defeating a fat pretender. But Holyfield did not help his case by choosing to make his first title defense against George Foreman, an old man. Then journeyman Bert Cooper knocked Holyfield down before the champion rallied to score a technical knockout in the seventh. Holyfield had wanted to prove himself, to fight Mike Tyson, but an injury to Tyson forced the cancellation of their first bout, in November 1991, and Tyson's rape conviction erased the second date. So Holyfield had to settle for Larry Holmes, another old man who went the distance.
"They said I couldn't knock anybody out," Holyfield said last week. "It was getting to me. I was confused. I wanted to settle down and live the good life, but I wanted the respect. I was being pulled in two different directions. Then I fought Bowe and I forgot about winning; all I thought about was that I had to knock him out. Winning wasn't the thing; knocking him out was."
Holyfield's obsession was his downfall. He went into the trenches with the bigger, younger man who also had something to prove. Ever since his loss to Lennox Lewis in the finals of the 1988 Olympics, Bowe had been unable to shed the label that he had no heart. So when Holyfield and Bowe met at Las Vegas's Thomas & Mack Center, Bowe won the heavyweight title by unanimous decision.
The pressure gone with his crown, a more relaxed Holyfield announced his retirement and returned to Atlanta to teach his eight-year-old son how to play football. He rode horses on his ranch, took some acting lessons and lived the life of a wealthy country gentleman. Then he began listening to the advice that he was imparting to his son, an 80-pound offensive and defensive end.
"He worked so hard because he wanted me to praise him," said Holyfield. "And he improved. But I told him it was not enough for him to want to be good for me; he had to want to be good for himself. Then I thought, That's what I had been doing, trying to be good to please others. That's when I knew I would come back, but this time to please myself."
He had to work his way back, though, with a June fight against Alex Stewart, once a top contender but by then little more than a journeyman. Holyfield also left the Duva fold and replaced Benton with another veteran trainer, Emanuel Steward, who set about retooling Holyfield's arsenal while worrying about his new charge's mental approach. "It didn't matter who they put in front of him, he wasn't interested," says Steward. "He didn't care. He trained for Stewart, but his mind was on Bowe. He fought Stewart, but he thought about Bowe. He just went through the motions for Stewart."
In a fight that started after midnight, Holyfield won ugly, a boring 12-round decision over Stewart. That night after the bout Rock Newman, Bowe's manager, said that he thought Holyfield should retire for good. "He's awful," said Newman. "He should quit for his own good." Worse things were said and written.
Holyfield waited patiently while Bowe made two title defenses against woeful contenders Michael Dokes and Jesse Ferguson, who together lasted less than three rounds. Holyfield then pressed his claim for a rematch, and the deal was made—one that could earn each man $12 million when all the pay-per-view returns are in.
The odds opened at 6 to 1 for Bowe, who had been spending most of his time adjusting to his new celebrity and eating. "I love being champion," said Bowe as he entered camp to pare down his 286-pound bulk, "but sometimes it can get a little heavy. I've got $15 million in the bank, and I can't go to the drugstore or the grocery store like a normal person. Sometimes I just want to be Riddick Bowe. I don't want to be the heavyweight champion at that moment. I just want to buy my groceries and go home."
Much was made of Bowe's girth. "I never read so much about nothing," said Eddie Futch, Bowe's trainer, a week before the bout. "He's young, and he is just getting bigger. His shoulders are wider. His thighs are more powerful. He just keeps getting stronger. He hit a sparring partner one day and knocked out two teeth and drove four more back under the guy's tongue. We had to send three of these guys home, and he wasn't trying to hurt any of them."
Bowe weighed in last Thursday at 246, 11 pounds more than he had weighed for the first encounter. Then he went to Sophie's Southern Dining in Las Vegas and ate ribs, collard greens and yams, after starting with a bowl of red beans and rice. "I've been eating baked chicken and bowls of fruit," he said. "I've got to make up for lost time."
Holyfield weighed in at 217, also 11 pounds more than he had weighed the night he lost his title, but, though shirtless, he was wearing boots and may even have had something heavy in his pockets. He baffled the experts. "He says this time he is going to box," said one, "and then he puts on weight. Doesn't make sense." Still, the odds had dropped to 2½ to 1.
On Saturday night Bowe came out angry. He likes Holyfield, but some of the things that Holyfield had said before the fight upset him. Holyfield refused to give Bowe credit for his victory in their first fight; Holyfield insisted that he had lost only because he made too many mistakes. As for the rematch, Holyfield said, "All I have to do is correct my mistakes."
"I don't think he respects me," said Bowe. "I like him, we'll still be friends afterward, but I think he has talked himself into a serious ass-whupping."
Bowe started fast, driving Holyfield back with an overhand right to the head and then wading in with both hands. When Holyfield refused to jump into the trenches, Bowe backed off, and the two spent Rounds 2 and 3 probing with jabs, searching for openings and testing each other with hard combinations.
Both corners urged their men to double up on their jabs, to keep up the pressure. "He's countering your jab," Futch told the champion between rounds. Bowe, who had been getting hit with the counter right hands, nodded. "Then throw more than one at a time," said Futch patiently.
Across the way Steward was telling Holyfield how good he looked, building his confidence, turning up the flame. "Keep pressing him," he said.
Holyfield's punches were quick and crisp, but, as in the first bout, they failed to move the bigger man. When hit, Bowe planted his feet and immediately countered, with telling results. The third round was lively, and the action became so heated in the fourth that it spilled over into the rest period. At the bell the fighters continued to hammer away until referee Mills Lane jumped in and pried them apart. The exchange was costly for Bowe. When he returned to his corner he was bleeding from two cuts, a small one on his left eyelid and another running horizontally through his left eyebrow.
The cuts, the first of Bowe's 34-0 pro career, changed the direction of the fight. While making the mental adjustment to the experience of having blood run down his face, Bowe briefly surrendered to caution, and Holyfield charged like a wolf on a fresh scent of raw meat. With 20 seconds to go in the fifth round, he hammered Bowe with a right to the jaw, hooked him to the neck and backed him away with another right hand to the chin. Then he banged away at his dazed opponent until the bell.
By Round 7 the strength had fully returned to Bowe's legs, and he was raising small bumps on Holyfield's head with hard jabs and swift combinations. Then with 1:10 gone in the round, the uninvited paraglider dropped out of the darkness after having circled in the sky over Caesars Palace for 25 minutes, propelled by a motor strapped to his back. As Miller descended, the cords of his chute became entangled in the overhead lights.
For a moment he was hung up, his lower legs caught by the top rope. Then he was hauled to the ground by an angry swarm of fans and Bowe's security personnel. One of the champion's protectors began hammering Miller with a walkie-talkie, while another punched him at least 20 times. Bowe's wife, Judy, three months pregnant with their fourth child, fainted. She was whisked from the arena and, accompanied by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, taken to Sunrise Hospital for tests and observation.
The beaten paraglider was surrounded by Las Vegas police and Caesars security people, who probably saved him from more serious damage. He lay silent in a white crash helmet while his chute was cut down and his wounds were examined. He then was taken to University Hospital, where it was determined that he had suffered only bruises. His next stop was the Clark County Detention Center. A few hours later he was charged with dangerous flying and released on $200 bail, the motive behind his stunt apparently nothing more than a desire for a few moments of fame. The only other injury in the incident was to Bernard Brooks Sr., one of Bowe's entourage, who suffered a cut.
After 21 minutes of trying to stay warm under the TV lights, Bowe and Holyfield shed their blankets and returned to action. Bowe was not told that his wife had been hospitalized until after the fight. Between rounds Bowe's attendants stood in front of the area where she had sat so that he would not notice her absence.
Holyfield seemed to benefit more than Bowe from the delay. He had more bounce in his legs, and his punches were sharper. Still, after seven rounds the computer stats showed that Bowe had landed 178 of 383 punches to Holyfield's 149 of 296. At this point Holyfield was leading by three points on one judge's card, Bowe was ahead by one point on another, and the fight was even on the third. The judge who had Holyfield ahead had given him the seventh round, the judge who had Bowe ahead had given him the seventh, and the judge who had it even had scored that round even.
Holyfield seemed to fight better when Bowe was leaking blood. In Round 8 the challenger reopened Bowe's cuts with an uppercut and then smashed him with a furious five-punch volley. Holyfield's blows were starting to move Bowe back, taking away the champion's counterpunches. After Round 9, Steward told Bowe, "We've got to go from here. You've got to take these rounds, and you've got the belt. You can beat him, but you've got to let the punches fly."
The pace and the fury began to catch up with both men, but, as in their first fight, both refused to give in to exhaustion. In the 10th and 11th rounds, Bowe was the aggressor, but Holyfield finished the last 30 seconds of each round with furious rallies, and five of the six scores from those rounds were in his favor. In the 12th the two men hammered each other with the dregs of their strength, attacking until the final bell. Even then they stopped only when Lane grabbed Bowe and Steward raced to protect Holyfield, tripping over an inspector's foot and accidentally tackling his own fighter.
Champion and challenger stood within arm's reach of each other as announcer Michael Buffer read the judges' scores: Chuck Giampa scored the fight 114-114, Jerry Roth had it 115-113, and Pat Jarman had it 115-114. Holyfield thus became only the third man in heavyweight history—Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali are the others—to regain his title in a rematch with the man who had taken it from him. Bowe turned and hugged Holyfield. "I was wrong about you," he said. "I am sorry."
There will be a third meeting, but not right away. Each man will have at least one bout in the interim—one for Bowe to repair his confidence, and a defense for Holyfield against either Michael Moorer, the mandatory challenger, or against Lewis, the WBC champion. "I don't know what I will do next," said Holyfield. "I didn't come back to win the title so much as to redeem myself. I didn't come back to win or to get the belt but to prove that one setback didn't make me a bum. My first pro fights I just went home, but my last three fights I went home with knots on my head. That tells me something. But I think I would like to go straight to Lennox Lewis and unify the title."
If the money is right, Moorer might be persuaded to step aside and allow that to happen. In any case it is Bowe's turn to stand in line. "The nicest thing to come out of all this," said Frank Maloney, Lewis's manager, after the bout, "is that now I won't have to have breakfast with Rock Newman."
After the fight Bowe paused only long enough to say that he had been beaten that night by a better man. Then he left for the hospital to be with Judy. From there he went to see Futch, his beloved Papa Smurf, who had been rushed to Valley Hospital after suffering heart palpitations at the end of the fight. Both Judy and Futch were out of the hospital the next day. As Bowe and Holyfield would be the first to say, some things in life are far more important than a fistfight.