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Original Issue


Of all the great collaborations--Martin and Lewis, Hope and
Crosby, Penn and Teller--none have been so reliably satisfying as
Bowe and Holyfield. Through three major productions, the two
have created a level of excitement that continues to elude their
contemporaries in boxing. Each time out, despite the familiarity
gained in previous rounds against each other, they fashion a
fresh drama. It's amazing that their partnership never grew
stale, though we must presume it finally concluded last Saturday
in the chilled desert air of Las Vegas.

Their third meeting was, in its way, every bit as spectacular
and unpredictable as their first two. In the first fight, held
in 1992 when both were undefeated, Riddick Bowe, then 25, held
sway in the fight of the year. That one was marked by one of
boxing's best rounds, when Bowe nearly submerged the drooling
and vacant Evander Holyfield early in the 10th and then had to
fight for survival in the space of just three minutes. The
second bout, held in 1993, is remembered almost as much for the
Fan Man, the paraglider who interrupted the fight, as it is for
Holyfield's valiance in regaining the upper hand and his WBA and
IBF heavyweight titles.

And then there was last Saturday's rubber match at Caesars
Palace, in which Bowe was knocked down for the first time in his
professional life--he was a standing dead man in the neutral
corner--and in which Holyfield was knocked out for the first time
in his. The detonations, spaced only two rounds apart in the ebb
and flow that these fighters have made their signature, were
astonishing, breathtaking. The drama was everything that was
right about boxing, coming after a week that was, until fight
time, more famous for X-rays of Mike Tyson's broken thumb than
anything else.

Of course, the conclusiveness of this ending, with an exhausted
Holyfield getting hammered hopelessly into the ropes early in
the eighth round, effectively rules out any further meetings. No
matter. This tandem need not endure--as, say, the Captain and
Tennille--to make history. In only 94 minutes of boxing, Bowe and
Holyfield have been delivered straight into Ali-Frazier country,
their careers forever defined by their repeated and concussive

Ever since Holyfield came back to unseat a fat and unmotivated
Bowe in their return match, a third bout was preordained. But
the matchup took two years to put together. During that period
Holyfield lost his titles immediately to Michael Moorer in a
stunning upset on April 22, 1994, and retired three days later,
after a heart condition had been diagnosed. Ultimately the
diagnosis was reversed, and Holyfield began a comeback this
year. Bowe, whose ascent through the ranks was viewed as either
arrogant or independent, suffered terribly when he lost his
titles to Holyfield in their second fight. His political clout
within the sport was suddenly gone, and he was frozen out of the
world rankings. As promoter Don King regained control of the
heavyweight titles and began to safeguard them for Tyson's
release from prison, neither Bowe nor Holyfield could make a
big-money bout--except with each other.

The quality of their first two matches was substantial enough
that promoters could easily fund fighters' purses of $8 million
each, minimum. Bowe-Holyfield was a reliable producer of
revenues. The two previous fights are among the top-grossing
pay-per-view fights in history. Like movie properties, boxing
sequels can go only so far. But a third Bowe-Holyfield fight,
even if Bowe was heavily favored, was not exactly milking it.

Bowe, 28, having nearly regained his Holyfield I glory, was
regarded as the finest heavyweight in the ring today even before
Holyfield III. Younger by five years, bigger by 27 pounds and
taller by 2 1/2 inches than Holyfield, Bowe predicted that he
would smash his 33-year-old opponent this time around. He would
either knock him out, he said, or "make him quit."

Holyfield, meanwhile, was similarly confident. For his part, he
was going to knock Bowe out. Holyfield had never before made a
prediction like that. For him, it was an absurdity. "Whistling
in the graveyard," Bowe suggested.

That was about as much bravado as they could come up with. After
24 rounds that were as close to life and death as fighters get,
they have come to an easy and mutual admiration of each other.
Holyfield admires Bowe's skills; Bowe, Holyfield's heart. "I
think I'm starting to like you," Bowe told Holyfield at one
point. There are a few things they continue to disagree about.
Bowe still thinks Holyfield looks like a "gargoyle." And
Holyfield still thinks Bowe is a dirty fighter. In a
face-to-face appearance on ESPN, during which they watched and
analyzed their previous fights, Holyfield accused Bowe of many
low blows and an annoying need to get the last punch in. Bowe
apologized and covered his smirk with his huge hand. Holyfield
glowered. Watching them, you couldn't help thinking how domestic
they had become.

Once they reentered the ring, their odd marital relationship was
out the window. So were the fight plans they had previewed for
everybody. What was supposed to be boxing--each believed he'd had
his finest moments against the other when he jabbed instead of
slugged--degenerated quickly into in-fighting, as the combatants
stood forehead to forehead and ripped uppercuts and rib shots
into each other. Holyfield had decided not to fight outside "and
get pecked to death by Bowe's jab," but to struggle inside. As
they muscled each other around the ring, though, Holyfield began
to sense a mismatch. The best-conditioned athlete in this land
began to see that he was finally up against it. "In my mind,
things were going pretty bad for me," Holyfield said later, even
though he was leading on the scorecards through seven rounds.

Emanuel Steward, who trained Holyfield for his upset of Bowe,
saw it early on. "Evander was bone-tired from the second round,"
he said. "You know, [in his camp] they do all these exercises,
StairMasters, have these contests climbing ladders, but it's not
the same as muscling a guy around, bone on bone, that you get in
sparring. And I know for a fact, Evander doesn't like to spar.
He doesn't like to box. He was conditioned for exercises, not

Holyfield appeared flat-footed to begin the fifth round, unable
to raise his arms or get out of anyone's way. He looked empty.
When Bowe lifted him off the ground with a very low blow,
Holyfield was in bad enough shape that he thought about quitting
on the spot. "An easy way to go out of there," he would say
later. Of course, he couldn't quit. Would never. What he did, in
the sixth round, was launch a lunging left hook to Bowe's head,
a desperate punch that left Bowe on the canvas and utterly
senseless. Bowe got up, staggered backward and retreated to a
neutral corner, "where I knew the ropes at least could support
me." Bowe, in a great postfight speech about collecting himself,
would pooh-pooh the danger he was in. The fact is, one sharp
punch would have left him incapacitated for a long time. But
Holyfield, who had Bowe defenseless, could not finish him off.
"He taps Bowe on the shoulder," says Steward, "he knocks him
out. He couldn't even do that." As it turns out, Holyfield was
so physically spent that he did not have even one more punch in
him that round.

Bowe used the seventh round to gather himself, and then, as the
two traded punches in the eighth, he cracked Holyfield with a
right hand that downed him. Holyfield got up at the count of
nine, but Bowe quickly and easily sent him right back down with
two chopping rights to the head. The fight was over, 58 seconds
into the round. Their partnership was finally concluded.

Sadly, the lesson of Bowe and Holyfield is lost upon Tyson,
potentially the most charismatic fighter of this generation,
whose career continues to be arrested in a mythology that only
his handlers seem to still enjoy. He was supposed to make his
second comeback fight last Saturday night, hoping his bout with
a light-hitting Buster Mathis Jr. would restore his reputation
as the baddest man in America, in a way that his 89-second fight
with pizza pitchman Peter McNeeley had not.

The dueling promotions--Tyson's fight at the MGM Grand was to
headline Fox TV's sweeps-month effort on free television, while
TVKO was to show Bowe-Holyfield on pay-per-view half an hour
later--were a source of much conspiracy theory among the boxing
community, a family that is inflamed by paranoia to begin with.
It was Tyson promoter King against Bowe promoter Rock Newman,
Caesars Palace vs. the MGM Grand, Fox against TVKO (the boxing
pay-per-view-arm of HBO). The supposed provocations were
various, but most observers believed that Tyson, with King's
backing, simply wanted to put it to HBO in a continuation of a
feud that, like the Hatfields and McCoys, no longer knows its
own origins. For whatever reasons, the two promotions plodded
stubbornly toward a showdown that both would lose. Gaming
revenues in the casinos would be fragmented, even diminished, as
many fight fans would simply stay home to watch Tyson on free TV
and then buy the Bowe-Holyfield broadcast rather than descend on
Las Vegas. Ticket sales were down, though the MGM's live gate
seemed to be suffering the most. While Fox would surely score
big ratings with a Tyson fight, TVKO would probably take it on
the chin, losing some viewers who might think one fight is
enough and a second at $39.95 is way too much.

The rumored sabotages were semicomic. HBO sports president Seth
Abraham says that it's a sad part of his job to get inside the
mind of Don King. So it was that TVKO, not wanting to begin
Bowe-Holyfield until the conclusion of a Tyson fight, bought
satellite time into the wee hours of Sunday morning just in case
King decided to start the Tyson telecast late. There was even a
worst-case scenario in executive producer Ross Greenburg's TVKO
production book in which WBC champion Frank Bruno, at King's
behest, would jump into the ring following Tyson-Mathis and go
psycho, causing Fox to extend its boxing telecast, thus delaying

What happened was nearly as strange: Tyson bailed out of his $10
million payday last Tuesday, claiming he'd reinjured his
thumb--which he said he broke three weeks earlier--in a sparring
session. Examinations by well-regarded Las Vegas doctors
confirmed the injury to nearly everyone's satisfaction; injuries
do happen, and indeed they had happened four times before in
Tyson's career. Still, the skepticism the pullout engendered did
not contribute to the health of a troubled sport. The timing of
the withdrawal, if Tyson's injury really had been sustained
three weeks earlier, encouraged dark thoughts (many reporters
viewed the public workout the day before the pull-out
announcement as a setup, with Tyson first mentioning his sore
hand there). But even if everything was exactly as Tyson's camp
said it was, the affair still points to a comeback that seems
without direction, plan or much motivation (and for the moment,
without King, who has been in New York City for the past month
on trial for wire fraud). Somehow Tyson's dismissing the
cancellation as not even an inconvenience to his personal
finances ("It's not like I'm hurting for money," was his
extremely odd reaction) does not make his comeback any more

What Tyson cannot yet do, and wouldn't have done even in a
blowout of Mathis, is deliver on his mystique, one that
seemingly gained strength during his prison term for rape. His
aura of danger is now rapidly dissipating. What he hasn't done,
or won't do, as he culls easy marks for his comeback, is produce
a memorable fight. Sadly, he learns nothing from Bowe and
Holyfield, who have made three.

After Saturday's fight Lennox Lewis, the man whose gifts
certainly rival those of Bowe's, was at the press conference
demanding a fight. Presumably that will happen, perhaps as early
as March or April. There were reports that up the Strip, Tyson
was going to go after Bruno for his WBC title, also next spring.
Presumably Mathis will be bypassed. However, neither Bowe-Lewis
nor Tyson-Bruno seems as interesting nor as promising as any
single Bowe-Holyfield fight. But Bowe-Holyfield, let's face it,
is history.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Although Big Daddy rained blows on Holyfield's head all night, he held off the thunder until Round 8. [Riddick Bowe fighting Evander Holyfield]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Holyfield's desperate punch laid Bowe low, but that knockdown was only a prelude to his own demise. [Evander Holyfield knocking down Riddick Bowe]

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above--Evander Holyfield lying on canvas as Riddick Bowe walks away]

COLOR PHOTO: HOLLY STEIN/ALLSPORT Holyfield was down and out, and Bowe was up in the air celebrating his triumph in the rubber match. [Riddick Bowe celebrating victory over Evander Holyfield]COLOR PHOTO: LENNOX MCLENDON/AP Holyfield's valiant effort was applauded by Bowe, but Tyson drew fire after breaking his thumb. [Mike Tyson with broken thumb]

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above--reporter interviewing Riddick Bowe]