By Cliff Rold
Nearly a decade ago, Evander Holyfield benefited from a disgraceful draw in his first unification bout with Lennox Lewis universally hailed as one of the worst decisions of the 1990s. A little more than a decade ago, a 48-year old George Foreman was jobbed out of the lineal World Heavyweight championship versus Shannon Briggs in a way which suggested Foreman was no longer wanted on the big stage. Empathy with both Lewis and Foreman should come easy to Holyfield after what occurred at the Hallenstadion in Zurich, Switzerland on Saturday night.
In what may go down as one of the worst decisions ever rendered in a Heavyweight title fight, the 46-year old former Olympian, four-time titlist, and two-time lineal World Heavyweight king Holyfield (42-10-2, 27 KO) of Atlanta, Georgia, 214 ½ lbs., landed the cleaner blows and controlled the tempo for most of twelve rounds only to be denied an earned fifth title by judging which could be seen by some as incompetence so epic it validates the decision of so many former fans to stay away from the Sweet Science. It was by no means a great fight; in fact, it was at times downright dull.
None of that changes what happened in the ring.
At 7’0, 310 ¾ lbs., the 35-year old Russian Valuev (50-1, 34 KO) retains his WBA belt and path to a rematch with 30-year old former titlist Ruslan Chagaev (24-0, 17 KO). Chagaev returns from the Achilles injury which cost him his belt in early February and this bout should increase the odds of another Chagaev victory when he ultimately meets Valuev again. Chagaev provided Valuev his only official defeat in April 2007 utilizing much the same strategy Holyfield employed.
The legendary old man came out bouncing on his toes, circling away from the long jab of the massive Russian. Holyfield attempted lead left hooks, Valuev right hooks when he got close, but neither landed anything to great effect as the seconds ticked by. A landing flurry in the final minutes was punctuated in the final ten seconds, a counter left hook slapping clean across Valuev’s chin, all for Holyfield in a clearly winning first round.
Holyfield stayed circling, forcing Valuev to miss a lazy right and popping another counter left. A jab to the chest forced a Valuev lead right uppercut off target before another Holyfield left hook popped Valuev leading to a clinch. A right to the body opened up another left hook and the same combination put Valuev off balance and towards the ropes, and Holyfield appeared out to a surprising two round early lead.
In the third, Valuev landed a double jab and slipped a left from Holyfield but showed some frustration, stepping back and taking a deep breath. Echoing chants from the Swiss urged on the smaller man, “Holyfield, Holyfield” circling the arena twice in the third. A hard right hand inside scored for Holyfield, rocketing sweat from Valuev’s head, a bright spot in a slow round. Both missed right hands in the closing seconds, but Holyfield ripped a few to the ribs as Valuev clinched. Again it was difficult not to score the round for Holyfield and a sense of drama began to build.
Slipping in and out of range with a fluidity evoking the ghosts of long-ago wars with Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson, Holyfield rocked Valuev with a left hook in close and then with a right and left before taking a smothered right uppercut in the final minute of round four. A right to the body echoed off the ribs of Valuev early in the fifth and Valuev continued to drop and shake his arms, unsure what to do to get Holyfield to stand still and be hit. A stiff jab bounced Holyfield backwards but Holyfield was able seconds later to crash another left hook off of Valuev against the ropes. Two more glancing left hooks slapped the face of Valuev as the giant attempted to clinch, and only a tepid jab sought defense of the title towards the bell.
Two more hard lefts and a smashing right got home for Holyfield in the sixth and Valuev, throwing the jab with more authority, would respond with a hard combination in the final minute. The best intended blows missed. Chants and the bounce in his step continued for Holyfield in the seventh as Valuev finally woke up a bit, doubling the jab and answering two Holyfield right hands with a right uppercut and straight right follow-up which momentarily froze the near 50-year old man.
Two hard rights and then another bounced off the head of Holyfield and another right countered over his jab as Valuev stepped up the pressure in the eighth. An exchange of jabs led to a lull in the action before a Holyfield left and Valuev right connected simultaneously. Valuev landed a final right in the closing seconds for his best three minutes of the night.
Two Valuev jabs kept Holyfield at bay to start round nine and a left hook knocked Holyfield off balance. Suddenly, fireworks, as Valuev followed with another hard shot and Holyfield immediately engaged with a hard left and right. Another Valuev right landed clean and the Holyfield left missed in counter. A right and left to the body landed for Holyfield in the closing seconds.
A booming right, followed by a left, ripped Valuev in the tenth as Holyfield’s road to victory grew shorter by the second. A left and right bounced off the shoulders of Valuev but Holyfield connected with a right to the body. Holyfield stepped in with another left and right in the final seconds, Valuev countering only with a clinch.
With only two rounds to save himself from ultimate embarrassment, Valuev had a left and right blocked by Holyfield. Two more lefts did connect for Holyfield at the halfway point of the eleventh and, after staying at the end of Valuev’s long left arm for much of the final minute Holyfield scored with another left prior to the closing bell.
Three minutes remained for what could only be assumed as certain, improbable accomplishment. Valuev needed a knockout to win and yet it was Holyfield scoring with three of a four-punch combination and nailing Valuev with a right and left at the beltline. In the final thirty seconds, two Valuev jabs backed Holyfield into a corner and Valuev stepped in with a hard right but Holyfield fired his own, escaped, and circled towards the closing clang. Valuev raised his arms in triumph once, then again, to cascading boos from the Swedes. The fans were far from done booing.
Michael Buffer’s pronouncement to applaud both men for their efforts was the first clue that something might be amiss in the scoring, almost as if he was trying to temper the inevitable response from the fans. It took only seconds to understand why. Guillermo Perez turned in a draw at 114-114 while Pierluigi Perez chimed in at 116-112 and Mikael Hook scored 115-114, all for Valuev. The crowd erupted with boos and it’s likely anyone who ordered this small pay-per-view in the United States joined them. BoxingScene scored the bout 117-111 for Holyfield. The referee was Luis Pabon.
No translator was available for the Valuev interview. Holyfield, grinning like a man whose been in Boxing for decades and seen it all, reacted with class. “I can’t be disappointed with what I did in the ring,” he offered. “I felt I did the things that were necessary to win and the judges, they score the fight, and whatever they score it that’s what it was.” Asked how he felt returning from a fourteen month layoff following a WBO title defeat to then-titlist Sultan Ibragimov, Holyfield stated he felt great, repeating it while shaking his head.
Holyfield rolled his eyes and appeared nearly to laugh as he was asked to compare Valuev to men like Lewis, Foreman, and Larry Holmes, but refused to verbally denigrate the big man, choosing his words carefully. “Well, you know, it’s quite different. He’s a big guy and I know he doesn’t have much experience, but he’s a big guy and facing someone seven-foot who decent, it’s difficult. He’s a good fighter, strong guy, he was able to do the things necessary to not get hit by a lot of punches, so, um, pretty good fighter.”
Asked what he thought was missing for him on the night Holyfield added, “I don’t think anything was missing. I hit him more times than he hit me I felt. I moved a lot, made him miss punches, and fought the fight that I felt was good for me to win. That’s the only thing you can do is your best.” Asked about the future, Holyfield, now officially 5-6-1 in this decade, gave no answer. “I don’t know. I’m going to have to go home and think about it, see what’s next on the drawing board…I’m happy the crowd was behind me and I’d like to thank the Lord Jesus Christ for giving me the strength to be able to do things that was necessary to perform the way that I did tonight.”
Once and forever one of Boxing’s all-time great warriors, if this is the final dance for Holyfield he exits the ring with his head held high knowing that, years past his prime, one of the best Heavyweights in the current world was given all he could handle and more.
On the undercard, 35-year old Super Middleweight Mads Larsen (51-2, 38 KO) of Denmark picked up his seventh straight win and first stoppage in over five years, blasting out 31-year old Italian Roberto Cocco (9-3, 5 KO) in seven easy rounds. Larsen’s only losses have come on a cut in 1996 and via narrow majority decision to longtime IBF titlist Sven Ottke in 2003. Both men weighed in as Light Heavyweights, Larsen at 172, Cocco at 171.
The fight was one-sided throughout, the Dane working behind his southpaw right jab to set up hammering flurries to the head and body. Larsen finished matters with authority in the seventh. With just less than half the round left, Larsen landed a snapping right hook, knocking Cocco off balance towards the ropes. Following his hurt foe, Larsen pawed before landing a ripping left uppercut, which snapped Cocco’s head towards the ring lights. A final left hook turned Cocco away from the action, his head resting on the top ring rope in surrender. Referee Josef Temml waved the bout closed at 1:49 of round seven.
In the televised opener, undefeated young Heavyweights put on what looked to have been a good show from the few rounds shown. 24-year old Francesco Pianeta (18-0, 11 KO), 242 ¼, of Italy kept his unblemished record with a unanimous decision over 27-year old Frenchman Johann Duhaupas (17-1, 10 KO), 223 ¼, by scores of 115-113, 116-112 and 117-111. The referee was Mikael Hook.
Women’s Flyweight: Eileen Olsveski (5-2-2) D10 Nadia Raoui (9-0-1, 3 KO)
The card was televised in the United States on pay-per-view, promoted by Sauerland Events.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]