By Cliff Rold
Just a week ago, Christmas only days away, it was a gift he watched someone else unwrap. At the end of twelve rounds, Evander Holyfield was in the eyes of many denied a victory against current WBA titlist Nicolay Valuev. The performance was unexpected. For much of this decade, rightly so, fans and pundits alike have wondered when the old man would finally call it a day. With a record of 5-6-1 from 2001 forward, Holyfield has been a shell of the fighter he once was.
He’s still only a shell. Valuev, slow, ponderous and probably under-motivated for a fight he originally expressed no interest in, provided a canvas for Holyfield to paint another great underdog story on in a career full of them. It was not a great fight. There was a mirage quality to it all; a shadow against the flickering light of yesterday dancing much larger than its true size for a single Swedish night.
But it did dance.
After so many years of asking when he’d stop it was a night to celebrate what Holyfield once was one more time. It was good enough to end for a moment the question of when he’ll leave and just appreciate what he’s meant to the sport of Boxing. Nearly twenty-five years since emerging at the famed Los Angeles Olympiad, the question is asked:
How good is Evander Holyfield, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2. Competition Faced
3. Competition Not Faced
4. Reaction to Adversity
5. What’s Left to Prove
With that in mind, let’s head to…
The Tale of the Tape
Height: 6’2 ½
Homeland: Atlanta, Georgia
Turned Professional: November 11, 1984 (UD6 Lionel Byarm)
Record: 42-10-2, 27 KO
Record in Title Fights: 15-7-2, 8 KO
Lineal World Titles: World Cruiserweight (1988, 0 Defenses); World Heavyweight (1990-92, 3 Defenses; 1993-94, 0 Defenses)
Other Major Titles: WBA Cruiserweight (1986-88, 5 Defenses); IBF Cruiserweight (1987-88, 3 Defenses); WBC Cruiserweight (1988, 0 Defenses); WBC/WBA/IBF Heavyweight (1990-92, 3 Defenses); WBA/IBF Heavyweight (1993-94, 0 Defenses); WBA Heavyweight (1996-99, 4 Defenses); IBF Heavyweight (1997-99, 2 Defenses); WBA Heavyweight (2000-01, 0 Defenses)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 8 (Carlos De Leon, James Douglas, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Riddick Bowe, Michael Moorer, Mike Tyson, Hasim Rahman)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat or Draw: 4 (Bowe, Moorer, Lennox Lewis, James Toney)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 8 (Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Ossie Ocasio, Rickey Parkey, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, Ray Mercer, Bobby Czyz, John Ruiz)
Current/Former Alphabelt Titlists Champions Faced in Defeat or Draw: 4 (Ruiz, Chris Byrd, Sultan Ibraimov, Nicolay Valuev)
After a controversial referee’s decision left Holyfield disqualified and without Light Heavyweight Gold in Los Angeles, Holyfield made the most of the attention his Bronze Medal brought him, turning pro just past the professional Light Heavyweight limit. In 1986, he would capture the WBA Cruiserweight belt in only his twelfth pro bout in a fifteen round war against former Light Heavyweight titan Qawi. By his 18th bout in 1988, he’d unified the division and become its first undisputed champion, an honor no other fighter would achieve for approximately fifteen years.
After six straight KO wins at Heavyweight, Holyfield would add the Undisputed Heavyweight title to his honors in October 1990, stopping Buster Douglas in three rounds. Three defenses would follow before a classic loss to Riddick Bowe to November 1992, avenged days shy of one year later in the famous fan-man fight to make Holyfield only the third man in history to regain the lineal World championship. Holyfield would keep his second title less than a year, dropping it via majority decision to Michael Moorer in a bout marred by diagnoses of a heart problem for Holyfield. At the time, it seemed a certain end.
Enter faith healer Benny Hinn, passed medical tests, and Holyfield was back in the ring. A first stoppage loss to Riddick Bowe in November 1995, again brought cries for an end but Holyfield would soldier on and, in November 1996, stop Mike Tyson for the WBA Heavyweight belt. Three defenses would follow with an ear-nicking rematch win over Tyson and knockout revenge of Moorer for the IBF belt in 1997. By 1999, the only man left to face was then-lineal and WBC titlist Lennox Lewis for total unification. Holyfield fell short, first in a controversial draw few thought Holyfield came close to winning and then in a decision rematch which had a vocal minority favoring Holyfield.
In 2000, contracts, court rooms, and back rooms conspired to heist the WBA title off of Lennox Lewis and Holyfield captured the vacant strap in the first of three awkward fights with John Ruiz. It gave Holyfield at least some claim to being a four-time champion. Holyfield would lose a return bout and draw in a rubber match seen largely at the time as a bad decision against Holyfield. The years between the second and third Ruiz bouts in 2001, and the Valuev controversy in 2008, were mostly bad for Holyfield but it bears noting that, at 46, he came close to adding a fifth WBA belt.
Beyond titles, Holyfield was recognized as Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year in 1987, was the Boxing Writers Association of America’s choice in 1990, and was the selection of both organizations in 1996 and 1997.
He participated in the Ring Fight of the Year twice:
1992 – Bowe I; also selected as fourth best fight of the 1990s in February 2000; round 10 chosen as Round of the Year and, in 2001, selected as 12th most exciting round of all time.
1996 – Tyson I, also chosen Upset of the Year.
His first bout with Qawi was selected by Ring in 2002 as the greatest Cruiserweight fight of all time and his bout with Michael Dokes in 1989 was Ring’s choice for best Heavyweight fight of the 1980s.
Further accolades for the action of his bouts were cast in a 1996 Ring listing of the 100 greatest title fights in history which noted Qawi I (#46), Bowe I (#54), and Foreman (#96).
In 1998, Ring selected Holyfield third best Heavyweight of all time behind only Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. In 2002, Ring selected him the 22nd best fighter of the last 80 years, up from number 44 on a pre-Tyson win 1996 list of best fighters of the last 50 years.
Holyfield’s level of competition is, in a word, superlative even if the numbers he’ll close with are just okay. In a career of only 54 fights (so far) over a quarter century, there is very little chaff to accompany the wheat. As noted, Qawi came in only his 12th pro fight and he left almost no stone unturned at Cruiserweight. Two fights later, in 1987, he stopped Olympic teammate Henry Tillman and then moved on to unification with IBF titlist Rickey Parkey, stopping him in three. A rematch with Qawi would end in four rounds, setting up a shot and lineal champion and 80s Cruiserweight stalwart Carlos De Leon in 1988. Eight one-sided rounds later, all the Gold belonged to Holyfield and it was off to the great Tyson chase.
Veteran James Tillis was stopped in 1988 as was former titlist Pinklon Thomas; another former titlist, Michael Dokes, and an undefeated Alex Stewart fell in 1989. Having become the mandatory for the WBA, WBC and IBF titles, Holyfield appeared locked in for a June 1990 shot at Tyson but fate, and Buster Douglas, would intervene. Casino mogul Steve Wynn stepped in with lavish purses to make Douglas-Tyson II fall in line behind Holyfield-Douglas in October 1990. Holyfield showed up in peak shape; Douglas allegedly ate pizza in the sauna; Holyfield KO3.
Over his next three fights, Holyfield would become a subject of criticism from a public who saw him as “not Tyson.” A war with 42-year old George Foreman in April 1991, including a fabulous seventh round, was supposed to set up the Tyson showdown for November 1991. A busted rib for Tyson during training sit-ups and looming rape trial again destroyed the hopes for the fight the world wanted most of all.
Holyfield scrambled for a replacement foe, sorting through names like Francesco Damiani and Alex Garcia before settling on Bert Cooper. It almost turned out to be the wrong choice as, after dropping Cooper with a first-round body shot, Cooper would knock Holyfield loopy in the third, the champion falling face first to the ropes for his first official knockdown. Holyfield recovered though and in the seventh would end matters in the ring…even if setting up more criticism outside the ring.
Still “not Tyson,” Holyfield would next face 42-year old former champion Larry Holmes in June 1992 in what might have been considered a genuine farce were Holmes not coming off an upset of undefeated 1988 Olympic Gold Medalist Ray Mercer. Holmes kept it close and exciting through six rounds, but the second half was tentative and tedious, marred by a nasty cut to Holyfield’s eye and concluded with a weary Holmes throwing up in the corner.
The first two legs of the Bowe trilogy were up next, with an Alex Stewart rematch sandwiched in between and the Moorer loss to follow. With fans wondering post-Moorer if he should even be in the ring, Holyfield engaged in a dramatic battle with Mercer in 1995 over ten rounds, becoming the first to score a knockdown of the iron-chinned former soldier and capturing an earned decision. The final chapter with Bowe saw each man hit the deck; Holyfield stayed there but it was another war and did nothing to harm either man’s reputation in retrospect.
A bout with former Cruiserweight titlist Bobby Czyz got no one excited in June 1996 and, with Mike Tyson out of prison, Holyfield was seen as cannon fodder heading into their first bout. Some openly worried he’d be killed in the ring; others merely figured him for an early knockout loss. Proving the skeptics wrong, Holyfield would never be “not Tyson” again, scoring a dramatic 11th round stoppage. Much of the competition to follow was covered in the accomplishments section so we skip ahead his post-Ruiz years.
Prior to Valuev, it appeared the last remarkable night for Holyfield had occurred in the summer of 2002. An underdog, as he had been against Qawi, Douglas, Bowe the second time and Tyson, Holyfield dominated a Hasim Rahman who was once removed from trading the crown back and then forth with Lewis. The fight is often remembered for a Holyfield headbutt which may have been intentional (something Holyfield was accused of often over the years) and which did raise a slasher movie level swelling on Rahman’s forehead. So memorable was the injury which forced the fight to the cards after eight rounds that many forget just how easily Holyfield controlled the action throughout.
Since Rahman, his level of competition has stayed pretty strong but with bad results. The elusive Chris Byrd befuddled him; former World Middleweight champion and then-Cruiserweight king James Toney stopped him; Larry Donald jabbed him into submission, all of them too fresh and fast for a Holyfield whose ability to fight in more than occasional spurts was gone. A WBO title shot against Sultan Ibragimov in 2007 and the WBA shot at Valuev in 2008 came after a brief winning streak against modest foes to round out the most notable men Holyfield faced.
Competition Not Faced
As noted in previous editions of “Measured Against All-Time,” this section is not concerned with why fights didn’t get made. It simply embraces their lack of existence.
So who didn’t Holyfield fight?
Well, he hasn’t faced either Wladimir or Vitali Klitschko. At least not yet and, no matter how he looked against Valuev, let’s hope not ever. Both men came of age after Holyfield had just plain aged so they are hard to note as misses.
It’s hard to note many misses at all for Holyfield, though as with any fighter there are some. At Cruiserweight, Cooper was proposed as a foe but Cooper’s issues with drugs and some bad losses held that off until later. Holyfield never faced any of the myriad mediocrities which clogged the title picture in the mid-1990s (Frank Bruno, Oliver McCall, Frans Botha, Henry Akinwande, Bruce Seldon) and might have made a good fight with David Tua or Andrew Golota in the late 1990s or early 2000s. In the first half of the 1990s, Holyfield versus Razor Ruddock, Tim Witherspoon or Tommy Morrison could all have been intriguing affairs. To his credit, none of the misses can really be considered significant. On the scales of comparison, Holyfield faced more than he did not by a good measure.
Reaction to Adversity
The Holyfield legend is built in large part on his stubborn resistance in dire moments and in overcoming objections. Legend had it he took up Boxing when told he was too small to play Football. He heard he was too small to compete at Heavyweight and yet became a great one.
Let’s address the too small argument at heavyweight first. It was, then, now, and always a little bit absurd. Holyfield turned pro at 177 ½ and was at 202 in his 19th fight less than four years later. For those who said he was a blown up Light Heavyweight, it’s important to note he never weighed in at or below that division’s limit as a pro. As to charges of blown-up cruiserweight, Holyfield was no smaller, in some cases was naturally larger than, Heavyweight legends Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis. He weighed more defeating Douglas (208) than Joe Frazier did beating Ali (205 ½). Holyfield, for approximately 80% of his career years in the ring, was a Heavyweight.
In the ring, Holyfield showed remarkable ability to both adjust under pressure and never quit. Against Qawi, he absorbed punishment which could have folded men with twice the professional experience and yet persevered. Against Cooper, Bowe, even Tyson in the fifth round of their first bout, Holyfield showed not only chin but recuperative ability few fighters have. Holyfield knew not only how to fight but how to fight back when he was hurt.
Holyfield also had a capacity to learn. For the Bowe rematch, he changed tactics, boxing and moving where in the first fight he’d charged into the right jab all night. In the third fight, low on energy, he took the fight inside and fought one even terms, dropping Bowe in the sixth before succumbing in the eighth. Moorer’s southpaw style and jab bugged the hell out of him in 1994 but in the rematch he took the jab away and dropped his rival five times. Even after the drubbing he took in the ‘draw’ with Lewis, it was Holyfield whose game made the second fight. Jabbing to the chest and raising the angle of his right hand, Holyfield stunned Lewis a few times with newly created offensive openings. A case could be made that, in the end, the results in the Lewis fights were correct on their records if in the wrong order.
What’s Left to Prove
The only thing Holyfield has left to prove is whether or not he knows how to do anything besides Boxing. At 46, he won’t be proving much else. Surprising as his performance against Valuev was, there were some fleeting moments of concern. On more than one occasion, Holyfield’s stick and move strategy saw him reaching out his right hand to the top rope to keep his balance. This was in moments where he wasn’t being hit. His legs are not there anymore and those concerned about his well-being, should he continue, still have every right. While this piece generally celebrates Holyfield, there are still cautions necessary.
Measured Against History
We return now to the original question: How good is Evander Holyfield, measured against all-time?
At Cruiserweight, he remains the standard by which all competitors are measured, its greatest fighter and champion some twenty years after he reigned there. Less than thirty years old, it used to something said with a wink and nod towards an unremarkable and young weight class. However, the early 2000s have been good to Cruiserweight, producing great fights and some excellent champions and titlists. Being the greatest of the Cruiserweights is starting to mean something because the division is starting to have a history worth noting.
His rating at Heavyweight is a trickier question. In retrospect, the glow of the Tyson win got him slightly overrated by some. His greatness isn’t questionable; he obviously accomplished a lot. He was in truly classic fights, excelled in one of the most talented decades the big men ever saw, and is one of only five men ever to recapture the lineal World Heavyweight crown (George Foreman and Lennox Lewis joined Ali and Patterson after Holyfield as repeat champions; Ali still holds the record at three reigns).
However, Holyfield’s Heavyweight tenure from the first Bowe loss through the Rahman bout was inconsistent. When he was up for a fight, he could be remarkable; when he wasn’t fans saw listless outings like the first bouts with Moorer and Lewis, the dreadful Vaugn Bean bout, and the dull Stewart rematch. It’s not to say the good didn’t outweigh the bad; it did. But when one gets to the level Holyfield did, greatness is measured in slivers of difference and the negatives probably keep him outside of a top five all-time which should feature Joe Louis, Ali, Holmes, Jack Johnson and Foreman.
Each of those men, sans Foreman, showed greater consistency at Heavyweight over longer periods of time, had more remarkable title reigns, and in the cases of Ali and Johnson faced better overall opposition. Foreman, who competed at high levels in the packed 70s and 90s on the way to the crown in both decades, more than earned his place even if neither of his tenures as champion was all too remarkable.
From there, Holyfield can easily fit anywhere in slots 6-10 depending on how one makes the case for him. His resume, longevity, and the quality of his opponents stacks just fine with Frazier, Dempsey, Marciano or even a Lewis whom Holyfield couldn’t get by. He can also make a strong case to rate in front of some notable names like Jim Jeffries, Sonny Liston and well in front of a Gene Tunney whose Heavyweight chops are often massively overstated.
Finally, Holyfield is easily in any argument about the top fifty overall fighters of all-time, but probably outside the top twenty-five. His relatively low number of fights across so many years should call into question how he would have fared in eras where durability and regular appearances were held at high premium, but it’s no guarantee that all the old-timers would have excelled in the modern era of long gaps between fights and the high premium held at keeping undefeated for years at a time to get title shots.
Heavyweights in most eras have had fewer fights than smaller brethren because they’ve made enough to avoid having to hit the ring as often. His number of quality opponents is probably superior to Marciano’s and his best wins were against men much closer to their prime. A fringe involvement in steroid scandal (“Evan Fields”) was no credit, but it came well into his 40s and did not touch upon his peak years in the 1980s and 90s.
Some might look at the number of losses he’s had and scratch their heads at top fifty notions. Put into perspective, while his final loss total will probably equal out to just shy of 20% of his fights, depending on if he continues his career post-Valuev, the world knows at least the last loss was highly questionable and that seven of ten losses came after the age of 37. To his credit, only sharper tacticians like Toney, Byrd, and Larry Donald were truly able to dominate Holyfield once his reflexes had started to leave him. Tough journeyman Lou Savarese and fringe contender Fres Oquendo couldn’t beat him past his 40th birthday, titlist Ibragimov had to work for it, and Valuev needed every benefit of the doubt.
While he might not have had as many fights, or wins, as some other legends, his stature in his time, the displays he put forth, and the memories he created will stand the test of time. If Valuev was the last great memory, it was a pleasant surprise in a holiday season designed for them.
Verdict Evander Holyfield: All-Time Great
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Joe Calzaghe – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=16920
Oscar De La Hoya – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17277
James Toney – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17450
Next up: Shane Mosley prior to his January bout with Antonio Margarito
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org