“Down goes Lewis! And he caught a short left hand inside. Oliver McCall is going absolutely nuts! The crowd at ringside momentarily stunned.”
On September 24, 1994, Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and Gil Clancy sat flabbergasted at ringside. The shocked crowd inside Wembley Arena in London stood in stone silence. Oliver McCall had just knocked out WBC Heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis with a short left followed by an overhand right hand in the second round.
Chaos ensued as debate swirled around referee Jose Guadalupe Garcia’s decision to stop the fight. Was it stopped too soon?
Lewis was hammered with a sensational right hand that put him on the canvas early in the second round. He rose to his feet by the count of seven, clearly on wobbly legs, and then stumbled into Garcia as he halted the bout while embracing the now former champion.
The Lewis camp, as well as many boxing fans, cried that Lewis should have been allowed to continue. As the champion, he had earned the right to go out on his shield.
The new champion was interviewed at ringside after winning the title. If asked if the fight was stopped prematurely, McCall responded, “What y’all want me to do, kill the man?”
An immediate rematch was not in the cards. McCall went on to successfully defend his title against Larry Holmes. Ironically, in his second title defense against Frank Bruno, he would lose the title in the same arena in which he won it.
Lewis would begin his comeback eight months after the loss to McCall with a fifth-round TKO win over Lionel Butler. He would also secure knockout wins over Justin Fortune and Tommy Morrison. In the summer of 1996 he would eke out a majority decision over the iron chinned Ray Mercer in a brutal 10-round affair.
After Lewis and McCall had met in London, each had fought four times. McCall had secured two easy knockout wins, the unanimous decision over Holmes, and had lost the title to Bruno.
McCall was also making headlines outside the ring. He was arrested in July 1996 on charges of being in possession of crack cocaine and marijuana. He would enter a rehabilitation center in August. He was again arrested in December, accused of throwing a Christmas tree inside of a hotel lobby. Following that episode, McCall again found himself in rehab.
The press conference to officially announce their second fight was held in mid-December. McCall’s promoter, Don King, announced that McCall was again in treatment. He proclaimed, however, that he would be ready to fight Lewis in February.
Fittingly, in their second meeting, the WBC Heavyweight championship would again be on the line.
Mike Tyson had won that crown from Bruno in March of 1996, in yet another irony, from the man who lifted it from McCall. After a fight with the No. 1 contender Lewis couldn’t be made, the WBC stripped the title and declared it vacant.
On Friday night, February 7, 1997, McCall and Lewis would meet again. Approximately 4,500 fans packed the Las Vegas Hilton to witness the rematch for the vacant WBC Heavyweight crown.
Lewis (29-1, 24 KOs) was still ranked as the No. 1 contender by the WBC. McCall (28-6, 20 KOs) was ranked No. 2. HBO announced it would broadcast the rematch as Lewis was installed as a 4-1 betting favorite.
Another interesting twist had materialized after their first meeting. Legendary trainer Emanuel Steward was in the McCall corner the night he knocked out Lewis. In launching his comeback in 1995, Lewis hired Steward who would be in his corner as he prepared for the rematch.
McCall countered by hiring George Benton, a legend in his own right, as his trainer and chief second. Both were proven world-class fighters and had world-class trainers in their corners.
On fight night, a coin was flipped to determine who would enter the ring first. As James Brown’s “The Payback” rang through the Hilton, the 31-year-old Lewis made his way to the ring. Led by Steward, he wore white trunks and was bare chested wearing no robe.
Within seconds, McCall, also 31, exited his dressing room. Led by Benton, he too was bare chested and wore black trunks with red trim. McCall then sprinted to the ring, leaping over the stairs and onto the ring apron, leaving his entourage well behind him.
Michael Buffer then began the introductions of referee Mills Lane and both fighters.
The bell rang to begin the action. Both fighters engaged in more boxing than banging, using their jabs and taking turns moving forward, then backward. The early moments were dominated more by tempo than action.
Lewis, at 251 pounds, was nearly three-inches taller than McCall. His reach advantage was minimal as McCall used his long arms to land his jab while trying to close the distance. The plan looked similar to that of their first meeting as he looked to size up Lewis and to again drop that magnificent right hand.
As the second round began, Lewis began opening up and tagged the 237-pound McCall with several right hands. McCall, nicknamed the “Atomic Bull”, charged at Lewis. Lewis was ready and unloaded several strafing uppercuts that landed flush on McCall’s chin.
As Lewis was showing off his skills and landing clean power punches, McCall was showing off his chin, absorbing the Lewis power and appearing unfazed. As the bell sounded to end the round, Lampley summed up the action, “A round largely dominated by Lennox Lewis’ uppercuts.”
Lewis began pounding McCall with his jab in the third round. The tide was changing as Lewis began to take over. He was now standing flat footed, keeping McCall at a distance with his jab, and hammering him with straight jabs and right uppercuts as he continued to charge in.
As the third began to wind down, McCall’s charges had all but stopped as he only threw 15 punches in the round. Merchant summed up the third, “That was almost a two point round Lewis was so dominant.”
Lewis made his way to his corner while the most curious series of events began to unfold. McCall began to walk slowly around the ring, shaking his head in apparent confusion or frustration.
As he wandered, Benton stood in his corner, his face a mask of disbelief and disgust, waiting for a fighter who would not make it to him for instructions.
Sensing the opportunity to bring the action to a close, Lewis came out in the fourth and landed a thundering right hand. McCall again demonstrated that he had iron in his jaw as he appeared unharmed by the Lewis power. Instead of firing back, he turned and walked away from Lewis with his hands down at his sides.
Lampley, Merchant and George Foreman tried to make sense of what was unfolding in the ring. As Lane called time in an attempt to determine what McCall was doing, Lampley shared his feelings.
“This is a bizarre display. I’ve personally never seen anything like it.”
The crowd booed as the fourth round ended. McCall again wandered around the ring, refusing to go to his corner. Lane again intervened, speaking directly to McCall who had finally made it to his corner.
Then, the unthinkable happened as McCall began to fully unravel.
Merchant described the scene, “There’s something wrong with Oliver McCall. He’s near tears now. He doesn’t really want to fight. He’s crying in his corner. I’ve never seen anything like this. He’s overwhelmed with some sort of emotion.”
As the fifth round began, it was more of the same. McCall looked unwilling to fight. After one minute had elapsed, Lane stepped in and stopped the action. The official ruling was a TKO at 55 seconds of the fifth.
The punch-stat numbers were lopsided as Lewis landed 104 of 263 punches, while McCall landed just 26 of 75. McCall then exited the ring and headed back to his dressing room as some in the crowd began to throw trash at him.
Lampley announced the winner and new champion, “With a whimper and not a bang. Lennox Lewis has just become the WBC World Heavyweight Champion for the second time in his career.”
At a news conference following the fight, McCall commented, “My strategy was, and I know it sounds kind of absurd, was a kind of rope-a-dope.”
His rambling 40-minute attempt to explain what happened could be described as confused as he claimed that his crying was done to get him in the right emotional state.
McCall was suspended and his purse of $3 million dollars was initially held during an investigation. He was later reinstated and paid a $250,000 fine.
Lewis and McCall would not meet again. In a fascinating series of events, Lane would referee the Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield rematch in June, disqualifying Tyson for biting Holyfield in the third round.
The following month, in Lewis’s first title defense, Lane disqualified challenger Henry Akinwande in the fifth round for excessive holding.
Although the Heavyweight division was getting its share of bumps and bruises, Holyfield and Lewis were on their way to unifying the titles.