On a chilly night in Las Vegas, the first Saturday in November, a hush had fallen over the 13,500 fans packed into the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace.
George Foreman, commentating ringside for HBO Pay-Per-View, spoke out, “This man’s gonna end up in a pine box. He’s got heart trouble. It’s evident he can’t get his breathing together.”
This moment was preceded just seconds before by Foreman rising to his feet and screaming at referee Joe Cortez in hopes of halting the bout. “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”
We were in Round 5 of a Heavyweight battle between Riddick “Big Daddy” Bowe (37-1, 31 KOs) and Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield (31-2, 22 KOs).
The year was 1995 and Holyfield was in trouble, now taking relentless punishment from Bowe. Larry Merchant quickly opined, “He just became 33 going on 53.”
Boxing fans had now come to be conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, for this fall classic where anything could happen, and usually did when these two got together.
In November of 1992, Bowe had outpointed Holyfield and lifted the undisputed crown in the process. In November of 1993, Holyfield exacted revenge, winning the title back from Bowe with an unforgettable visit by Fan Man who crashed his paraglider into the ringside apron during the seventh round.
The Heavyweight division was in constant change. It was just 18 months before that Holyfield had lost the titles he had regained from Bowe to Michael Moorer. In a majority decision loss, Holyfield looked slow, tired and was in pain much of the fight. Shortly thereafter, the “Real Deal” was diagnosed with a heart condition.
After visits to the Mayo Clinic and later having told the world he had been healed, Holyfield returned 13 months later and scored an impressive win over Ray Mercer.
Meanwhile, the man they called “Big Daddy” had returned to the ring after the Holyfield loss to easily dispatch Larry Donald and Herbie Hide. In June of 1995, Bowe scored an impressive knockout over longtime nemesis Jorge Luis Gonzalez. The six-round beat down left Jim Lampley to exclaim, “I wasn’t sure we’d ever see him look this good again!”
The Bowe-Holyfield series was tied with a victory apiece. On the night of the third bout, Bowe was a 3-1 betting favorite.
The rubber match, billed as “The Final Chapter”, would settle the score with the winner eyeing a shot a guy named Mike Tyson who had returned to the ring after a four-year hiatus.
Bowe, in much better shape than in their second fight, wore his recognizable white trunks with red trim. He looked to snap his long left jab at Holyfield, stuffing it into his face during the early action. Bowe was doubling and tripling the jab while moving it up and down to Holyfield’s head and body.
Holyfield was garbed in gold trunks with black trim. His body, as was the usual, was cut up and well defined. He was, however, giving away three inches in height and 27 pounds to the much bigger Bowe.
Undaunted, Holyfield bounced on his toes and fired his own left jabs, answering Bowe punch for punch and launching quick, sizzling combinations.
The early action was fierce and competitive as both loaded up, threw and landed power-punching right hands.
The early rounds moved quickly while the crowd roared, applauding the high intensity and quick pace of the action. Bowe’s trainer, Eddie Futch, pleaded with Bowe to stay on the outside, maintain distance, and use his long left jab.
Holyfield spoiled the plan, staying inside on Bowe’s chest where the two traded uppercut bombs. Although crowd pleasing, Foreman questioned Holyfield’s strategy, “Holyfield is walking into this big man and absorbing punishment.”
Lampley concurred, “It looks like a suicidal strategy.”
Round 4 began with both men trading toe to toe at center ring. The crowd again rose and roared their appreciation. Merchant was in awe of the desire and heavy punching from both men. “Boy, that was some furious exchange guys. I mean, you don’t see big men doing that very often.”
As the round progressed, it became clear that Holyfield was slowing down as the bigger man in Bowe continued to land heavy artillery.
With Round 5 now underway, Foreman was on his feet screaming for the bout to be stopped. The round was difficult to watch and more difficult for Holyfield, now bleeding from his mouth, who absorbed tremendous punishment from Bowe.
Ever the warrior, he survived the round and had ring physician Flip Homansky waiting for him in his corner. Merchant sensed the end was near, “He’s done, I hope he doesn’t get hurt.”
Almost on cue, the two charged at one another to begin Round 6. In close quarters, both men exchanged huge left hooks. In an indelible moment that came right out of a Hollywood script, a crushing Holyfield left hook sent Bowe crashing to the canvas.
Lampley went bananas, “Down goes Bowe! First knockdown of Riddick Bowe’s career! Bowe’s out on his feet! It was a left hook that did the damage!”
A wounded and dazed Bowe rose to his feet. Merchant, who like most had counted Holyfield out just seconds ago, was in shock. “How can you ever count this man out? He is just amazing!”
Holyfield swarmed Bowe and threw everything he had in hopes of finishing the big man off. Bowe, to his credit, survived the Holyfield assault. It would turn out to be the last hurrah for Holyfield.
Dramatically, Round 8 began as if it were a mirror image of Round 6. While the two again exchanged at close range, this time it was Bowe who landed a right hook to the Holyfield jaw, depositing him on canvas.
Cortez administered the standing eight count. An onrushing Bowe did what Holyfield couldn’t do in Round 6, finishing his foe with an avalanche of leather.
As Cortez halted the bout, Merchant shared what most boxing fans were feeling. “What a fight! Once again they even exceed the highest expectations we had.”
The action packed affair ended at 58 seconds of Round 8. At the time of the TKO stoppage, Bowe proved he could rescue himself as he was down 66-65 on all three scorecards.
It was the first knockout loss of Holyfield’s career. As ring announcer Michael Buffer announced Bowe as the winner, the two fighters embraced.
The third installment of this fall classic proved to be the most brutal of their trilogy. It was entertaining and dramatic stuff that is sorely missed in today’s Heavyweight division.