They invited two heavy-weights to a title fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas last Friday night, and neither came. Rather than a champion, they got Evander Holyfield, who was paid $16 million and who gave a 36-minute demonstration of caution. On the other side was Larry Holmes, once one of the great champions but now fat and 42. Like a lot of disgusted fans, Holmes threw up when the 12-round dance was done, right there in the ring. For all that, he got $7 million.
Somewhere Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano were screaming.
Holyfield won this charade of a fistfight by unanimous decision, probably because he grew cautious after Holmes accidentally hit him with an elbow late in the sixth round and chopped open a hole over his right eye. For the rest of the evening the closest that the bloodied 29-year-old Holyfield came to Holmes was at the end of each round as they passed on their way to their respective corners. Holyfield didn't run, he just remained well out of harm's way. Holmes didn't run because he couldn't.
The fans kept waiting for the old Larry Holmes to show up. What they got instead was an old Larry Holmes. The pride was still there, and that great heart which had carried him to 54 victories in 57 fights, but the old hammer of a jab was now more of a running back's straight-arm. When Holmes remembered to use his right hand, which wasn't often, he looked like an older sister trying to show her kid brother how to throw a slider.
Facing these enormous dangers, Holyfield the Hesitant circled the perimeter and studied the terrain for hidden dangers. A booby trap, perhaps, or an opponent who does not eat prunes for breakfast. "Look out!" came the cries from his corner. "Don't fall into a trap." Nobody hollered for him to hit the other guy in the mouth.
Somewhere Doc Kearns, Ray Arcel and Charley Goldman were screaming.
Early on, Holyfield tried to make a fight of it. He is a warrior, unafraid and fierce, but one unfortunately programmed by his strategists to perform with caution. George Benton is one of the finest trainers in the game, but none of his students will ever be caught leading a bayonet charge. "My old trainer taught me one important thing," says Benton, a former middleweight contender. "Win this fight. Look good in the next one." By that rule Benton runs a highly successful school, which is fine—for everyone but the heavyweight champion of the world.
Boxing fans are content to have the featherweight champion be an artist. Willie Pep, who once won a round without throwing a punch, had more moves than a Las Vegas chorus line. Welterweights are in a puncher's division, but Sugar Ray Robinson dazzled audiences even when he didn't knock anybody down. However, the big men are subject to different demands. Only Muhammad Ali, the ultimate craftsman, was forgiven for relatively nonviolent virtuoso performances.
Like Floyd Patterson, who followed Marciano as heavyweight champion, Holyfield is finding respect difficult to come by because his reign almost immediately follows that of Mike Tyson, one of the most powerful punchers in history. Perhaps because Patterson and Holyfield share kindred deficiencies, their careers seem closely parallel. Patterson was a laboratory-created small heavyweight; so is Holyfield, who was crafted by Benton, Lou Duva and a host of conditioning experts. Each was protected early in his career. Neither was or has been overly popular.
After he won the title in 1956, Patterson, a heavyweight with a middleweight chin, defended his crown against the likes of Pete Rademacher, an Olympic champion making his pro debut; Roy (Cut and Shoot) Harris; and Tommy (Hurricane) Jackson. In 1959 he lost the title to Ingemar Johansson, who dropped him seven times in the third round. "If they hadn't stopped it," said one wag, " Patterson would have won because Johansson was exhausted."