At a ballroom in the mirage hotel in Las Vegas early last Saturday morning, Evander Holyfield was dancing. In his suite 26 floors above, Riddick Bowe had more pressing duties. He took a long, hot bath, followed by a 45-minute massage. Finally, dressed in a comfortable dark-blue sweatsuit, he emerged from his bedroom. He was on his way to a party to celebrate the world heavyweight championship he won two hours before, but numbing weariness had won out over high fashion. He held an ice bag against his swollen right eye. He made only a fleeting appearance at the party, and then, with the same grim determination that had carried him through 36 minutes of brutal combat, he walked to the suite of his manager, Rock Newman. Bowe wanted to watch the videocassette in Newman's VCR.
Gone was a tape from the 1988 Olympic Games, banished forever; in its place was a brand-new tape of Bowe's 12-round unanimous decision over Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight title. No more would Bowe watch his loss to Lennox Lewis in the super heavyweight final in Seoul. No longer would the 6'5", 235-pound Bowe, who was said to have quit under fire four years ago, watch and wonder why the world continued to question the size of his heart. "I've looked at that damn tape hundreds of times." he said.
The damn tape always showed the same thing. Against Lewis, Bowe had taken two standing eight counts in Round 2. As referee Gustav Baumgardt counted off the second one, Bowe raised his arms above his head and bounced on his toes. Alter reaching eight, Baumgardt put his arms around the shocked Bowe and said the fight was over.
Even after he had gone on to win 31 professional lights without a defeat, the loss to Lewis was the yardstick used to measure Bowe's fortitude. "Keep watching the fight," Eddie Futch, Bowe's wise old trainer, had ordered. "Just remember that they won't forget that one until you win the heavyweight championship."
Futch was never more right. In Friday night's historic bout Bowe emphatically erased all memory of that earlier fight. Ernie Pyle should have covered this war from ringside. Neither man danced, and neither took a voluntary step backward. Each man waded fearlessly into the guns of the other, no quarter asked, none given. Through 12 rounds Bowe and Holy-field painted a portrait of courage that will hang forever in the memories of those who watched.
The 25-year-old Bowe, who had fought his way out of a crack-ridden Brooklyn housing project, allowed himself a brief smile as the new videotape began to play in Newman's suite. Scenes of unimaginable courage filled the 20-inch screen. The pace of battle was furious as the two figures hammered each other with murderous volleys. "Yowser" was the tired champion's most vivid comment.
No one had expected anything less. Each fighter was out to prove something to a disbelieving public. Holyfield was unbeaten in 28 fights, but he was still regarded as a 30-year-old cruiserweight hiding inside a weightlifter's body. He won his title two years earlier against flabby Buster Douglas, who had shown up only for a payday. Holyfield had subsequently defended his crown against two overweight senior citizens—George Foreman and Larry Holmes—and an undertrained former drug addict, Bert Cooper.
Not that it had been a bad ride for Holyfield. For those four fights he earned $56 million, nice padding for a bank account already fat with the $9 million he had made in his 24 previous fights. For fighting Bowe, Holyfield will earn another $15 million to $18 million after all the pay-per-view returns are in.
Holyfield was out to show the doubters that he could fight the young, big and strong heavyweights, a category exemplified by Bowe. But during his recent bouts as a heavyweight, Holyfield made a distressing discovery: Added muscle does not mean increased punching power; the blows that had made him a dominant cruiserweight weren't enough once he started hitting the big people. They simply hit him back.
In the weeks leading up to the Bowe fight, Holyfield cut his weightlifting from four days a week to two. He was training for speed and mobility. "Thank god," said George Benton, Holyfield's trainer, an old Philadelphia fighter who views the modern boxer's retinue of ballet teachers, nutritionists, conditioning experts and weightlifting coaches with contempt. "In the old days all a fighter did was train and spar," he said. "That's all you need. Evander used to be so tired, he couldn't do either."