Of all the great collaborations—Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby, Penn and Teller—none have been so reliably satisfying as Bowe and Holyfield. Through three major productions, the two have created a level of excitement that continues to elude their contemporaries in boxing. Each time out, despite the familiarity gained in previous rounds against each other, they fashion a fresh drama. It's amazing that their partnership never grew stale, though we must presume it finally concluded last Saturday in the chilled desert air of Las Vegas.
Their third meeting was, in its way, every bit as spectacular and unpredictable as their first two. In the first fight, held in 1992 when both were undefeated, Riddick Bowe, then 25, held sway in the fight of the year. That one was marked by one of boxing's best rounds, when Bowe nearly submerged the drooling and vacant Evander Holyfield early in the 10th and then had to fight for survival in the space of just three minutes. The second bout, held in 1993, is remembered almost as much for the Fan Man, the paraglider who interrupted the fight, as it is for Holyfield's valiance in regaining the upper hand and his WBA and IBF heavyweight titles.
And then there was last Saturday's rubber match at Caesars Palace, in which Bowe was knocked down for the first time in his professional life—he was a standing dead man in the neutral corner—and in which Holyfield was knocked out for the first time in his. The detonations, spaced only two rounds apart in the ebb and flow that these fighters have made their signature, were astonishing, breathtaking. The drama was everything that was right about boxing, coming after a week that was, until fight time, more famous for X-rays of Mike Tyson's broken thumb than anything else.
Of course, the conclusiveness of this ending, with an exhausted Holyfield getting hammered hopelessly ink) the ropes early in the eighth round, effectively rules out any further meetings. No matter. This tandem need not endure—as, say, the Captain and Tennille—to make history. In only 94 minutes of boxing, Bowe and Holyfield have been delivered straight into Ali-Frazier country, their careers forever defined by their repeated and concussive collisions.
Ever since Holyfield came back to unseat a fat and unmotivated Bowe in their return match, a third bout was preordained. But the matchup took two years to put together. During that period Holyfield lost his titles immediately to Michael Moorer in a stunning upset on April 22, 1994, and retired three days later, after a heart condition had been diagnosed. Ultimately the diagnosis was reversed, and Holyfield began a comeback this year. Bowe, whose ascent through the ranks was viewed as either arrogant or independent, suffered terribly when he lost his titles to Holyfield in their second fight. His political clout within the sport was suddenly gone, and he was frozen out of the world rankings. As promoter Don King regained control of the heavyweight titles and began to safeguard them for Tyson's release from prison, neither Bowe nor Holyfield could make a big-money bout—except with each other.
The quality of their first two matches was substantial enough that promoters could easily fund fighters' purses of $8 million each, minimum. Bowe-Holyfield was a reliable producer of revenues. The two previous fights are among the top-grossing pay-per-view fights in history. Like movie properties, boxing sequels can go only so far. But a third Bowe-Holyfield fight, even if Bowe was heavily favored, was not exactly milking it.
Bowe, 28, having nearly regained his Holyfield I glory, was regarded as the finest heavyweight in the ring today even before Holyfield III. Younger by five years, bigger by 27 pounds and taller by 2½ inches than Holyfield, Bowe predicted that he would smash his 33-year-old opponent this time around. He would either knock him out, he said, or "make him quit."
Holyfield, meanwhile, was similarly confident. For his part, he was going to knock Bowe out. Holyfield had never before made a prediction like that. For him, it was an absurdity. "Whistling in the graveyard," Bowe suggested.
That was about as much bravado as they could come up with. After 24 rounds that were as close to life and death as fighters get, they have come to an easy and mutual admiration of each other. Holyfield admires Bowe's skills; Bowe, Holyfield's heart. "I think I'm starting to like you," Bowe told Holyfield at one point. There are a few things they continue to disagree about. Bowe still thinks Holyfield looks like a "gargoyle." And Holyfield still thinks Bowe is a dirty fighter. In a face-to-face appearance on ESPN, during which they watched and analyzed their previous fights, Holyfield accused Bowe of many low blows and an annoying need to get the last punch in. Bowe apologized and covered his smirk with his huge hand. Holyfield glowered. Watching them, you couldn't help thinking how domestic they had become.
Once they reentered the ring, their odd marital relationship was out the window. So were the fight plans they had previewed for everybody. What was supposed to be boxing—each believed he'd had his finest moments against the other when he jabbed instead of slugged—degenerated quickly into in-fighting, as the combatants stood forehead to forehead and ripped uppercuts and rib shots into each other. Holyfield had decided not to fight outside "and get pecked to death by Bowe's jab," but to struggle inside. As they muscled each other around the ring, though, Holyfield began to sense a mismatch. The best-conditioned athlete in this land began to see that he was finally up against it. "In my mind, things were going pretty bad for me," Holyfield said later, even though he was leading on the scorecards through seven rounds.