Holyfield says he was five weeks into training when he began to "taste iron in my mouth and get chills." A doctor told him he had hepatitis and advised him to call off the fight. Holyfield said, "It ain't that bad." But it got worse. He recalls thinking as he trained in Houston, Now I know why people contemplate suicide. I never felt so sick.
Holyfield says he didn't spar more than twice in the three weeks before the fight. Of course, it's well-known that Holyfield doesn't spar any more than he has to even when he's healthy. It's also known that Holyfield tends to contract ailments after the fact, especially after a loss. But he swears he sleepwalked through training. His fight plan was based on a short fight, one way or another. "I knew I didn't have time on my side," he says.
The third fight was a fitting capstone to their relationship, even if neither man was at his best. It was distinguished mainly by Holyfield's struggle to stay in the fight—he was thinking of quitting by the fifth round, although HBO's George Foreman speculated that Holyfield would leave the ring "in a pine box"—and by his staggering knockdown of Bowe in the sixth. Bowe, a 3-to-1 favorite after showing up for the fight at a trim 240 pounds, was as much startled as hurt. "I thought, That ain't right," he says. But he was hurt.
"What I need to tell you," says Bowe, "I wasn't myself for the next two rounds. I don't remember anything, didn't feel anything, didn't hear anything. I felt I was in a dream, I guess."
Holyfield thought the fight was over—hoped it was over—after that lunging left hook flattened Bowe. "I said, Oh, thank you," he says. "But that seemed like the longest count. And then when he get up at eight, and it was still early in the round, I got two minutes to put pressure on him, but I didn't have no energy. It just leaked out of me." Ringsiders believed a tap on Bowe's shoulder might have finished him for good, yet Holyfield was unable to press his advantage. It remains Holyfield's greatest disappointment, what he believes was a lapse in will. "It showed me something about myself," he says.
Then, astonishingly, Bowe returned in the eighth round, knocked Holyfield down once, then again with such finality that the ref didn't even bother with a count. Their splendid series was over, and, removed from each other, they seemed to lose their bearings, bit by bit.
What figured to open doors for Bowe and close them for Holyfield did the reverse. The loss briefly played to Holyfield's benefit, while the win seemed to announce Bowe's self-destruction. Their trilogy continued to offer back-and-forth even after its conclusion.
Holyfield was immediately placed in boxing's anteroom of retirement. Couldn't finish Bowe? Holyfield was a shot fighter, a diagnosis confirmed in his next bout, when he struggled mightily to beat Bobby Czyz in what was supposed to have been a walkover. But Holyfield refused to retire without his title—all of them, actually—disappointing everybody but King.
King had been running out of fodder in Tyson's comeback. The quality of the competition had been dispiriting, almost fraudulent, and it was important to throw in a quality name for Tyson's credentialing. Holyfield's marquee value, plus his obviously diminished skills, jumped him to the top of the list. He was legit and, better yet, no longer dangerous.
Boxing history followed: Holyfield easily defused Tyson's bullying tactics in their first fight, in 1996, scoring an 11th-round knockout of the bewildered fighter to win the WBA crown. Seven months later, in the rematch, Holyfield won by disqualification when Tyson bit his ear (both of them, actually).