Early in the seventh round last Saturday night, just as Evander Holyfield was settling into a pace that he thought would carry him to victory over heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, a paraglider descended out of the chilly Las Vegas night sky and crashed onto the ropes of the outdoor ring. Holyfield forgot about Bowe. Instead, his thoughts turned to Monica Seles, the tennis player who was stabbed by a demented fan in April. "I didn't know what he was going to do, attack me or Bowe, but I tried to get out of the way," said Holyfield. "I was afraid he might have a gun or a bomb."
Fortunately the paraglider, one James Miller of Las Vegas, was unarmed, as well as being slightly unhinged. After a 21-minute delay, during which Miller was removed on a stretcher, Holyfield was once again on his way to reclaiming the title that Bowe had taken from him a year ago. "Bowe and I fought two different six-round fights tonight," said Holyfield shortly after his victory by a majority decision. "In the first one, I was just getting ready to go toe-to-toe with him when that guy dropped in. I was in a rhythm, and I felt like I could outgun him. I started to get upset [during the delay], but then I realized it was the same for both of us. With that cleared from my mind, I just went out and got my rhythm back."
In those first six rounds it was Holyfield the bulked-up cruiserweight throwing sand against a brick wall. Through the last six it was Holyfield the 217-pound heavyweight slamming his 246-pound nemesis at will, backing Bowe up and nearly closing the champion's left eye. Battered and bloodied, Bowe fought back gallantly, but he couldn't match Holyfield's assault.
This was a far different Holyfield from the one who had lost a lopsided decision to Bowe in their first battle. For that bout Holyfield trained as though Bowe were still only his sparring partner, a happy-go-lucky amateur without a lot of heart. "You couldn't get him to do anything," says George Benton, Holyfield's trainer at the time. "Some days he refused to work at all. Every day he had a different ache or pain."
Holyfield admits that he grew lazy before that first fight. "I stopped liking what I was doing," he said last week, "and when that happens, you no longer exert yourself. I stopped going to the wall."
Worse, on fight night he refused to follow the battle plan that had been mapped out for him by Benton and Lou Duva, his other strategist. "We wanted him to box Bowe, to move on him," said Duva. "Instead, he stood there against a 235-pound giant, trying to knock him down."
It was a matter of pride, says Holyfield. When he had knocked out a bloated Buster Douglas to win the championship in 1990, critics scoffed that he had succeeded only in defeating a fat pretender. But Holyfield did not help his case by choosing to make his first title defense against George Foreman, an old man. Then journeyman Bert Cooper knocked Holyfield down before the champion rallied to score a technical knockout in the seventh. Holyfield had wanted to prove himself, to fight Mike Tyson, but an injury to Tyson forced the cancellation of their first bout, in November 1991, and Tyson's rape conviction erased the second date. So Holyfield had to settle for Larry Holmes, another old man who went the distance.
"They said I couldn't knock anybody out," Holyfield said last week. "It was getting to me. I was confused. I wanted to settle down and live the good life, but I wanted the respect. I was being pulled in two different directions. Then I fought Bowe and I forgot about winning; all I thought about was that I had to knock him out. Winning wasn't the thing; knocking him out was."
Holyfield's obsession was his downfall. He went into the trenches with the bigger, younger man who also had something to prove. Ever since his loss to Lennox Lewis in the finals of the 1988 Olympics, Bowe had been unable to shed the label that he had no heart. So when Holyfield and Bowe met at Las Vegas's Thomas & Mack Center, Bowe won the heavyweight title by unanimous decision.
The pressure gone with his crown, a more relaxed Holyfield announced his retirement and returned to Atlanta to teach his eight-year-old son how to play football. He rode horses on his ranch, took some acting lessons and lived the life of a wealthy country gentleman. Then he began listening to the advice that he was imparting to his son, an 80-pound offensive and defensive end.