"King's Crowning Glory". That was the moniker given tonight's heavyweight unification battle. "King's Frowning Robbery" is more like it.
Tonight was supposed to be a shining night for boxing. The sport's biggest fight set up the sport's two biggest men in a showdown that would finally, we hoped, provide one single unified heavyweight champion atop the sport. Instead, boxing fans were once again subjected to the disgusting scoring that continues to threaten what little legitimacy boxing has left. Every time boxing steps up to showcase it's glory, another black eye mars the sport we love.
Evander Holyfield, the centerpiece of the division since his inspiring victory over Mike Tyson, sought to unify his WBA and IBF belts with WBC and lineal claimant Lennox Lewis. Two years in the making, this fight overcame the conflicting demands of the sanctioning committees, the bitter posturing of opposing promoters, the contractual red tape of rival cable networks, and the astronomical purse demands of the principals. It seemed a miracle that the fight was signed, and as both Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis stood in center ring, for once everything seemed right in the sport.
At the opening bell, Lennox Lewis pounced on the smaller, older, but more experienced Holyfield. Firing his long jab and blue chip right hand, Lewis immediately sought the respect that he felt the champion, if not the boxing public, had long denied him. Landing in his first attempt, a confidence-filled Lewis pursued Holyfield across the ring. As Lewis flicked his jab, if not occasionally pawed with it, the distance between him and the Real Deal was wide. Holyfield attempted to connect with his challenger, but his reaching blows caught nothing but air. Lewis calmly fired back, hitting the champion with some thudding shots.
In the second, the fight continued, with Holyfield nearly sleep walking in the ring. As Lewis' reach easily kept Evander at bay, Lennox began firing more brutal shots, catching Holyfield with rights and lefts that visibly shook him to the bone. Offering little resistance (Evander landed 1 punch in the round) the 36 year old Holyfield appeared more concerned with making it to the third round.
In numerous pre-fight interviews, Holyfield claimed that he would knock out Lewis in the third stanza. The deeply religious Holyfield testified that God Himself had sent word that the third would deliver Holyfield's victory. Boxing fans, long bemused by such specific pronouncements, had written off the prediction as mere hype; a boastful soundbyte to generate pay-per-view sales among the casual fan.
But sitting in his corner after two lackluster frames, Holyfield seemed to believe his prognostication with the ferverence of the easiest mark. Smiling and praising God from his stool, Holyfield assured his worried corner that "this is the round y'all, he's outta here!". Hope that Holyfield would wake up was held by even the non believers, as his performance early in the fight suggested that he was either saving himself up for the third or was spent before the bout had begun.
God helps those who help themselves, and Holyfield charged out of his corner to begin the third full of life. Pressing Lewis, Holyfield finally managed to get inside and fire some punches of his own. It almost worked. Twice, Evander landed head snapping combinations that backed the lumbering Lewis against the ropes, and twice Lewis covered up and survived the assault. As Lewis took Holyfield's heat without melting, just as Holyfield had done in the two previous rounds, a good fight was shaping up. But it never came.
After winning the third, but failing to fulfill his promise, Holyfield slumped on his stool and appeared as discouraged as the gambler who had bet his entire stake on the KO3 proposition. When the fourth began, Holyfield's frustration overtook his stance, as he grudgingly plodded out to face Lewis again. The mental lapse was out of character for Holyfield, and just as the fight was getting started, he seemed removed from the task.
Lewis returned to his jab in the fourth, and it paid dividends. Although his left often pawed, and almost never retracted back into proper position, it was still enough to keep Holyfield too far away. With Lewis controlling the action with boxing's most basic tool, he neutralized Holyfield's offense, while peppering him with consistent punching. Although Holyfield landed two fantastic punches mid round, Lewis tallied the round in his column by spending the remaining 2:57 reaching out and touching Holyfield at will.
And so it went. In the fifth, in the sixth, and well past the seventh, Lewis controlled the entire fight. With Holyfield unable to get inside (and tied up effectively when he did get in), Lewis was afforded a pace that allowed him to find a deadly rhythm. Jabbing and throwing right hands, Lewis was careful not to overcommit to a haymaker that might leave him open. The result was a measured Lewis reaching out and finding Holyfield with everything he threw. His face swelling under the attack, Holyfield could do little more than wing giant punches that missed by a mile and looked as though they would not be threatening even if they had landed.
Falling far behind in the fight, Holyfield turned up the aggression in the eighth, focusing his attack on Lewis' midsection. Although he landed a number of blows downstairs, most of them were protected by the unusual highly worn cup of Lewis. Despite pre-fight complaints from Emanuel Steward about Holyfield's low-line, it was Lewis who benefited most from ill-fitting gear. Nonetheless, Holyfield was finally the one coming forward in the fight, and his body assault began to lower Lewis' hands.
In the ninth, with Lewis dropping his hands from fatigue and arrogance, Holyfield had in front of him the fighter he wanted: exposed and waiting to be tested. But he absolutely could not capitalize. Using little more than a short jab, Holyfield simply watched as Lewis hit him. Worse still, he also watched when Lewis would miss. Unable to make the most of the opportunities he clearly saw, Holyfield looked as shot as we've seen him.
The tenth round began with Lewis bleeding from a butt-induced cut over his left eye, and showing a bit of tentativeness for the first time. Holyfield tried to jump-start his chances by throwing hard shots, and finally landed some boot shaking blows of his own. As Lewis tried to tie up Holyfield, he caught more than a few clean punches on the chin, and the largely pro-Lewis crowd finally stood on it's feet. But it was too late. Holyfield's remaining energy was spent with this assault, by far his best of the night. Lewis survived and returned to his corner looking no worse than he had after any other round.
The Holyfield aggression continued in the eleventh and twelfth, but to no avail. Landing occasional big shots on Lewis, Holyfield was eating consistent jabs and right hands in between. Lewis' jab, while rarely stinging, still thudded into Holyfield with the power of a typical right, and controlled the pace of the bout. Clearly needing a knockout, Holyfield tried, but seemed more unable to deliver than unwilling to try. When the final bell rang, Lennox Lewis raised his hand over his head in victory, and by all accounts he had finally unified the title.
And then the scores were read.
The first judge, a woman named Jean Williams, had Holyfield ahead 115-113. The second judge, Stanley Christodoulou of South Africa, had a more expected 116-112 for Lewis. And the third judge, the always unpredictable Larry O'Connell, scored a bizarre 115-115, with Lewis trailing by 1 point going into the 12th(!)
Easily, this was the worst decision of the last 20 years. Worse than Whitaker-Chavez...by far. In the ring, Lennox Lewis dropped his jaw in utter disbelief. The sold-out New York crowd booed. The television announcers could barely hold their contempt.
Lennox Lewis, the fighter who had spent the 90's being ducked, avoided and maligned, was robbed blind. Love him or hate him, he completely dominated Evander Holyfield this night. There should have been no question. There should have been no controversy. Instead there it was again: boxing's ugly side.
Some will call it corruption and some will label it as incompetence, but who can deny that once again, with a chance to shine, boxing has again stumbled. The distaste that this type of outcome leaves will not wash away easily. The fans, who paid either $50 each to watch at home, or up to $1500 to be sardined in at ringside, are even bigger losers than Lennox Lewis. Although there was immediate talk of a rematch, why should the fans care? So that we can again have our pocket's picked by boxing's seemly underbelly?
In a post fight interview, the official who scored for Holyfield claimed that "I simply score the fight on blows that land". Despite ignoring the rules that rounds also be scored on effective aggressiveness, defense and ring generalship...the statistics do not justify her tally. Lennox Lewis was credited with landing 348 punches, a dominating 57% connect rate. Holyfield, by contrast, landed a more average 34%, while attempting only slightly more punches than Lewis landed.
Overall, it was a disappointing night. The war in the ring never materialized, and the scene outside the ring was equally uninspiring. Both fighters will likely rematch for big money instead of meet their required sanctioning body manadatories...but does boxing need a unified champion that badly? If what happened tonight might possibly happen again, then the answer is a resounding "No!".
-On the undercard, fans were treated to three less-than-scintillating matchups. In one, the WBC showed everyone just how awful their ratings are when their #1 heavyweight contender John Ruiz took on the uninspired Mario Cawley. Cawley, whose 14 month layoff began when he simply quit in his last pro bout, looked like he wanted to be anywhere other than in the ring. He rarely threw punches, and each of the four times he was knocked down, he looked like he would rather be watching on pay-per-view. Despite the four knockdowns, Ruiz looked less than stellar, clubbing Cawley with hard punches, but mostly waltzing with his challenger in a boring contest that ended by TKO4. Also undermatched was newly crowned junior middleweight champ Fernando Vargas, who walked through a game but unworthy Howard Clarke. Clarke flipped a decent jab and showed that Vargas could be hit with a left hook, but simply could not withstand the punishing power shots of the young champion, who also won by TKO4. In the final undercard bout, WBA welterweight titlist James Page turned in a performance that has welterweight killers DelaHoya and Trinidad frothing at the mouth for what would be an easy win. Page punished the late sub Sam Garr early with winging, overcommitted punches. Garr stunned Page, however, in the fourth by countering with shorter straight shots that dropped the champion. Page rallied when Garr tired later in the fight, having not made 147 in over 4 years. Garr came roaring back in the final two rounds with a spirited, if unfulfilled, rally that further served to tarnish Page's claim to a world championship. Page got the wide decision he deserved, but lost more in stature than he gained in victory.