The glorious second coming of Evander Holyfield had manifested itself a full year previous to his rematch with Michael Moorer, but it remained for some boxing fans a happening difficult to believe in. Or at the very least, one they were still getting used to. Yes, Holyfield now held the WBA version of the world’s heavyweight championship after shocking back-to-back wins over Mike Tyson, and yet, for those of little faith, memories persisted of a boxer who, not long ago, had looked finished, an empty shell of his former “Real Deal” self. Those impressions emanated from three bouts in particular: his decision loss to Moorer in 1994; a stoppage defeat to Riddick Bowe the following year; and then a win over former middleweight Bobby Czyz in April of 1996.
In all three matches, Holyfield performed erratically, was easy to hit, and seemed burned out, which made sense considering everything Evander had been through up to that point. He had absorbed tremendous punishment in his wars with Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Michael Dokes, Alex Stewart, Bert Cooper and Bowe, and besides, some did not rate this former cruiserweight champion as a full-fledged heavyweight in the first place. Watching him take punch after punch in his first battle with Bowe, when “Big Daddy” outweighed him by more than 30 pounds, inspired sincere concern for his welfare, and more than a few urged him to hang up the gloves. One of those was his long-time trainer Lou Duva, who walked away when Evander spurned his advice to retire.
But then came the wholly unforeseen resurgence. Tyson had enjoyed a resurrection of his own after his prison term, returning to wreak havoc on the heavyweights and, after dispatching a cast of no-hopers, he elected to defend his WBA championship against “The Real Deal.” The notion that Holyfield was completely shot was so widespread that he opened as an astonishing 25-to-1 underdog to “Iron Mike” and some decried the bout as a dangerous mismatch. The Nevada State Athletic Commission even insisted Holyfield undergo a battery of extra medical tests before they would allow the fight to happen.
Evander’s stoppage of Tyson in November of 1996 stands as one of the biggest upsets in boxing history; his win by disqualification in the rematch, the famous “Bite Fight,” will forever be one of the most controversial. And thus a boxer most thought fit only for retirement had transformed himself, literally and figuratively. His bulked-up physique and physical domination of Tyson took him from being a courageous fighter who just wasn’t big enough to dominate at heavyweight, to one who was now considered a latter-day great. (And for the purposes of this nostalgic exercise, we’ll set aside the possibility that steroids may have played a role in all this.) But for Holyfield to come all the way back and sway the skeptics, not to mention solidify his standing as the legit champion of the division despite Lennox Lewis holding the lineal and WBC titles, a rematch with southpaw Michael Moorer made a great deal of sense.
The fortunes of the two fighters had reversed after their 1994 meeting when Evander had surrendered his titles by a majority decision. In his first defense after defeating Holyfield, Moorer had suffered a truly historic one-punch knockout loss to George Foreman, before eventually regrouping and winning the IBF version of the heavyweight title in June of 1996. But he couldn’t shake the reputation of an underachieving fighter and his most recent outing, a decision win over Vaughn Bean, was an example of defeat in victory as his performance was so flat and uninspiring that his trainer, Teddy Atlas, abandoned him immediately after.
Still, there was no questioning the fact that Moorer was one of the top fighters in the division and he did own a legit win over Evander so the stage was set: a unification match and a chance for Holyfield to not only gain revenge, but to also prove his wins over Tyson did not represent some kind of aberration. The first Holyfield vs Moorer fight had been marked by some memorable theatrics from Atlas, but more by Evander, only 32, looking like an aged fighter as he struggled with fatigue. He was hospitalized after the bout and diagnosed with a heart condition which prompted a short-lived retirement. Those problems were nowhere to be found in his victories over Tyson; would they resurface now?
In fact, right from the start of the rematch, the three-time champion looked livelier and sharper than he ever had against Moorer in ’94. Quicker, more mobile, Evander began by securing the distance he wanted, something he had managed rarely in the first meeting, while countering Moorer’s jab. But the most telling blow of the opening stanza was struck by the southpaw when a counter right hook briefly staggered Holyfield and he was chased to the ropes. That exchange set the tone for the rest of the fight as both men were more than happy to trade big punches at close range and in the second round, to the crowd’s delight, that’s exactly what they did.
By round three, Holyfield vs Moorer II was officially a full-on heavyweight brawl as Evander countered southpaw jabs with thudding left hooks and then followed up with powerful blows to Moorer’s rather soft-looking belly. The vicious exchanges resulted in a clash of heads and a cut over Holyfield’s right eye, which in turn led to a quick check by the ringside physician, but that only spurred on “The Real Deal” to fight with even more urgency as he landed shots both upstairs and down. At the end of the round he ate a heavy left cross that appeared to stun him for a moment but Holyfield struck back with two rights of his own before the bell.
Moorer did some excellent work behind the jab in round four and at this juncture he appeared the more confident fighter. Holyfield was clearly bothered by Moorer’s pesky right hand and shook his head in disgust with his inability to avoid it, but later in the round he backed Moorer up with a hard right and then a perfect double left hook, body and then head. The brutal back-and-forth exchanges continued in round five and it was still either man’s fight, but with 20 seconds left in the round, Evander stung Moorer with an uppercut followed by a beautiful combination: uppercut, left hook, and right hand. Moorer staggered backwards and then fell to his knees. He rose, took the eight count and then stood his ground and rumbled, but it was Holyfield who was landing hooks at the bell.
The sixth was a coasting stanza for both men, Moorer content to throw jabs while Evander was bothered by the cut, but Holyfield still ripped some painful shots to his opponent’s stomach and kidneys. Moorer opened the seventh with a wicked one-two but as Holyfield backed up, Moorer passively followed and left himself open for a sharp right-left combination and then a cross that staggered him. Moorer stayed in the pocket and Evander opened up with both hands, scoring another knockdown with the uppercut. Once on his feet, Moorer waved at Holyfield as if to say, “Come on, let’s fight!” With the crowd roaring, the two heavyweights traded big shots to end the round.
It was a battle of attrition now and the undeniable fact was that Holyfield was in superior physical condition. He wisely did not attack with abandon at the start of round eight but instead waited, knowing the openings and the chances to strike would come. Moorer appeared recovered but he continued to stay in punching range to try and slug it out, in the process presenting a stationary target. Big mistake. Once again, Evander’s uppercut did damage and he scored knockdown number four.
A frustrated Moorer climbed to his feet and seconds later Holyfield landed a short right hand to stagger his man, who showed plenty of bravado as, clearly spent, he waved Evander in. Holyfield opened up with left hooks and uppercuts and then a right hand that scored knockdown number five. Somehow Moorer beat the count yet again and survived to the bell, but between rounds the ringside doctor and the referee decided enough was enough. The fight was stopped and Holyfield was declared the winner. It had been a thrilling, action-packed rumble that left fans cheering both warriors. It also further confirmed that Evander’s resurrection was indeed for real, pun intended.
“I never thought Evander could solve Michael’s southpaw style,” said Freddie Roach, Moorer’s trainer at this juncture. “But he did.”
For his part, Moorer was frustrated by the stoppage. “I was ready to keep on fighting,” he told the press. “I’m disappointed that the doctor stopped the fight. I beat him the first time, he beat me the second time, let’s do it the third time.”
No chance. Instead, it was time for Lennox Lewis to take centre stage and battle Evander Holyfield for all the belts, for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. Lewis and Holyfield would have their own two-fight series while Moorer would journey on, competing even after David Tua knocked him out in just 30 seconds in 2002. But his memorable war with Holyfield was his last world title fight. — Robert Portis