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Standing Gloriously Defiant in the Face of Certain Defeat

Well, it wasn’t exactly Dempsey-Firpo, but it had its moments. Not quite “He’s up! He’s down!” but close. It’ll do.

You know, rematches of fights are like sequels of movies. They rarely match the original. Godfathers II and III weren’t a patch on the first one. Rocky IV and V didn’t have the impact of Rocky I.

But Holyfield-Bowe III was an exception. It was Rocky I. A throwback fight.

Evander Holyfield, as usual, was trying to do more than he is really capable of. And, astonishingly, he almost brought it off.

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The first few rounds seemed cut from the old cloth. It needed a rewrite, a new plot, a cast change.

It got it in the sixth round.

Holyfield, exhausted, desperate, was gasping for air like a gaffed fish. The referee was studying him intensely, for telltale signs he should stop the fight. Evander had gone to the well once too often. He was calling on skills he no longer possessed. He was throwing one punch to every five of Riddick Bowe’s.

But, suddenly, out of some deep recesses of memory, Evander evoked his overhand left hook. Bowe, intent on putting the finishing touches on his foe, never saw it coming. It caught him on the jaw. He went down in sections. For the first time in his career, he was aground. It was a view he’d never seen before. The crowd at Caesars Palace shrieked its joy.

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Riddick Bowe was mortified. “This don’t look right,” he told himself as he struggled to his feet.

Holyfield pounced, an adrenaline rush seeming to feed his onslaught.

But he was clearly running on empty. Bowe was hurt and the Holyfield of five years ago might have bludgeoned him to defeat.

But it was a last magnificent gesture by the gallant Holyfield. He went down two rounds later with guns firing and flags flying--and this time the referee did stop it.

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We had thought if these guys fought 100 times there might be a different winner ever other time. The scenario would remain the same.

But in the best Rocky Balboa tradition, Evander turned it into a four-star production. The fight will be remembered for the Holyfield hook rather than the last two rounds where a slowly recovering Bowe finally managed to ring the curtain down with a sledgehammer right thrown more or less in desperation as Holyfield came tumbling toward him throwing crazy rights that had as much hope of delivery as dropping a note in a bottle in the Atlantic.

Evander, who had to be cleared by the Mayo Clinic to take this fight, fought a fight that can only be classified as questionable. He attacked Bowe--a strategy which had the effect of serving his chin up on a platter. The smart way to fight Bowe would seem to be at longer distance than the battle of Midway.

Why Evander even took the fight is a matter of mystery. There was no title at stake, only money. And Evander has plenty of that. Titles are held these days by worthies like glass-jawed Frank Bruno or somebody named Bruce Seldon or the battler of Britain, Lennox Lewis, not to be confused, ever, with Joe.

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It’d never play in Peoria. There was no “heavy” in this fight. No glowering Sonny Liston with the President of the U.S., no less, rooting for him to lose. No churlish Larry Holmes, no guys with a prison rap in their backgrounds. It was just a fight.

They were, of course, both ex-champions. Bowe threw his title in a dumpster rather than fight Lewis, Holyfield kept losing his. Bowe is now, arguably, the No. 1 heavyweight fighter in the world.

Bowe seems miscast in the role. An amiable, easygoing sort who smiles a lot and does imitations at parties, it’s almost hard to picture him separating an opponent from his senses with gloved fist. He’s no John L. Sullivan pounding the bar and promising to “lick any men in the house.” He seems to have a little bit of trouble taking himself seriously.

That’s not Holyfield’s problem. He takes life very seriously. He is widely held to be what the world calls an “overachiever.” English translation: a guy who regularly parlays a pair of deuces into the whole pot.

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He isn’t really a heavyweight. He can’t punch. Not in the Joe Louis or Mike Tyson--or even Riddick Bowe--sense of the word. He’s not a master boxer, not in terms of a Muhammad Ali or Gene Tunney or Sugar Ray Robinson.

He is to fighting what Eddie Stanky was to baseball, Stefan Edberg was to tennis. He, so to speak, can’t hit, run, throw or field. But he’d beat you.

But these invisible skills have deserted him at Caesars Palace this night. Except for the one brief shining moment in Round 6, Bowe just ran over him like a freight on a grade.

Bowe is probably an underachiever. He brings out the A game only when the price is right or the spirit moves him. He can’t always seem to stay interested. He lost an Olympic gold medal at Seoul to Lewis, and only recently fought a fight against Buster Mathis Jr. deemed “No contest.” English translation: no fight.

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But he was bigger, stronger and younger than Holyfield. He was also slower, fatter and clumsier. He needs his space. He needs punching room.

Holyfield tried to deny it to him. With his chin.

Bowe’s attention seems to wander some time during the fight, while Holyfield measures each punch as if it were a four-foot, two-break putt. He’s annoying, persistent, undiscourageable. Bowe tends to leave the first two minutes of every round to shift for themselves.

Bowe had too much weight, too much height, too much power. There is an axiom in boxing “A good big man will always beat a good little man.”

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It’s probably as good an explanation as any of what happened at Caesars Palace on Saturday night. But you remember the guys who went out with their boots on and their guns out, who made one last defiant swipe at history. Evander in the middle of the ring. Out on his feet, breathing through his mouth, bleeding from his ears and calling on his failing resources to drop his tormentor with a glorious left hook.

I mean, who remembers Dempsey stopped Firpo? That fight is indelibly in the records because Firpo knocked him out of the ring.

Bowe on the floor is the story of this fight. That’s what the painters will paint, the poets will sing. That’s what’ll put this in the greatest fights of the century, not its foregone conclusion.


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