Welcome to SN’s “My Sweetest Victory’ series where boxers past and present pick their greatest triumphs and break down what made them so sweet. Why take our word for it when you can hear from the ones who touched gloves? Here is the greatest win of Evander Holyfield’s career, as explained by Holyfield himself.
Fight: Mike Tyson
Date/ Location: November 9, 1996/ MGM Grand, Las Vegas
Distance: 12 rounds
World Titles: WBA heavyweight (held by Tyson)
Records: Holyfield (32-3, 23 KOs), Tyson (45-1, 39 KOs)
Odds: Tyson opened as a 1/25 favourite and dropped to 1/9 by fight time
Result: Holyfield TKO 11
Storyline: The Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield bout was almost a decade in the making.
When Holyfield was in the process of chewing up Carlos De Leon for the undisputed cruiserweight championship, on April 9, 1988, Tyson, then the undisputed heavyweight king, was asked if the naturally smaller man was ready for him.
“He’s a good fighter,” a grinning Tyson told Showtime, following a very deliberate pause.
By the time Tyson was shockingly upset by Buster Douglas, on February 11, 1990, the unbeaten Holyfield had won five fights at heavyweight: James Tillis (TKO 5), Pinklon Thomas (TKO 7), Michael Dokes (TKO 10), Adilson Rodrigues (KO 2), and Alex Stewart (TKO 8).
Had Tyson defeated Douglas, a deal was in place for the long-awaited Tyson-Holyfield showdown to take place in the fall of 1990. With Douglas now holding the belts, Holyfield was next in line, and the latter wasted no time in seizing the day. On October 25, 1990, a razor-sharp Holyfield scored a one-punch, third-round knockout over Douglas to claim the undisputed heavyweight championship. He was the first cruiserweight titleholder to accomplish that feat.
The majority of the public, however, still viewed Tyson as the champion, and the Douglas defeat was passed off as an aberration.
After Holyfield had turned back game challenges from legendary veterans George Foreman (UD 12) and Larry Holmes (UD 12), a deal was struck for Tyson and Holyfield to square off on November 8, 1991. However, an injury to Tyson’s rib, then his subsequent conviction and imprisonment for rape, put the showdown firmly back in the fantasy section.
With Tyson gone, Holyfield’s career went up and down. He lost for the first time to Riddick Bowe (UD 12) and regained the crown with a majority decision triumph in the rematch. However, a heart scare following a points loss to Michael Moorer forced a temporary retirement, and when Holyfield got back in the horse, he looked badly jaded in a knockout defeat to Bowe (TKO 8) in their rubber match.
Meanwhile, Tyson had been released from prison, he’d won a pair of heavyweight titles, and the majority of the division was terrified.
Step forward Evander Holyfield.
The Sporting News recently caught up with boxing’s only four-time heavyweight champion to discuss his sweetest victory:
Why did Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield happen?
“Well, I feel that they were telling Mike, ‘Evander’s a dead man walking! He’s got one foot in the grave. This is your chance.’ I was ready, though.
“I heard people saying, ‘Holyfield ain’t like he used to be.’ I once told Bowe, ‘Man, you beating me [in fight three] with the best thing that could have happened.’ That was my first time ever being stopped, but even though I was a little upset, I kept a good attitude. It’s about how you control yourself.”
MORE: Holyfield reveals what made Bowe rivalry special
What was your sparring/preparation like for Mike Tyson?
“I sparred David Tua, and there’s a story there. Tua’s team told (promoter) Shelly Finkel, ‘Shelly, do you know that Tua is [beating up] Evander in sparring?’ My nephew told me that his team was bragging about whipping me, so I said, ‘OK, put him in now, and I’ll go all out!’ We sparred and they had to pull him out after three rounds. (Co-trainer) Ronnie Shields called Shelly and said, ‘Evander just punched Tua all over the ring and beat the daylights out of him. He didn’t land a punch (laughs).’
“Tua would come in, head down, short arms . . . Man, I’m gonna light you up.”
What was your strategy for Mike Tyson?
“I had to let him know who I am. Me and Mike sparred in the amateurs, so Mike already knew that I was strong… and Mike doesn’t forget. He’ll go back to that memory.
“He can’t hit you when you’re coming forward; he only hits you when you’re backing up. He’s used to people trying to get away. I would just step into him all the time – step to him, step to him, step to him.”
Did the Mike Tyson fight go as you expected?
“I had to let him know: ‘You ain’t hunting me, I’m hunting you.’ I had to show him what it was like to be hunted.”
What surprised you about Mike Tyson?
“When the fight first started, he caught me with the right hand. I can’t say that was a surprise because we knew he was gonna do that. We practiced that over and over again, landing that first shot. We worked on nailing him first, but he beat me to the punch (laughs). I just said to myself, ‘OK, let me show you what I can do now.’
“I really wasn’t surprised by anything. I knew that he had knockout power in both hands, but I also knew that the power came from the ground. Mike needs to be set, whereas I’m the kind of guy that can get punches off when I’m moving. Mike needs to have legs and he uses his legs to spring. My whole thing was to get him when he was flatfooted.”
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Can you describe the Mike Tyson stoppage in detail?
“I had him hurt [in Round 10], so even though they didn’t stop it, I knew that he could barely walk. When [the corner] picked him up [for Round 11], he could have fallen right then and there.
“I had to do him like you do a drunk man. When you have a drunk man, you don’t let him hold on to anything. In boxing, you gotta get them away from the ropes, and when they reach, you beat the daylights out of them. When you get them in the middle of the ring, they don’t have nuthin’ to grab on to. And when they throw a shot, oh man! I inched up close to him, but I’m waiting on the counter punch. I’m making him reach, and when he reaches, I’m gonna go over the shot and get him… and I did. I could feel those shots on my knuckles — it was like bare fists.”
Can you explain your feelings after you beat Mike Tyson?
“I had family members that are a little salty. Some of them would say, ‘Wait until you fight Mike Tyson, let’s see what you gonna do then. He gonna whip your butt.’ There were people in my own family who wanted Tyson to bust me up.
“When I came home, they were like, ‘Oh, you know I was pulling for you.’ I told them, ‘I heard what you said! (laughs)’ I let it go, and I didn’t treat them any differently.
“I never had anything against Mike. I just wanted to be the best I could be. Some people tried to make it about a Christian fighting a Muslim. There were Christians that didn’t want the fight to happen because a Muslim was going to beat up a Christian. My whole thing is, God is God, and God is good.
“I’ve never disliked Mike, even when he bit my ear.”