IT is perhaps too easy to forget Evander Holyfield’s early days as a heavyweight and the landscape he invaded. I will never forget it.
Holyfield defended his three versions of the cruiserweight title for the last time in April, 1988; he stopped Carlos De Leon in eight rounds. He left in glory and moved up.
The heavyweight division was ruled by Mike Tyson. The rumours were growing about this state of mind, but he had ruined the best heavyweights of his damaged generation in succession; Trevor Berbick, Bonecrusher Smith, Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tucker, Tyrell Biggs, Larry Holmes, Tony Tubbs and Michael Spinks.
Holyfield had no option – he had to chase Tyson. He disliked Tyson, the fight would sell, but it would be hard to make.
I believe that Holyfield’s transition in weight, his choice of opposition when he quit the cruisers and went in search of Tyson was inspired. He stopped James Tillis, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, Adilson Rodrigues, Alex Stewart and Seamus McDonagh in just over two years before winning the world heavyweight title.
It was the fight at Donald Trump’s lunatic Plaza hotel and casino in Atlantic City in November 1989, against the unbeaten Stewart, his fifth in the sequence, that is most impressive. It is often overlooked when Holyfield is mentioned. In late 2010, at a casino near Victoria station in London, Holyfield’s tired eyes suddenly shone when I asked about that night, that rugged, bloody fight. “That was real,” he said. And he was right.
The Stewart fight is less than a year before the win over Buster Douglas, three years before the first in the Riddick Bowe trilogy, seven years before the first with Tyson and 10 years before the double with Lennox Lewis. There is also the John Ruiz title trilogy, the Michael Moorer double, Ray Mercer, Larry Holmes, George Foreman, a war with Bert Cooper. And, 19 years after the Stewart fight, tucked away in Zurich, there was the night he narrowly failed to topple the Beast from the East, Nikolai Valuev, for the WBA belt. It is little wonder that one very cold night in November, 1989, is often missed. Not by me, no way.
The Stewart fight was never going to be a big earner, but I had a bit of BBC World Service booked, a follow-up for the Sunday Express and any news lines from the fight would go in Today or The Daily Telegraph. There was a rumour that Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson would be there and – I guessed correctly – I would be the only British boxing writer there. They never showed and a Pernell Whitaker interview had no takers back in Britain.
The fight was savage from the start. Holyfield had been low with a cold, Stewart believed he would have too much natural power. They met in the centre of the ring and stayed there until the fight was stopped in round eight. Stewart was badly cut by his right eye in round two, hurt and rocked and saved by the bell in the same round. Holyfield was staggered in the third, by the fifth it was just a slugfest. Trump clapped politely at ringside. And then Stewart started to unravel, his 24 straight wins, with 24 straight stoppages, had not prepared him for Holyfield’s desire. It was stirring, truly brutal stuff. A fight in replay that looks like something from a lost time; a fight when giants stagger, grab a rope, breathe and throw punches back. Damn, Holyfield was good.
Lou Duva and Eddie Futch were in the ring at the end with different duties to perform in the same bloody business. It was a heavyweight baptism for me in Atlantic City.
In the press room before and after the fight there was a lot of talk about Tyson’s easy night in Tokyo the following February against Buster Douglas; the Duvas were pushing for a Foreman fight for Holyfield. It was a wondrous place, the press room in Trump’s hotel: the Duvas wandering in and out, Eddie Futch, who was in Stewart’s corner, sitting and talking and cameos by Trump. On a Wednesday 10 days earlier, I had watched Herol Bomber Graham beat Rod Douglas at Wembley and that seemed a long way off as I listened to Futch.
In New York, before taking the bus to Atlantic City, I went to Gleason’s gym, tried to track down Gil Clancy and had lunch with Steve Farhood. I was officially, The Ring magazine’s European correspondent.
In Atlantic City, I had enough money for a motel – way off the Boardwalk – for two nights and I had a plan for my third night, fight night. When Tyson had fought in the volatile seaside gambling den, I had read that the place was very lively after the fight. I liked the sound of that. I had an idea to ride with the police all night in one of their cars, a spectator to the carnage. It was a long process to get permission, but it was arranged for midnight after the fight. I have no idea if I had read about David Simon at the time, the Baltimore crime journalist, who had taken a year away from his desk in 1988 to become a unique part of the Baltimore police force. He rode with the police and wrote the truly amazing, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991). It was the basis for The Wire.
The back of the car, behind the stained perspex, was filthy. We drove through the streets just a few blocks back from the neon-lit hotels. It’s a very different place after midnight back there. I was locked in the car whenever the two police got out.
I remember the dark-night packs of dogs. They were called ghetto ponies. At about six in the morning, I was dropped off, outside the Trump. That boardwalk is a cold hell on a November morning.
The Holyfield and Stewart fight remains a great boxing memory, I lost money, but it was magic and a privilege to cover. I just remembered that Farhood got me into Holyfield’s dressing room before the fight for the prayer circle. That was a trip.