The heavyweight division is finally set to secure the clarity it has lacked for over 20 years. WBC champion Tyson Fury will tangle with WBA, IBF and WBO king Oleksandr Usyk in Saudi Arabia on 17th February. The fight will finally crown a single heavyweight champion, something the Saudi promoters are recognising with a specially-commissioned title belt.
But there is a scenario where neither Fury nor Usyk goes home without that lavish hardware. Where each man puts their respective championships back in their luggage and heads home. What if after such a drawn-out, sensitive negotiation; Fury vs Usyk ends in a draw?
Such a result seems unthinkable. There’s a reason it’s priced up at 16/1. But it is far from unprecedented. When you take into account Fury has a draw from his ledger, in his 2018 war with Deontay Wilder, you might even be tempted to take a punt. But what if I told you that a Fury-Usyk stalemate wouldn’t even be the first time an undisputed heavyweight title unification fight has seen honours even at its conclusion?
Lennox Lewis’s March 1999 meeting with Evander Holyfield would have some parallels with the upcoming Fury-Usyk bout. Firstly, the British fighter involved came into the bout as the WBC champion, with the other champion carrying the remaining belts. At this point the WBO title, while established, was not considered a major crown. So Holyfield entered his bout with WBC king Lewis as the IBF and WBA title holder, with the winner set to be recognised as undisputed champion.
The match-up also arguably came a year or two too late. Fury’s recent struggles with Francis Ngannou and Usyk’s difficult night opposite Daniel Dubois have taken a little bit of shine off their eventual meeting. Equally, Holyfield was not quite the Mike Tyson-smashing force of 1996 and 1997. He had looked awfully laboured while beating Vaughn Bean the year before. Similarly, Lewis had been dominant but wholly uninspiring in beating the lightly-regarded Zeljko Mavrovic.
But hype was still high for Lewis-Holyfield, as it is for Fury-Usyk. There is no other occasion in professional sport quite like the crowning of an undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The title had been fractured for seven years at that point. Such a period seems like a drop in the ocean when it will be one month shy of 21 years since a singular heavyweight ruler when Fury and Usyk clash. But back in 1999, that seven year gap was actually the second-longest period without an undisputed champion in heavyweight history.
Holyfield had actually been the last man to lose the undisputed heavyweight championship. Riddick Bowe beat ‘The Real Deal’ for the WBC, IBF and WBA titles in 1992. ‘Big Daddy’ would relinquish the WBC title, famously throwing it into a dustbin at a press conference after refusing to face mandatory challenger Lewis. The fact Holyfield and Lewis were each involved in this chain of events seven years previously shows how long a showdown had been gestating.
Finally a date was set. Lewis and Holyfield would stack their belts up against each other on 13th March 1999 at Madison Square Garden. Lewis’ reported purse was $10,000,000 while Hoylfield brought home double at a cool $20,000,000. You could look at it as £10,000,000 per belt, considering the Georgian’s dual-champion status.
The first two rounds had Lewis looking like he was worth twice Holyfield’s take-home, with the British boxer outlanding Holyfield by vast sums. The American turned on the aggression in the third, the round in which he had predicted a stoppage in his pre-fight boasts. It wasn’t enough to get Lewis out of there, but did provide ‘The Real Deal’ with his finest moments of the young contest.
Lewis took four and five with a return to the early flow of the fight. Utilising his superiority in height and reach, ‘The Lion’ was able to keep his fellow champion at distance and pepper him with punches. But ascendance gave way to arrogance in the sixth, when Lewis foolishly let his hands droop by his sides and was clobbered with both fists.
A left buzzed Holyfield in the seventh and the veteran saw himself pinned against the ropes under a Lewis onslaught. ‘The Lion’ dusted off his trademark right uppercut to great effect, using the punch to start combinations that troubled ‘Commander Vander’. The American edged back in with some solid short rights in the eighth. The ninth saw Lewis control Holyfield behind the jab while the latter came barreling forward without landing much. Two of the three judges gave Holyfield that session despite this. An innocuous detail until we arrive at the decision…
Holyfield’s hooks to head and body gave him a far more convincing 10th. Long lefts and rights thrown from a lunging distance secured the 11th as a Holyfield round too. But Lewis finished the stronger, with his range-finding jab setting up some crisp rights. The fight had been competitive all the way, but the Brit’s strong finish and early dominance looked to have paved the way for his crowning.
Not so. The decision rendered was a split draw, with Lewis winning 116-113 on one card, Holyfield taking a 115-113 on another and the deciding vote sitting at 115-115. Holyfield had been outlander in almost every round, but as seen in that questionable eighth, the American was often rewarded for ineffective pressure.
As entertaining as this contest was, it failed in its aims. A fight to anoint a single heavyweight champion of the world left us with two. The division would have to wait even longer for a sole ruler. But not too much longer. This is what happened when boxing got its bid to crown an undisputed heavyweight champion wrong. In Part 2 next week, we’ll reveal what happened when Lewis and Holyfield met again. This time, there could be only one.
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