How Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield crowned the last undisputed heavyweight champion

 | January 23 | 

5 mins read

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Last week we warned WBC champion Tyson Fury and WBA, IBF and WBO equivalent Oleksandr Usyk that the road to undisputed isn’t always straightforward. On these pages we told the tale of Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield’s controversial March 1999 bout. That night saw WBC king Lewis and IBF and WBA top boy Holyfield leaving Madison Square Garden with just fragments of the heavyweight crown.

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But when Fury and Usyk clash in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in February, there is another modern undisputed title fight they can hope to emulate. In November 1999, Lewis and Holyfield gave it another go. While an undisputed champion would emerge this time, the poison of boxing politics would not let this utopia stand for long. With the IBF intending to strip the winner of Usyk-Fury almost immediately after their bout, some things never change.

One thing that was pleasingly different about Lewis and Holyfied’s rivalry was how expeditious the pair were. It took just one week from their stalemate for the gladiators to agree on a return. This time, the pair would split the $30 million purse. For their first fight, Holyfield took home $20 million to Lewis’ $10 million. But given the even scorecards and the fact Lewis arguably deserved to win, parity seemed like a wise solution this time.

With New York failing to separate the pair, this undisputed heavyweight dispute went to the desert. Boxing mecca Las Vegas would host the rematch at the Thomas & Mack Center. The fact that the fight was taking place just eight months after their first meeting barely registered at the time. But in 2024, when we’re lucky if the heavyweight champions grace us with their presence once a year, two major fights so close together seems unthinkable.

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A pleasing piece of symmetry saw the fight take place seven years to the day after Riddick Bowe had become the last undisputed heavyweight champion. ‘Big Daddy’ was gone at this point, having retired in 1996. But his presence was felt due to his history with each man. Bowe had ceased to be recognised as undisputed champion after throwing his WBC belt into a dustbin rather than face Lewis. Meanwhile, Holyfield was the man who Bowe had beaten to become the three-belt kingpin seven years before.

That was the past though, and this was now. Holyfield may have wished it still was the past, given that many had deemed him shopworn after his performance in the first fight. Now 37, most were predicting the end for ‘The Real Deal’. If you’d told someone in 1999 that Holyfield’s last professional contest wouldn’t arrive until 2011, they’d have laughed in your face. If you’d told them that he’d still be getting knocked out cold in exhibition fights in 2021, they’d have gasped.

But the sad end to Holyfield’s incredible fistic legacy was still some way off yet. November 1999 wouldn’t even be the last time he entered a fight as heavyweight champion of the world. But it would be the final occasion in which you could say the Georgia native genuinely competed to be the best heavyweight on the planet. 

And compete he did. In contrast to the first fight, where a lumpen Evander struggled to unsettle a magisterial Lewis, Holyfield looked sharp this time. He timed his raids well, though they weren’t as frequent as his marauding flurries of old. But when Holyfield hit the accelerator, he troubled Lewis. A volley at the end of round three put the American on the front foot. He would stay there for the ensuing handful of rounds.

The air Lewis had at his peak was that of serene calm. Unbothered by Holyfield’s successes, Lewis set himself in rounds eight to 11, re-taking the authority that had eroded since his strong start. These rounds would prove crucial, as Lewis asserted himself after a period of uncertainty. Ultimately, it would make him a champion.

The last round was fittingly close and competitive between these two legends of the ring. Holyfield would never be back here. This was his last fight in which the lineal heavyweight title was at stake. He fought like it. But Lewis was right there with him. Seconds away from finally ruling. His era was only just beginning as he went about trying to end Holyfield’s extended stay at the top of the tree. A three-minute encapsulation of everything boxing can mean.

The judges awarded Lewis a unanimous-decision victory. Ironically, this fight was much closer than the first one. Lewis had looked to outpoint Holyfield clearly in the March draw. This time he was pushed to his limit and, while a worthy victor, it remains strange that Holyfield got less credit for an excellent performance here than a poor one eight months previously.

The wheels of boxing politics turn constantly and inexplicably. Lewis would be stripped of his WBA title for electing to face Michael Grant rather than mandatory John Ruiz. Despite no longer holding three belts, Lewis was still viewed, and often billed, as the undisputed champion. 

The WBA strap would end up around a familiar waist soon enough. Holyfield won back his belt by defeating Ruiz via unanimous decision in August 2000. The pair would clash twice more, with Ruiz winning their second encounter before they drew their third. Holyfield would have unsuccessful shots at the WBO and WBA titles when he was deep into his 40s.

Lewis beat Grant, Frans Botha and David Tua before succumbing to Hasim Rahman by fifth-round knockout in a major upset. But ‘The Lion’ dusted himself off and mauled Rahman a round sooner in a rematch. He would never lose a fight again. The Brit wrapped up his career with victories over Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko, exorcising the best heavyweight of the previous generation and the finest of the generation to come. 

Hopefully we won’t have to wait 24 rounds to crown an undisputed champion when Fury and Usyk meet. Boxing has a tendency to repeat the mistakes of the past, with the IBF intent on 'pulling a WBA' once the fight is through. But here’s hoping the Riyadh clash offers up a decisive winner, whichever of the combatants it is.

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