Remembering Holyfield v. Foreman

Evander Holyfield v. George Foreman was one of the last heavyweight championship fights that attracted mass national and global attention, in the manner of the old days. Held in Atlantic City on April 19, 1991, it was a big, rich pay-per-view event, with Holyfield guaranteed a $20 million purse and Foreman $12.5 million. In the years ahead, only Holyfield’s battles with Mike Tyson would measure up to this level of excitement and hype—and then the heavyweight show in the United States began to shut down.

What I remember as much as the fight itself is being a graduate student in English at the time, with a non-academy-friendly interest in boxing. Though some of the grad students followed baseball or football, others could barely conceal their contempt for sports—and those who cared about such lowbrow things. But even the budding scholars who might root for the Mets or Yankees or peek at some March Madness didn’t follow the fight game, once famously described as “the red light district of sports.” My interest in the bout seemed eccentric, at best.

The Battle of the Ages, as it was called--Holyfield was 28, Foreman 42--was better than most anticipated but not as good as it is now remembered. Holyfield won a unanimous decision that was unquestionable, though some of the scorecards were closer than they needed to be. I’d say it was about 10 rounds to 2 in the champion’s favor. It was an exciting and dramatic fight, though. Foreman fought with great courage, and he had a few moments, especially in the memorable seventh round, but he was never close to knocking out Holyfield; to my eyes, he never had him in serious trouble, either. Holyfield was too fast and too active, and he executed his fight strategy to perfection—keeping himself out of danger while winning decisively.

Of course, winning isn’t everything: Foreman’s valiant effort made him more popular than ever, while Holyfield’s measured, even clinical performance won him few plaudits. It was only when Holyfield began throwing away his stratagems—letting himself get drawn into brawls that his cornermen counseled him to avoid—that Evander won the love of the fight crowd. It’s when you toss out the script that you tend to be remembered—in the ring and out.