Lewis vs Holyfield, the FBI, and a 25-year wait for an undisputed heavyweight title fight

In 1999, Lennox Lewis beat Evander Holyfield in their rematch during an emotional night and fight on the edge of Las Vegas, in a place called Paradise.

The win after 12 hard, hard rounds by Lewis was viewed as justice for the drawn verdict with Holyfield eight months earlier in New York. That decision shocked the boxing world, the FBI took an interest, and some outrageous conspiracy theories emerged. In the end, it was just a bad decision.

However, it meant that the rematch became a global affair, a night when boxing had to get it right. The WBA, IBF and WBC heavyweight championship belts were on the line. Lewis was the WBC champion; Holyfield had the other two, and that is all that matters. It was all that mattered then.

Lewis is viewed as the last man to hold all the valid and recognised heavyweight championship belts. His rematch with Holyfield was for the undisputed heavyweight title and nobody had been able to claim that since Mike Tyson beat Tony Tucker in 1987 to win all three. There was no “undisputed” belt then; there is one now.

Lewis left the ring that night at the Thomas & Mack Centre with the WBA, the WBC and the IBF belts strapped across his chest. He was the latest Las Vegas boxing king, not the last. Now, it’s a conveyor belt of new kings, measured by cash and popularity in the desert city. They are often just tin kings with their gaudy, cheap-diamond belts.

It had been a raucous night inside the arena at the university, a wild and expectant crowd had enjoyed the old-fashioned fight; Lewis and Holyfield had only shared 12 rounds but they fought with a familiarity and an intensity that might be shocking to modern boxing fans. Several of the rounds had dramatic last 30 seconds, both men desperate to impress the judges. In the seventh, the Rocky music went off in my head – it was a great three minutes.

Lennox Lewis (left) beat Evander Holyfield in 1999 to become undisputed heavyweight champion (Getty)
Lennox Lewis (left) beat Evander Holyfield in 1999 to become undisputed heavyweight champion (Getty)

They had each improved since the first fight, and that is why the rematch was so entertaining and gruelling. Please, never let anybody tell you that Big Lennox jabbed his way to victory and used his bulk; his jab and size were a factor but nobody ever bullied Holyfield. If you wanted to beat that Holyfield, you had to fight to the very end. They just had an old-fashioned slugfest, both hurt, both leading at times, and both left it all in the ring.

It was a much closer fight than the scorecards suggested, and even Lewis has admitted that since. Holyfield still thinks he won – it was the type of fight that even now, 25 years later, still divides people.

Lewis was 34 at the time and Holyfield was 37; they each made a guarantee of $15m. They had a combined total of 76 fights.

In Riyadh, Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury will share a lot more money – part of boxing’s failure in the last 25 years to get the champions together has been a lack of cash. And ancient rivalries. That problem was solved by the Saudis. Usyk is 37 now, Fury 34; together, they have fought 56 times. Cheekily, the IBO belt was in the ring back in 1999 and it will be in the ring next Saturday; there are eight or nine belts on offer when the first bell sounds after midnight this weekend in Riyadh.

Lewis and Holyfield settled their rivalry after drawing in their first clash (Getty)
Lewis and Holyfield settled their rivalry after drawing in their first clash (Getty)
Lewis remains the most recent undisputed heavyweight champion (Getty)
Lewis remains the most recent undisputed heavyweight champion (Getty)

Lennox never made a defence of his three belts, the WBA was lost outside the ring and a few months later, Holyfield fought John Ruiz for the vacant WBA belt; the WBO grew in significance and the chaos that we know so well was soon in full swing.

Dozens of men have since fought for the heavyweight title, many in obscurity, and it is certainly time for just one man to be the champion. On the night that Lewis beat Holyfield, the WBO heavyweight champion was Vitali Klitschko and there is a strong argument that the WBO bauble should be considered; it is now, it was less so then. In 2003, Lewis stopped Vitali in a bloodbath in Los Angeles to retain the WBC belt and then retired.

On Saturday in Riyadh, all the arguments, excuses, delays and boxing anarchy will end and, hopefully, one man will leave the ring with the four belts. That will be the proper undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The wait will be worth it.

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