State of the Unification

The Heavyweight Championship is in crisis

Announced amid fireworks last November at the Garden, Saturday's Holyfield-Lewis fight is a match between an overachiever and an underachiever: the prayerful three-time champion Evander Holyfield has been underestimated throughout his righteous career as he waded through most of the notable heavyweights of his era, while Briton Lennox Lewis is a larger, younger, dreadlocked partial champion who's claimed for years he is better than all the men (Riddick Bowe, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer, Holyfield) who somehow never fought him. Now the two meet to cap their careers in Madison Square Garden, and over the event hovers the reunification of the heavyweight championship, a diminished but once mystically powerful institution.

After a cold war of six bickering years among the alphabet organizations, cable networks, and promoters, the winner of this bout will leave the ring with Holyfield's WBA and IBF belts and Lewis's WBC title. The Garden has put up $8 million for the privilege of hosting what is undeniably the biggest heavyweight fight still out there. Making this match took six weeks of treaty-like negotiations among some sworn industry enemies. Time Warner's sports chief, Seth Abraham, broke bread with Don King, who had once taken HBO's young star (Tyson) away when Abraham loyally refused to fire his unsycophantic ringside commentator Larry Merchant (in effect, one of the worst trades in sports history). This fight may not quite be a classic matchup, but it does offer a universe of modern loyalties: in addition to the America vs. Britain pairing, it's Showtime (Holyfield) vs. HBO (Lewis), WBA vs. WBC, Christianity vs. secular cool.

The magical unification itself is part of the draw as much as either boxer, neither of whom is a Tyson-like attraction. But the final proof of the fight's value may be its popularity with scalpers. Says Lou Dibella, who runs HBO's pay-per-view arm, TVKO, "It's a long, long time since scalpers were selling tickets to a fight in New York City." Still, in TV spots for the bout, the two fighters spar while superimposed footage from the first great Ali-Frazier fight, at the Garden 28 years ago, plays behind them. Should a matchup of the world's two best big men really need help from the classics? The feeling that it might says something about the decline in cultural significance of the heavyweight championship. In fact, although Holyfield (36-3) first won the title in 1990, for most of this decade the heavyweight champion of sports has been Michael Jordan.

"Unification of the title is devoutly to be wished for, just to unclutter the mind," observes sports historian and publisher John Thorn. "However, the clamor for this fight, between these fighters, has been subdued." But according to boxing judge (and HBO commentator) Harold Lederman, "Once you get the title together, people are going to be more excited about it. I think it's going to attract new fans. I expect a tremendous fight. Both guys can punch. I'll be surprised if it goes the distance."

Riddick Bowe was technically the last heavyweight champion to hold all three title belts, before he publicly torched one in 1992 rather than comply with a mandated title defense (that belt now belongs to Lewis). "Bowe did the right thing," says ex-heavyweight Martin Snow of the downtown Waterfront Boxing Club. "Somebody had to stand up and not kowtow to the organizations." But you have to go back before Bowe for an example of the heavyweight championship at its full, roaring strength: whether you now see him as a rebel-victim of the law or a vicious, pampered flake, the young Mike Tyson of the late '80s was the last boxer to regularly command national attention in a way reminiscent of the outsized reigns of Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, or Muhammad Ali. Before Tyson's latest lockup, people would still overwhelmingly watch him fight anybody, not just for the freakish Evel Knievel aspect, but out of a feeling that here was the last big-time champ.

"The closer a heavyweight comes to the championship," Norman Mailer famously observed in 1971, "the more natural it is for him to be a little bit insane, secretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a real possibility he is." With Tyson, sometimes the champion (or ex-champion) truly is not the toughest man in the world, yet he can still seem a little insane. But if being the toughest means repeatedly coming from behind, cleaning house in a division that's above your natural body size, and absolving a man who publicly chewed a hole in your ear, then Holyfield is that. If he beats Lewis, too, the 36-year-old Holyfield will be the last guy standing from his generation of heavyweights, such as they were.

The Vegas odds remain almost even for the bout, gamblers are calling it a "pick 'em," but short of calling the British consulate, it's hard to find a New York boxing fan who thinks Lewis can win. "I feel Lewis has a chance," says Willie Dunn of Manhattan's Blue Velvet gym. "But Holyfield has been at that level for years. I don't know if Lewis can handle the New York crowd, which may be a big factor. I think Holyfield will probably take it. Heavyweight fights at that magnitude don't go the distance. Somebody's gotta fall." But sports historian Thorn disagrees: "I believe that Evander Holyfield is more adept than Lewis in the behemoth ballet of a heavyweight fight that goes the distance, as this one will." Heavyweight and Tyson-litigant Mitch "Blood" Green (who recently offered to reenter the prison system to settle lingering differences with Iron Mike) grudgingly picks Evander: "Even though he's with Don King right now, I would rather see Holyfield than an Englishman. I gotta say 'Go U.S.A.!' "

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