By John Wharton [@whartojohn]
October and November 1992. It all seems so long ago now. Bill Clinton had just won the US Presidential Election, and The Catholic Church had reversed its decision to excommunicate Galilei Galileo, just 359 years after he shockingly postulated that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around, as many had believed. The Church of England voted to ordain female priests, in a decision that caused ire amongst its members, whilst Queen Elizabeth II’s ‘Annus Horribilis’ was cemented with Windsor Castle being gutted by fire.
At the Box Office, Gary Oldman donned fangs and cape in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Alongside him was Keanu Reeves, whose portrayal appeared to recast Jonathon Harker as a Californian surfer. Meanwhile, Whitney Houston crooned her way to the top of the charts with her version of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, from the forthcoming movie The Bodyguard.
The heavyweight scene was also beginning its own metamorphosis. Mike Tyson had been incarcerated after being found guilty of the rape of beauty queen Desiree Washington. Many felt that Evander Holyfield was a vulnerable champion who could be toppled at any time. The vultures circling what they felt would soon be the carcass of the champion were Canadian Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock, a man who had fought 19 tough rounds with Tyson; Riddick Bowe, a 1988 Olympic silver medallist who was unbeaten in 31 fights; and Lennox Lewis, the former British and European champion who’d defeated Bowe in the Olympics. The four would face off in a pair of bouts fought over a fortnight at the end of October and November.
A tumultuous two week period began, fittingly, on Halloween in that venerable old city of London. No doubt many ghosts, goblins, ghouls and spectres roam on All Hallows Eve but the scariest place to be was in the blue corner at Earls Court, where Lennox Lewis stood ready to go into battle with the frightening Razor Ruddock. In many expert’s eyes, Ruddock was the man most likely to be wearing the crown once the dust had settled and the heavyweight double header was over.
The only thing to go bump in the night was Ruddock, as he was floored three times and stopped in just three minutes and forty six seconds. Lewis controlled the centre of the ring from the outset and the Canadian fighter found it difficult to get a shot off as the Briton’s jab speared him in the face.
A good first round for Lewis suddenly became an excellent one, as a right hand to the temple took away Ruddock’s legs and saw him flop to the canvas. The clock was kind to him and the bell sounded before Lewis could take advantage of the situation.
The minute rest wasn’t enough for Ruddock and as he came out for the second round, his legs seemed to be those of a new-born baby giraffe on ice-skates. A left and a right hook sent the Canadian skittering back to his opponent’s corner and the Briton pummelled his opponent to the canvas for the second time.
Clearly stunned, Ruddock jumped quickly to his feet rather than allowing himself the extra seconds on the floor as referee Joe Cortez issued the mandatory eight count. They say nothing is more dangerous than a wounded animal and the Canadian launched two huge uppercuts, but they hit nothing but thin air. Lewis maintained his discipline and landed several combinations that once again sent his foe to the deck, Cortez began his count but quickly abandoned it and waved the fight off.
The noise was deafening, as the British crowd acclaimed their conquering hero and the Lewis camp joined in the ring celebrations. For the first time in decades, Britain had a vertical heavyweight who could dispel the old stereotype of horizontal British heavyweights. Not only had the Briton defeated his opponent, he had propelled himself to mandatory challenger status for the winner of the upcoming title fight between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe.
Evander Holyfield had been champion for just over two years and was proving solid, if not spectacular. The title was won in October 1990 as he stopped an out of shape and unmotivated ‘Buster’ Douglas in three rounds. His three defences so far had been underwhelming, as he plodded to victories over the elderly George Foreman and Larry Holmes and was hurt en route to a seventh round stoppage win over heavyweight gatekeeper Bert Cooper.
Next up for the Georgia fighter was New York’s Riddick Bowe. A man whose own trainer, Eddie Futch, once famously described as having more excuses than a forty year old virgin. The man from the ‘Big Apple’ had earned his shot at Holyfield by defeating South African Pierre Coetzer but had been out of the ring for 15 months prior to his title shot.
Despite his two year reign as heavyweight kingpin, Holyfield was still viewed with the suspicion that he was little more than a blown up cruiserweight, and his stint at heavyweight led many to believe that he was little more than a stopgap champion. Bowe was a Brooklyn native and Olympic silver medallist at the 1988 Seoul games, where he was stopped by Lewis. Bowe’s talents were never in question but a big question remained over his heart.
The fight itself was a true heavyweight classic. Both fighters left everything in the ring, as they traded blow for blow, and the bout is most fondly remembered for a pulsating tenth round in which Bowe hurt Holyfield early on, with many in attendance and watching feeling the champion was living on borrowed time. Somehow he rallied and managed to hurt his opponent and dominated the latter part of the round, but Bowe weathered the storm and was eventually proclaimed the new, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. A new era in heavyweight appeared to be ushering itself in.
Tyson was incarcerated, Ruddock and Holyfield vanquished. Foreman and Holmes were regarded as too old to be of consequence. The new blood had arrived. Bowe was top dog and Lennox Lewis was snapping at his heels, ready to take him on for the right to be known as the biggest, baddest man on the planet. Bowe and Lewis were set on a collision course. What could possibly go wrong?