The Boys of November: The Bowe-Holyfield Trilogy
When most people think of November, they think of Thanksgiving. During the 1990s, the next-tolast
month of the calendar year came to mean something else to fight fans, a reason in triplicate
to give thanks for a heavyweight trilogy that ranks just below the Holy Trinity that was
Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier.
Yes, Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield was that exhilarating, that special. Oh, there have been
other notable ring trilogies since then – Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward comes to mind – but in terms of
the elite quality of the participants, and the fierce, unrelenting competitiveness of all three bouts,
Bowe-Holyfield was a smorgasbord of pugilistic delights that, as much as anything, is the
cornerstone of each champion’s professional legacy.
Remember, then, what was and hope that the heavyweight division someday soon can offer up
more of the same superb stuff involving big men possessed of the same level of talent, heart and
willingness to lay it all on the line.
*November 13, 1992, the Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas: In a spirited scrap that earned Fight
of the Year recognition from The Ring magazine, despite the relatively wide scores (117-110
twice, 115-112 for the winner), Bowe came away with the unanimous decision and Holyfield’s
*November 6, 1993, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas: Whether the unexpected, out-of-the-sky
WBA, WBC and IBF titles. appearance of paraglider James Miller, who came to be known as “Fan Man,”
affected the outcome – there was a 20-minute delay in the seventh round to extract and remove
Miller, who became ensnarled in the ring ropes – will forever be a matter of conjecture. When the
bout resumed, Holyfield took charge down the stretch to eke out a 12-round majority decisions (115-
113, 115-114, 114-114) and reclaim the WBA and IBF belts.
*November 4, 1995, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas: No widely recognized world title was on the line,
and there was creeping suspicion that neither the 33-year-old Holyfield nor the 29-year-old
Bowe was at their peak, but remember, the same was said of Ali and Frazier prior to the third act
of their ongoing passion play, the “Thrilla in Manila.” Squaring off for pride and the so-called
“People’s Championship” in their rubber match, Bowe – who went into the eighth round trailing,
66-65, on all three official cards – promptly floored Holyfield twice, prompting referee Joe Cortez
to step in and award him the technical knockout victory.
It can be argued that Holyfield and Bowe weren’t the two finest heavyweights of the division’s
most recent “golden era,” sharing as they did top billing with Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, but it
is beyond dispute that, together, they made magic on three occasions. And maybe that is enough
to gain additional consideration when it is time to put together any kind of best-of-the-best
“Bowe brings out the best in me, and I think I bring out the best in him,” Holyfield said before their
third fight. “We bring out the best in each other.”
With Act III approaching, someone asked Bowe if, were the bout to end in a draw, a fourth
matchup might be in the offing.
“Last year I felt a little out of place when November rolled around because I had gotten so
accustomed to fighting Evander Holyfield at that time,” Bowe said. “Me and Evander beating up
on each other in November has become, you know, sort of habit-forming.
“And as far as a fourth fight between us … man, I don’t even want to think about (what would
happen if there were) a draw. As hard as Evander Holyfield fights, if this one is a draw, he can
fight the next one by himself.”
Although the more anxiously anticipated pairing no doubt involved Holyfield and Tyson, that
megafight was delayed for five years, the result of, first, a thumb injury to Tyson that forced the
cancellation of their scheduled bout in November 1991 and then Tyson’s rape conviction that
landed him in prison for three-plus years. The post-incarceration Tyson was a pale imitation of his
ferocious youth, and in his two meetings with Holyfield, he was knocked out in 11 rounds on Nov.
9, 1996 – another historic date in November — and then was disqualified for chewing off a piece
of Evander’s right ear in the infamous “Bite Fight” of June 28, 1997.
With Tyson unavailable, it was almost inevitable that Holyfield and Bowe gravitate toward each
other. Then again, a fight between them probably was bound to happen in any case. They had a
shared history long before they squared off for anything of consequence, having been frequent
sparring partners in the mid-1980s, when Evander was a young pro who hadn’t yet won his first
world title and Bowe was a teenage amateur phenomenon. “I realized at the time that we might
wind up fighting someday,” Holyfield said in August 1992,after the contracts for their first bout
were signed. “He wasn’t that much younger than me, andhe was very gifted. I knew he wasn’t
going to sit around and wait for me to get out of boxing before he made his move.
“I don’t think our situation is that unusual. Ali and Larry Holmes sparred when Ali was on top and
Larry was coming up. I think maybe they knew they were going to fight for real one day. The guy
who’s your sparring partner today might be your opponent tomorrow.”
Truth be told, Holyfield might have made the mistake of still thinking of Bowe – who had
something of a reputation, and deservedly so, of a talented slacker who ate too much and trained
too little – as that sparring partner of a decade earlier. His failure to push himself to peak
efficiency, as he so frequently had and would do so in the future, might have cost him his titles.
“You couldn’t get him to do anything,” Holyfield’s trainer, George Benton, said of “The Real Deal’s”
uninspired preparation for the first Bowe bout. “Some days he refused to work at all. Every day he
had a different ache or pain.”
For his part, Bowe, who had a penchant for dramatic weight increases between fights, had given
Team Holyfield at least a little reason to be confident. He had come in at a then-career-high 245
pounds for his most recent ring appearance, a seventh-round stoppage of Pierre Coetzer. Taking a
poke at the soft midsection Bowe displayed that night, Lou Duva, Holyfield’s co-manager,
presented the challenger with a pair of fancy, size-42 trunks at an August media gathering in
New York. Bowe’s trunks had split down the back against Coetzer, revealing more of himself to an
HBO audience then he would have preferred.
“Either your trunks are too small or you butt is too big,” Duva chided Bowe. “With these on, at
least you’ll look good when they carry you out of the ring.”
But Bowe came in fit and ready, and when it became apparent that he would be no soft touch for
the favored champion, the toughest, most resilient part of Holyfield’s inner self was activated.
Bowe jolted Holyfield with a right uppercut early in the 10 round and seemingly was poised to
score a knockout, but the exhausted Holyfield, after going down along the ropes, rose and fought
back with a fury.
Color analyst Al Bernstein shouted to the pay-per-view audience, “That was one of the greatest
rounds in heavyweight history! Ever! Period!” Boxing historian Bert Sugar later would compare
that round to Round 15 of the Larry Holmes-Ken Norton war, Round 14 of Ali-Frazier III and
Round 1 of Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo, which featured seven knockdowns by Dempsey and two by
Act II, of course, is especially notable not only for more of the kind of action that had marked Act I,
but for Fan Man’s drop-in from the night sky and the tumult that set off. There probably always
will be debate as to what would have happened had there not been a delay, which some believe
benefited Holyfield and others feel was of assistance to Bowe, had had gone into training at
around 300 pounds before paring down to an weigh-in weight of 246.
“I felt at that particular point that I had Evander right where I wanted him,” Bowe said. “I had the
impression his back was giving him trouble. I felt that if the fight had continued, he would have
“Then, when I saw what happened with my wife (Judy, who was pregnant, fainted and had to be
carried out on a stretcher), I considered leaving the ring. I didn’t know what was going on. I was
bewildered. But I knew enough to understand that if I left, they would have said I was quitting. So
I waited until the fight resumed and tried to pick up where I left off. But by then I had gotten cold. I
never did get warm again, and that’s what cost me my title. Holyfield didn’t beat me; Fan Man
Holyfield, not unexpectedly, had a different take on what had transpired.
“Bowe and I fought two different six-round fights tonight,” he said shortly after his majority
decision victory was announced. “In the first one, I was just getting ready to go toe-to-toe with
him when that guy dropped in. I was in a rhythm, and I felt like I could outgun him. I started to get
upset (during the delay), but then I realized it was the same for both of us. With that cleared from
my mind, I just went out and got my rhythm back.”
The only certainty is that “Fan Man” – Miller, who would commit suicide, hanging himself from a
tree in a remote part of Alaska in 2002 – is the one who came out the worst for wear. Intending
to land in the middle of the ring, his chute became tangled in the overhead lights, causing him to
land on the top strand of ropes, after which he tumbled awkwardly into a group of startled
spectators. It spoke much as to the jinxed nature of Miller’s life that the ringside seats he toppled
into were filled by Minister Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam security detail, who were
none too pleased to have an unidentified white guy unexpectedly arrive in their midst. The
intruder was beaten unconscious by big, burly dudes brandishing walkie-talkies as makeshift
“It was a heavyweight fight,” a well-bruised Miller said afterward, “and I was the only guy who got
Fast-forward to Act III, which was to have shared the TV and local Las Vegas audience with
another high-profile boxing event, Mike Tyson’s bout with Buster Mathis Jr., scheduled to take
place on the same night just down the Strip at the MGM Grand. But that bout was postponed a
few days earlier because of a fractured thumb on Tyson’s right hand. It eventually took place the
following month, on Dec. 16 in Philadelphia, with Tyson winning on a third-round knockout. Not
that Holyfield was overly concerned about what a rusted Iron Mike, whose only fight after leaving
prison was a first-round disqualification win over the oafish Peter McNeeley on Aug. 19, 1995,
was up to.
“At my best, I am the best,” Holyfield said. “Everybody in boxing is supposed to have that
`champion’ attitude, which means that you fight the best to prove you’re the best. There was not
one day when I was the champion of the world that I didn’t want to prove I was the best. The way
I look at it, Bowe and I are the best heavyweights out there.
“Who is Mike Tyson in this day and era? He’s not the same champion he was when he was 20, 21
years old. That’s in the past. If you talk about who the best fighters are today, that’s Bowe and
myself. We’re going to get it on. If Tyson wants to fight one of us, fine. But I can’t see why
everyone puts so much (emphasis) on someone who has fought only once in four years.”
Muhammad Ali’s biographer, Thomas Hauser, once noted that Ali and Frazier “were fighting for
something more important than the heavyweight championship of the world” in the Thrilla in
Manila. “They were fighting for the championship of one another.” And so, in a way, were Holyfield
and Bowe in the final act of their remarkable rivalry. Holyfield held the early edge in another
humdinger of a battle, knocking Bowe down for the first time in the younger, larger man’s career
in the sixth round, and he seemed to be in control when momentum took a sudden turn only ,
seconds into Round 8. An overhand right dropped Holyfield, hard, and he arose at the count of
nine on unsteady legs. That drew a long look from referee Joe Cortez, who signaled the fighters to
come forward and engage. Making the most of his opportunity to close the show, Bowe delivered
a pair of rights to the head that sent Holyfield to his knees and obliged Cortez to wave a halt to
the proceedings. “When he stayed down for that long of a time (after the first knockdown),
I knew I would get him,” said Bowe, who went off as a 3-1 favorite. “I knew, if I maintained
my composure, I would get him.”
There would be more exclamation-point moments for Holyfield, who would go on to fight for
nearly 16 more years and win a version of the heavyweight championship twice more, giving him
a record four division titles, the most obvious successes being his pair of conquests of Tyson.
Bowe, despite posting a final record of 43-1 with 33 KOs, would not fare as well in his
professional dotage. He was badly beaten up in his two bouts with the “Foul Pole,” Andrew
Golota, who still found a way to screw things up en route to bookend DQ losses for repeated low
blows. Eight years after the second “victory” over Golota, Bowe made a comeback in 2004,
winning three bouts against third-tier opponents, the last of which, at 40, was an eight-round
unanimous decision over someone named Gene Pukall on Dec. 13, 2008.
The lives of the Boys of November have been marked by disappointment and turmoil outside the
ropes. Holyfield, for so long perceived as boxing’s St. George equivalent, a knight in shining armor
who dashed around the countryside slaying dragons and righting wrongs, endured three divorces
and the embarrassment of foreclosure on his 109-room mansion in Fairburn, Ga. Bowe, a twotime
champion, has had an even rockier time of it. He was served 30 days in prison after pleading
guilty to a domestic violence charge, which was part of a plea bargain involving the kidnapping of
his first wife, Judy (who later divorced him) and the couple’s five children; arrested for assaulting
his second wife, Terri, and he washed out of Marine Corps boot camp after only three days of
As Joe Louis and Mike Tyson demonstrated, as have so many other former champs, fame does
not necessarily evaporate like morning dew, but wealth (Holyfield earned an estimated $250
million in purses) can and does. It’s difficult to climb that figurative mountain, but even more
difficult to remain at its summit.
No matter what, though, Holyfield and Bowe gave us three electrifying nights for the ages. For
that, fight fans should forever be grateful.