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WHAT IF TYSON HAD FOUGHT HOLYFIELD IN 1991?

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There are a lot of “What if?” situations in boxing, making for some interesting debates.

One of the more recent involved the May 2 matchup of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, a megafight many believe would have been much more compelling had it happened, say, five years earlier. When the aging superstars finally did square off, the 38-year-old Mayweather scored a rather easy unanimous decision over the 36-year-old Pacquiao, but what might have happened had they swapped punches in 2010, when the pairing would have taken place in the full bloom of their respective primes? Mayweather supporters insist that their guy would have won in much the same manner that he eventually did, but Pacquiao diehards will never be convinced that “PacMan” wouldn’t have fared far better had he not been kept waiting so long.

Which brings us to two equally and maybe even more intriguing dates in boxing history, separated by five years and one day, and a Grand Canyon’s worth of speculation. Nov. 8, 1991, was when WBA/IBF heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield and former champ Mike Tyson were to have clashed in one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts of all time. But Tyson sustained an injury to his left rib cage on Oct. 7, and the fight was postponed on Oct. 18. It was tentatively rescheduled for sometime in January 1992, in the hope it could be squeezed in before Tyson’s rape trial in Indianapolis, which was to begin on Jan. 27.

But Tyson’s sore ribs didn’t heal quickly enough and, well, we all know what happened. Tyson was convicted of rape, served three years of a six-year sentence in an Indiana prison and his confrontation with Holyfield didn’t happen until Nov. 9, 1996, when Holyfield – an opening-line 25-1 underdog (he went off as a more reasonable 10-1 longshot) shocked the world, or at least a large portion of it, by scoring an 11th-round technical knockout, dominating almost from the opening bell. The rematch, on June 28, 1997, was setting up to be more of the same when an enraged and frustrated Tyson chomped on Holyfield’s ears, resulting in his third-round disqualification.

Inquiring minds, of which I like to believe I have, were left to wonder what the outcome would have been had Holyfield and Tyson met on the originally scheduled date in 1991. Even though Tyson no longer was undefeated – he had lost his titles on that 10th-round knockout loss to Buster Douglas on Feb. 11, 1990, in Tokyo – he had strung together four victories, three inside the distance, and, at 41-1 with 36 KOs, was an opening-line 2-1 favorite over Holyfield (then 26-0, 21 KOs), who had dethroned Douglas on a third-round knockout on Oct. 25, 1990.

It was to have been a prime-on-prime confrontation with Holyfield having recently turned 29 and Tyson still a young, strong bull at 25. So why was Holyfield such a prohibitive underdog five years later? Well, he was just 4-3 in his preceding seven fights and was coming off a winning but unimpressive victory over Bobby Czyz on May 10, 1996, in Madison Square Garden. The widespread feeling then was that he was too used up to offer anything more than token resistance to the still-scary Tyson.

All of which points to one irrefutable fact: Boxing matches are won in the ring, not on paper. Styles count. Intangibles do, too. Maybe the Tyson of 1991 would have presented too steep of a hill for Holyfield to climb, and maybe the outcome of their later two meetings would have been the same. To help sort things out, I polled seven knowledgeable boxing people as to how Tyson-Holyfield, circa 1991, might have turned out had Tyson not injured his ribs or attended that beauty pageant in Indianapolis that led to his incarceration. The panelists include trainer Tommy Brooks, who at various times worked with both Tyson and Holyfield; former heavyweight champion George Foreman, who lost to Holyfield but never fought Tyson, although he wanted to; Nigel Collins, former editor of The Ring magazine; Steve Farhood, another former editor of The Ring, now a Showtime commentator; Larry Hazzard, then and now the head of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board; veteran boxing writer Michael Katz (a 2012 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame), and Ron Borges, Boston Herald sports columnist and the only media member of 49 polled who picked Holyfield to beat Tyson in 1996.

Their consensus opinion, in retrospect, might or not come as a surprise.

TOMMY BROOKS: “If that fight had gone off as planned in 1991, it would have been the same outcome as the one five years later. Evander just had Tyson’s number. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. Now, to me, both are beautiful kids and tremendous athletes. I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with them each of them. But sometimes one guy has something that gives him an edge over another guy of similar ability. Evander had the right style to fight Mike, and he had that incredible mental strength as well. I hear the same kind of talk about Mayweather and Pacquiao, what might or might not have happened if they fought five years earlier. I’m pretty sure it would have gone down the same way. Floyd had Pacquiao’s number and always would have had it, like Evander had with Mike.”

GEORGE FOREMAN: “Not only in hindsight, but even as I saw it then Mike Tyson wasn’t the best fighter in the world against guys that were not that big. He had an advantage, and I guess he got that from Cus D’Amato, against real big guys. He would hit them as hard as he could to the body, come back and touch them a little bit and then come on top with a shot to the temple and knock them out. That works with big, tall guys. But he didn’t really have the mechanics to beat guys more his own size. Holyfield didn’t hit as hard as Tyson, but he was so quick with combinations. He would have beaten Tyson then or later. That’s all there is to it.”

NIGEL COLLINS: “I think at the very top level of boxing, there is very little difference between the elites as far as the talent level goes. The secret to winning at that level is having a strong mind. Evander Holyfield could have fought Mike Tyson at any time in their careers and would have won 99 times out of 100 because he had such a strong belief in himself. After their first fight (the one in 1996), I went to (trainer) Don Turner’s house to watch the tape. Don commented on what was happening, and I turned that into a story. At one point he told me, `I can tell most fighters how to beat the other guy, but some don’t have the balls to do it. Evander does.’ And that pretty much sums it up. Really, there were only four or five years when Tyson was a truly great heavyweight. Holyfield had a much longer career at the top. Personally, I’m very fond of Tyson and always enjoyed covering him. But Holyfield will go down in history as the superior fighter.”

STEVE FARHOOD: “When they had the press conference to announce the (1991) fight, they tried to pose Holyfield and Tyson for one of those nose-to-nose staredowns. Both guys couldn’t stop giggling, maybe because they knew each other from their amateur days. This was at a time when Tyson still had that aura and was scaring everybody half to death. I think that moment was very revealing. Evander was not afraid of Tyson. That much was obvious. Look, if they had fought then, I certainly think Tyson would have done better than he subsequently did. The 1996 version of Tyson was severely diminished. In 1991, Tyson would have been much closer to his prime and he would have had more energy and skill, as opposed to ’96. But that said, we’re talking about an all-time great in Holyfield. It would be really hard to pick Tyson to win, knowing what we subsequently learned. I would pick Holyfield by decision, but I think it would be a very competitive fight, certainly more competitive than the two fights they had years later.”

LARRY HAZZARD: Five years earlier, based on what we saw (in 1996 and ’97), I don’t think the outcome would have been any different. Evander Holyfield, in my opinion, was always an equal of Mike Tyson, and maybe more than that. I actually picked Holyfield to beat Tyson in 1996, although I wouldn’t have said it publicly because of my position with the (New Jersey) commission. Everybody I did tell, though, thought I was crazy. My friend Butch Lewis, Denzel Washington and a couple more of those Hollywood types were at Butch’s house were at Butch’s house to watch the fight. I called Butch up and said, `Hey, Butch, you tell all the guys that are sitting there with you that Holyfield is going to win.’ Butch said, `Larry, you must have lost your bleepin’ mind.’ They were all laughing at me. When the fight was over and Holyfield had stopped Tyson, you couldn’t convince those guys that I didn’t have some kind of inside information. But it was just a feeling I had. I never saw a fighter that had as much heart as Evander Holyfield.”

MICHAEL KATZ: “I think it would have gone down the same way it eventually went down. The day they announced the fight (in 1991) I was in Virginia Beach for, I assume, a Pernell Whitaker fight. Holyfield was there. I interviewed him in his room. He had absolutely no hesitation about fighting Tyson; he was as calm and as sure of winning as I’ve ever seen any athlete. I think he knew all along what would happen. It was like a big brother, little brother kind of thing, that he was the man and Tyson was the boy. He knew he could take Tyson’s best shots and Tyson couldn’t take his. Later that day, word came that Tyson was under arrest in Indianapolis for some kind of sex thing.”

RON BORGES: “Oh, sure, there are a lot of people who say know that they always knew Holyfield would beat Tyson. Back then (in 1996), nobody thought Holyfield had a chance. There was a lot of talk after his fight with Czyz that Holyfield was damaged good and shouldn’t even be allowed to fight Tyson. I had a little inside information because I was fairly close to Holyfield during those years. One of the things I knew, dating back to to when Holyfield and Tyson were amateurs, was the pool table incident. Vinny Pazienza was Tyson’s roommate at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in 1984. One night they were all playing pool and it was one of those deals where if you lost, you gave up the table. Tyson lost and it was Holyfield’s turn to play. Tyson tried to bully him. Vinny was there and saw the whole thing. Holyfield walked up to Tyson, didn’t say a word and took the cue stick from him. Tyson left the room and nobody saw him for the rest of the night. I always had this image in the back of my mind that Tyson knew if there was one guy he couldn’t intimidate, it was Evander Holyfield.”

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In a One-Sided Beatdown, Batyr Jukembayev TKOs Shopworn Ivan Redkach

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In a One-Sided Beatdown, Batyr Jukembayev TKOs Shopworn Ivan Redkach

The noted trainer Brian “BoMac” McIntyre had two fighters on tonight’s ProBox card in Plant City, Florida, and brought along the ace of his stable, Terence Crawford, to provide moral support.

The main event, contested at 140 pounds, had an Eastern European flavor pitting Kazakhstan’s Batyr Jukembayev against LA-based Ukrainian Ivan Redkach. Jukembayev, Crawford’s stablemate, needed no moral support as Redkach fought a survivor’s fight for as long as it lasted. A 33-year-old southpaw, the Kazkh won every second of the fight until the mismatch was halted at the 2:18 mark of round five.

It was the fifth straight win for Jukembayev (23-1, 17 KOs) whose only defeat was inflicted by Subriel Matias, the current holder of the IBF world title at 140. Redkach (24-7-1) was stopped for the fourth time including a fight with Regis Prograis where he succumbed to a phantom low blow. Now 38 years old, he should not be allowed to fight again. His showing tonight bore stark evidence that he is completely shot.

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a 10-round junior lightweight affair, Jonhatan Cardoso, a 25-year-old Brazilian, advanced to 17-1 (15) with a split decision over LA’s Adam “Bluenose” Lopez. This figured to be a fan-friendly fight and didn’t disappoint. Both fighters threw punches in bunches although Lopez’s workrate declined in the late rounds.

Lopez, now 17-6-1, is better than his record. His first five losses came against opponents who were collectively 109-6 at the time that he fought them. The son of the late Hector Lopez, an Olympic silver medalist for Mexico and a three-time world title challenger, “Bluenose” doesn’t have a signature win, but has a signature moment. He knocked Oscar Valdez down hard in their first of two meetings, a fight he took on 1-day notice when Valdez’s original opponent was scratched after coming in 11 pounds overweight. As a pro he has limitations, but is a high-octane fighter who rarely has a bad fight.

Two of the judges favored Cardoso. Their tallies were 99-91 and 96-94. The dissenter favored Lopez 97-93. The scores were all over the map, but the right guy wn.

Also

In the TV opener, Omaha-bred junior welterweight Charles Harris Jr scored a unanimous 6-round decision over Oceanside, California’s Kyle Erwin. The judges had it 58-56 and 59-55 twice.

A protégé of “BoMac,” Harris Jr., who began his pro career in Mexico at age 16, improved to 9-1 (7). It was the second pro loss for Erwin (7-2) whose lone prior defeat was the result of a cut.

In an unrelated matter, today (May 22) was the day that Ryan Garcia’s B-sample would be opened and analyzed. So we were all led to believe.

Confoundingly, it appears that opening the urine specimen and testing the contents aren’t performed on the same day. Dan Rafael enlightened us. “Will take a few days for results but certainly possible it could stretch into early next week due to weekend and holiday,” Rafael tweeted today on his Fight Freaks Unite platform.

Why wasn’t this made known beforehand so that fight journalists could plan their day accordingly? I place the blame on the New York State Athletic Commission.

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Oleksandr Usyk from a Historical Perspective 

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Oleksandr Usyk flipped the heavyweight division onto its head this past Saturday night in the Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, travelling a long way from home to seal his greatest victory. Usyk, small by modern heavyweight standards, towers over most men at 6’3″ and 220lbs and sporting a reach that lineal champions Ezzard Charles or Joe Walcott would have killed for. Things have changed though, and in the middle rounds of his war with Tyson Fury, Usyk suddenly appeared tiny. Fury, a giant at around 6’8” and over 260lbs seems a heavyweight for this century. Usyk, a journeyman in the most ancient sense of the word, feels like a throwback to a more savage time. His greatest achievements have taken place on foreign soil. The last time he boxed at home was almost a decade ago and given the situation in Ukraine and given Usyk’s 37 years, it is unlikely he will ever box there again.

Usyk took chances in the seventh and especially the eighth to take charge of a fight that seemed to be slipping away from him. In the vertigo inducing ninth, it was he, not Fury who appeared the giant. Usyk draped the Englishman over the ropes like so much fresh meat and tenderised him to within an inch of unconsciousness, the sheer hugeness of Fury perhaps preventing a referee’s intervention on behalf of his opponent, and not for the first time. Against both Deontay Wilder (the first fight) and Otto Wallin, a more squeamish official would have stepped in and stopped the fight, and here, too, there was a case. If Usyk seems a throwback, then Fury has been refereed like one, spared stoppages likely to be inflicted upon his peers, he was allowed once again to continue boxing, as Joe Louis was against Max Schmeling, or Jack Dempsey was against Luis Pirpo. But with Fury buckled at the knees, Usyk seemed the true heavy man in the ring.

In historical terms, Usyk is not a small heavyweight. He would have dwarfed “The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson in the ring and loomed large over “Big” George Foreman. Usyk has every attribute necessary to make an unpleasant evening for Joe Louis, but it should be noted that while his footwork and speed and technical excellence would be the source of the discomfort, his excess of height and reach are the wildcards. Usyk would seem two to three weight classes bigger than Rocky Marciano, mainly because he is, and the towering Sonny Liston would look up. Circus strongman Jess Willard and the mob-sponsored Primo Carnera would both look down on Usyk – but not by that much. Usyk would stand eye to eye with Muhammad Ali but prime-for-prime he would outweigh him by ten pounds, as he would Larry Holmes. We must skip Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and reach all the way into the Lennox Lewis era before we find men from history that truly out-size Usyk on a consistent basis.

Size, as Usyk has proven, is far from everything. Big by historical standards, he is small by modern standards. What else is now true in the wake of the seismic fistic events of Saturday night? Firstly, Usyk is unquestionably ranked the #1 heavyweight in the world. Of this, there can be no dispute. Accounting for his two wonderful defeats of another “super” heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, he is 3-0 against the rest of the top five and sitting unassailably at the head of the heavyweight table. More, and I have been surprised to see it disputed in some corners, Usyk is now almost as equally unassailably the pound-for-pound number one. The only fighter breathing the same air as Usyk right now is Naoya Inoue. Inoue has been operating at or near the highest level for longer, but the level of his opposition has not been as rarefied. Comparing the first phase opposition defeated by Naoya to the murderer’s row of cruiserweights that Usyk ran into during the Super Six series can lead to only one conclusion. Although Naoya’s busy, weight-class-bursting style has topped him out for most of the past two to three years, only one of these men has consistently been beating bigger, taller, longer opposition at the highest level, and that is Usyk. It is not a matter of opinion – he is the smallest man in my heavyweight top ten.

01 – Oleksandr Usyk

02 – Anthony Joshua

03 – Joseph Parker

04 – Tyson Fury

05 – Filip Hrgovic

06 – Zhilei Zhang

07 – Agit Kabayel

08 – Daneil Dubois

09 – Martin Bakole

10 – Joe Joyce

Usyk lives among giants now and where there is parity of height (Kabayel) he is the lighter man by 15 pounds. This is not true of Naoya, who despite his weight-hopping, still manages to run into fighters of the same height and of shorter reach. The opposition argument is narrow, but the relative size opposition is not and there is no pound-for-pound credential more significant than that of consistently out-fighting bigger men. Usyk has done so and will continue to do so for as long as he fights. There is simply no smaller man in his class.

Not since the heyday of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield has a lineal heavyweight champion consistently fought bigger men and not since Mike’s hype-infused prime has a heavyweight menaced the number one pound-for-pound spot. Usyk has not enjoyed anything like the same machine support as Mike did; indeed, he has laboured in the shadow of more prominent men until such time as he thrashed them. He is a true manifestation of pound-for-pound glory in the unlimited class. Where does this leave him in terms of all-time standing?

I am reluctant to rate active fighters for reasons that are obvious enough; Usyk could be pole-axed in three by an irate Fury in a December rematch and all this ink is for naught. But what I am willing to do is play let’s pretend and imagine Usyk as retired and consider his place in heavyweight history now.

Usyk’s raw numbers are low-grade at just 22-0 with 14 knockouts. Worse, most of this was built in the cruiserweight division and not the heavyweight division. Against men weighing in as heavyweights, Uysk is essentially 7-0, and only 3-0 against ranked opposition. On the other hand, one of these victories came against Daniel Dubois, now ranked, and the 3-0 was posted against Tyson Fury, generally held to be the best or second-best heavyweight in the world, and Anthony Joshua, ranked behind only Fury at the time of his first fight with Usyk. So, when he stepped up, he stepped up to tackle the best in the world and has become lineal as a result. It’s a hard ledger to wrestle with, but fortunately we have a career that is comparable in the shape of Gene Tunney.

Tunney, a career light-heavyweight, earned a heavyweight legacy built of essentially one man: Jack Dempsey. Past-prime and inactive, Dempsey was ripped apart by Tunney in their legendary first fight and did better in a losing effort against the genius “Fighting Marine” in a rematch, much like Joshua did against Usyk. Tunney then boxed the limited but game Tom Heeney and retired. The rest of his heavyweight career was spent beating great middleweights like Harry Greb and limited losing-streak gatekeepers like Charley Weinert and Martin Burke. One thing that must be noted is that Tunney is matching men who are smaller than Usyk’s cruiserweight opposition to his heavyweight credit. Men like Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev would have been big men in Tunney’s era, but they aren’t counted towards heavyweight legacy for the Ukrainian – either would constitute Tunney’s second-best heavyweight scalp, I think. Tunney’s wider resume does not necessarily include fighters who compare that favourably even to Dereck Chisora or Chaz Witherspoon, the men who make up Usyk’s second layer of opposition.

The point is, Tunney was made a legend for defeating a champion. Both Fury and Joshua were active, physically enormous fighters that Usyk simply unmanned with a type of genius Gene Tunney would have stood to applaud. Tunney appended to his light-heavyweight career the important part of a heavyweight career – the part where you fight and beat the champion, and it has made him a stalwart of heavyweight history. This, Usyk too has achieved, but I have been more impressed with Usyk’s summit than Tunney’s. To be direct: Usyk should rate higher at heavyweight than Tunney.

What that means is that the top twenty at heavyweight is the minimum Usyk can expect from history’s eye should he retire undefeated. In such a case, I would place Usyk in this sort of company:

18 – Ezzard Charles

19 – Oleksandr Usyk

20 – Jersey Joe Walcott

21 – James J Corbett

22 – Peter Jackson

23 – Ken Norton

24 – Max Schmeling

25 – Vitali Klitschko

26 – Riddick Bowe

27 – Gene Tunney

Also illustrative of a point is Tunney’s career pre-heavyweight. Tunney, every bit as brilliant as Usyk in the ring (although notably smaller, and successful against notably smaller opposition), laced up his gloves on close to ninety occasions and his level of competition dwarfs that of Usyk. That is no indictment. All it really means is that Usyk isn’t among the thirty greatest fighters ever to have drawn breath, like Tunney is. He can join an enormous and star-studded cast that includes Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Carlos Monzon in that. I do think, though, that Oleksandr Usyk’s career, were it to end tomorrow, could be readily compared to that of Evander Holyfield and that means that an unbeaten Usyk, lineal cruiserweight and heavyweight champion of the world, current pound-for-pound king, is within spitting distance of a list that captures the fifty greatest fighters in history.

56 – Ruben Olivares

57 – Wilfredo Gomez

58 – Vicente Saldivar

59 – Oleksandr Usyk

60 – Evander Holyfield

61 – Ted Kid Lewis

62 – Lou Ambers

63 – Rocky Marciano

64 – Abe Attell

65 – Manuel Ortiz

A retired Naoya Inoue would join him in the top seventy, I think, and a retired Bud Crawford the top ninety.

Boxing is dead, haven’t you heard?

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Another Victory for Ukraine as Berinchyk Upsets Navarrete in San Diego

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Whether it was inspiration or perspiration, Ukraine’s Denys Berinchyk motored past Mexico’s Emanuel Navarrete by split decision to become the WBO lightweight world titlist on Saturday.

Just hours after his fellow countryman Oleksandr Usyk became undisputed heavyweight world champion, Berinchyk joined the club.

“This is a great night for all people of Ukraine,” Berinchyk said.

The undefeated Ukrainian Berinchyk (19-0, 9 KOs) gutted out a win over Navarrete (38-2-1, 31 KOs) who was attempting to join Mexico’s four-division world champion club in San Diego. The lanky fighter known as “Vaquero” fell a little short.

Through all 12 rounds neither fighter was able to dominate and neither was able to score a knockdown. Just when it seemed one fighter gathered enough momentum, the other fighter would rally.

A butt caused a slight cut on Navarrete in the 10th round. That seemed to ignite anger from the Mexican fighter and he powered through the Ukrainian fighter the next two rounds.

In the final round Berinchyk bore down and slugged it out with the Mexican fighter as both relied on their weapons of choice. For most of the night Navarrete scored with long-range uppercuts and Berinchyk scored with overhand rights.

After 12 rounds two judges scored it 115-113, 116-112 for Berinchyk and one 116-112 for Navarrete. Ukraine gained its third world titlist in one a week. Berinchyk joins Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko as world titlists.

“He’s a very tough guy,” said Berinchyk of Navarrete.

Welterweights

A battle between undefeated welterweights saw Brian Norman (26-0, 20 KOs) knock out Giovany Santillan (32-1, 17 KOs) in the 10th round to become the interim WBO titlist.

For nine rounds both welterweights engaged in brutal inside warfare as each tried to beat the sense out of each other.

Norman worked the body early as Santillan targeted the head. Neither fought more than two inches from each other.

The younger Norman, 23, connected with a right cross during an exchange that wobbled Santillan in the eighth round. From that point on the Georgia fighter began setting up for his power shots. Finally, in the 10th round, uppercuts dropped Santillan twice. In the second knockdown Santillan went down hard as referee Ray Corona stopped the fight immediately at 1:33 of the 10th round.

Other Bouts

Heavyweight Richard Torrez (10-0, 10 KOs) knocked out Brandon Moore (14-1) in the fifth round for a regional title.

Lightweight Alan Garcia (10-0) defeated Wilfredo Flores (10-3-1) by decision after eight.

Photo credit: German Villasenor

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