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Dwight Muhammad Qawi-Evander Holyfield 1: Cruiserweight inferno 35 years later

Photo by Bettmann/ Getty Images

Mention the name Evander Holyfield to a knowledgeable boxing fan and the following descriptions and adjectives come up: “warrior,” “courageous,” “indomitable,” “overachiever,” and, as of 2017, “hall of famer.” His never-quit mindset enabled him to conquer mountains that others could not and allowed the 6-foot-2 1/2-inch “Real Deal” to succeed in the land of 6-foot-5 , 240-pound giants while scaling between 202 and 217 pounds during his best years. Holyfield was that rare athlete who invested maximum commitment to his craft, and that commitment enabled him to achieve more than anyone could have expected.

All reputations have a starting point, and, for Holyfield, that occurred 35 years ago today when he underwent the most severe of acid tests — his first encounter with Dwight Muhammad Qawi for Qawi’s WBA “junior heavyweight” championship. Even now Holyfield-Qawi I is the consensus choice for the greatest cruiserweight title fight in history and it also served to elevate the weight class from its previous status as a halfway house for past-prime light heavyweights and undersized heavyweights. Holyfield-Qawi I showed beyond doubt that cruiserweights can produce breathtaking spectacles between finely-honed athletes just like all the other weight classes could. In other words, this much maligned division — the only one in recent annals that sported two different names (junior heavyweight for the WBA and cruiserweight for the WBC and IBF) and, for a time, two different weight limits simultaneously (190 for the WBA and IBF, 195 for the WBC) — earned its respect.

Coming into the fight, some wondered whether the 23-year-old Holyfield was biting off far more than he could chew by fighting the 33-year-old Qawi, a former light heavyweight champion who breathed new life into his career after capturing a second divisional title by stopping South Africa’s Piet Crous in 11 on Crous’ home turf the previous July and by steamrolling over former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks in six rounds less than four months earlier on ABC, the network that would be televising Qawi’s second title defense against Holyfield. Qawi made the most of his lack of height and reach by utilizing the bob-and-weave buzz saw style taught to him by respected Philadelphia trainer Wesley Mouzon. Although his approach resembled that of Joe Frazier, Qawi said he actually was a counterpuncher by nature, just one that launched his counters from extremely short range. Qawi was also adept at ducking under his taller opponents’ punches, a talent that, over time, emptied gas tanks.

Qawi enters the Rahway State Prison to face James Scott. Photo by The Ring Magazine/ Getty Images

Qawi’s advantages in professional experience over Holyfield were immense. He had logged eight years, 211 total rounds and 65 rounds in championship competition, totals that dwarfed Holyfield’s 20 months and 44 rounds as a pro. Besides Crous and Spinks, Qawi (26-2-1, 15 KO) had beaten former light heavyweight champion Mike Rossman (KO 7), ended the championship hopes (and the career) of incarcerated contender James Scott (W 10) — a man with whom he served time at Rahway State Prison — dethroned Matthew Saad Muhammad (KO 10) and repeated the feat nearly eight months later (KO 6), took out Jerry “The Bull” Martin (KO 6), logged wins over siblings Eddie Davis (KO 11) and Johnny Davis (majority W 10 and split W 10) and lost to WBA counterpart Michael Spinks for the undisputed championship (L 15). Most importantly, however, Qawi had fought 10 or more rounds 12 times and had seen rounds 11-15 on three occasions. That stood in stark contrast to Holyfield (11-0, 8 KO), whose longest fight was an eight-round decision over future cruiserweight title Tyrone Booze in July 1985. Now, without the benefit of completing a 10-round match, he was confronted with the real possibility of having to fight 15 rounds against a hard-nosed and determined world champion.

While Holyfield now is celebrated for his stamina, this was a very real issue in 1986. Holyfield huffed and puffed at times during his “Night of Gold” pro debut against Lionel Byarm — a fight that lasted the full six-round distance — and that was a continuation of a trend extending back to the amateurs; he would build a big lead in the first round-and-a-half, then, if he didn’t score the TKO, run out the clock in the fight’s second half.

“He had a mental block,” trainer Lou Duva said in the December 1986 issue of KO. “Once he felt tired, he wouldn’t fight back.”

In order to give Holyfield the necessary stamina to go 15 hard rounds, Duva and co-trainer George Benton — as well as fitness specialist Tim Hallmark — executed a multi-pronged blueprint. The first phase was overhauling Holyfield’s diet; his beloved Whoppers, potato chips, popcorn, hot dogs, strawberry shakes, apple pies and Cracker Jack were replaced with apples, oranges, bananas and leaner meats. The second was Hallmark’s strength and conditioning regimen that used treadmills, stationary bicycles and long sessions on the stair-climber, all of which transformed Holyfield’s already impressive physique into a chiseled masterpiece. The third was achieved with a bit of deception by Duva and Benton — telling Holyfield that his two-minute and two-and-a-half-minute rounds were actually three minutes in length.

“Since then, he’s never complained about stamina,” Duva said with pride. “In fact, we have to slow him down.”

“I don’t think the problem was physical; I think it was a mental thing,” Holyfield told KO’s Jeff Ryan in the August 1987 issue. “I let my mind get the best of me and tell my body, ‘no, you can’t go.’ Someone like Lou was able to reach me by talking to me. He got me to relax and made me realize that I could go on. And George Benton was always motivating me. ‘Before you know it, it’s all over,’ he’d say. They gave me the confidence that I could go longer rounds. My trainer in Houston, Tim Hallmark, conditioned me for the Qawi fight. He put me on a program where I worked an hour-and-a-half, sometimes two hours. He made me realize that if I could work as hard as I did in my conditioning class, I should be able to last in the ring for an hour, too.”

But the hour Holyfield would endure against Qawi wasn’t any ordinary one; it was one of the most pulsating, energy-sapping and demanding anyone ever could have conceived.

Holyfield in his cruiserweight prime. Photo by Ring Magazine/ Getty Images

Holyfield was the first member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that won nine gold medals in Los Angeles to challenge for a professional world title, and despite the wide deficits in terms of experience the Las Vegas odds makers deemed him a 7-to-5 favorite. After all, he was much taller (by five-and-three-quarter inches), much younger (by nearly a decade), possessed the livelier legs and was the harder puncher at the weight, but the biggest factor in his favor was that the fight was being staged at The Omni in Atlanta before a raucous pro-Holyfield crowd anxious to will their hometown hero to his greatest triumph, a triumph that would partially make up for the controversial disqualification against New Zealand’s Kevin Barry that resulted in a bronze medal instead of the expected gold.

Flanked by gold-medal winning teammates Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland and Tyrell Biggs, Holyfield was the first to enter, and, at 186, he was three-and-three-quarters pounds lighter than the stocky champion, who prayed with his Muslim minister in his corner just before the pre-fight introductions.

At the opening bell, the differences between the two were made even more stark: The tall, angular challenger with the 29-inch waist seeking to fully exploit his six-inch reach advantage  and the 20-foot-square ring as the thickly-built champion with the 36-inch waist pursued behind a shell defense and sought to land overhand rights. The feeling-out period lasted less than a minute as Holyfield connected with glancing rights following double jabs while Qawi patiently rolled his upper body, picked off jabs with his gloves, fired singular rights to the head and body and waited for Holyfield to expend his nervous energy. As the round progressed, Holyfield asserted his superior hand and foot speed by firing combinations but Qawi’s counter right to the jaw reminded the challenger that he was in with a highly seasoned — and highly intelligent — competitor.

Qawi began the second by connecting with a strong right to the jaw, and, tellingly, Holyfield absorbed it unflinchingly and continued to fire long-armed spears at the champion. Tellingly, Qawi had already reduced the distance between them by half — exactly the range he needed in order to impose his strengths. Qawi connected with a snappy left hook-right uppercut to the jaw and he smartly maneuvered Holyfield toward the ropes time and time again. Even better for Qawi: The pace was quickening, which brought in the possibility of Holyfield burning out in the “championship rounds” of 11 through 15 — if it even got that far. The intensity increased with every passing second, and the pair even continued to fight after the second-round bell sounded — a bell that could barely be heard above the throng.

Holyfield gunned for an early ending at the start of Round 3 but Qawi coolly slipped under most of the artillery and, after briefly resetting, resumed his determined pursuit. Many of his body punches strayed low of the target, an infraction that drew several cautions from referee Vinny Rainone, but his bombs over the top were precise and seemingly more powerful, at least at the moment. Still, Holyfield was more willing to engage in trench warfare with Qawi; perhaps he sensed that his work with Hallmark was paying off or maybe that was just Holyfield’s combative temperament coming out. The main difference between the two at this point was the intensity of work rate; Holyfield was always in motion, either with his hands or with his feet, while Qawi fought in spurts.

Had this been a three-round amateur fight, Holyfield would have won going away. But now Holyfield had to complete the equivalent of four more back-to-back bouts in searing heat and against a tank-like opponent armed with savvy, toughness and grit.

The fourth opened with Holyfield showing the first signs of concession to the 15-round distance as he retreated toward the ropes and allowed Qawi to pound away at close range for nearly a full minute. With Duva yelling “turn him, turn him,” Holyfield spun away toward ring center and peppered Qawi with light but scoring punches. The intensity of those punches increased as the round continued, but, in the long-term, Qawi was getting the trench war he craved. A heavy right buckled Holyfield’s legs for the first time in the fight, but the challenger produced the perfect response by immediately snapping back with his own power shots. The already-robust action escalated to the point where ABC’s blow-by-blow man Al Trautwig declared that there was no way this fight would go 15 rounds.

Holyfield began the fifth on his toes in an effort to slow the fight down to a more comfortable level, and Qawi, sensing weakness in his opponent, turned the screws psychologically by taunting and making faces. Analyst Alex Wallau said Holyfield lacked the strength at this point to keep Qawi away or to earn his respect, and that the solution was to set his feet and drill the champion with power punches while also pivoting away from Qawi’s right hand. The fifth was Qawi’s best thus far, and, worse yet for Holyfield, his body — and his mind — was starting to rebel.

“It’s the sixth round and my back is starting to hurt,” he told Ryan. “I feel myself draining because Qawi has been coming on from the fourth round. He’s been really putting on the pressure and trying to take me out. It feels like war. Now I’m asking myself, ‘what are you doing in here?’ It’s then that you start looking for a reason to quit. I told myself ‘uh uh. You can’t quit. You have to go on.’ In the seventh round, my back hurt even worse. And Qawi kept the pressure on more and more. I just kept refusing to quit, because all my life I worked to be in this position. I said to myself, ‘what are you gonna do, fold?’ Then thoughts come to your mind, where you say, ‘well, I’m young. It won’t hurt me if I do lose this one.’ But the other side of you says, ‘no, you’re not a loser.’ In the eighth round it got even  tougher, but from the ninth round on I caught my second wind. I started feeling better. I felt sharp when the bell rang for the ninth.”

The pace during Qawi-Holyfield 1 was unrelenting. Photo by Ring Magazine/ Getty Images

In retrospect, rounds six through eight of the first Qawi fight were the most important nine minutes of Evander Holyfield’s boxing life because the successful resolution of his war between the ears served to form the foundation that would animate the remainder of his career. Had he decided to submit, he would have had to live with the consequences for the rest of his life; it would have been his first professional loss, he would have lost untold tens of millions of potential future income and he likely would have been relegated to obscurity. But because he didn’t submit, he proved to himself that he had a champion’s drive when it absolutely counted the most. Under the most intense pressure imaginable — and with his body still losing fluids at a dangerous pace — Holyfield allowed the mental to override the physical, resulting in a performance of a lifetime.

But Qawi, proud champion that he was, was the one who forced Holyfield to question himself. In Round 6, Qawi ducked, dodged and weaved away from 17 consecutive punches, after which he drove in a dagger firing a more accurate 11-punch flurry, backing away, and flashing a smiling shrug. Even so, the difference in consistency and marksmanship kept Holyfield in the equation –and because clean punching is a major part of scoring fights, “The Real Deal” kept himself from being mathematically buried.

As the rounds ticked by, one could see Holyfield digging into his deepest recesses in the face of Qawi’s relentlessness while the champion sought opportunities to pounce while also doing his best to fend off the challenger’s flying fists. The styles meshed magnificently, and both men were investing full power and passion into each punch in the hopes of breaking the other. Neither succeeded, and as a result the fight went much longer than anyone had a right to believe.

The ninth saw Holyfield finally find that perfect distance in which he could land with maximum effectiveness while also limiting Qawi’s opportunities to strike. He landed his jab consistently, showed his strength by pushing Qawi away, and fired short right uppercuts and hooks without taking undue punishment in return. Holyfield stretched his advantage at the start of the 10th as his legs showed renewed life and his blows were delivered with extra speed and power. The second wind for which he had been waiting had finally arrived, and with the finish line inching closer and closer the mixture of euphoria and relief had to be palpable. But Holyfield wasn’t operating inside a vacuum; Qawi was still Qawi and he remained a never-ending threat because of his iron will, his steely chin, and his thirst for success.

Their shared goals but opposed paths continued to clash throughout the championship rounds. Having been in unknown territory since Round 9, Holyfield continued to examine the limits of his reserves by starting strongly in the opening minute only to throttle down later while Qawi, knowing he had to be behind on the scorecards in his opponents’ hometown, marched forward and seized upon any openings his wizened eyes perceived. The thousands that filled the Omni sought to boost the challenger’s energy by chanting “Holy! Holy! Holy!” but the object of their affection remained focused on living in the moment and taking care of his business.

Astonishingly, Holyfield appeared to be the fresher man during the final five rounds; an emphatic right uppercut-left hook-right cross-left hook snapped Qawi’s head late in the 13th and his improbable work rate in the 14th graphically showed just how weary the champion had become. The final round saw both men empty their chambers but Holyfield showed he had more bullets in his than Qawi did, and that, more than anything, proved to be the difference.

Fifteen seconds before the final bell, Qawi attempted one last veteran move. Shortly after taking a short right to the temple he stopped and took a couple of stuttering steps backward as if his brain had gone suddenly fuzzy. But it was all a ruse, for Qawi leapt out of his crouch and winged a desperate overhand right and hook that missed the target. Holyfield had passed one final test, and now it was up to the judges to determine whether he had earned his diploma.

Judge Gordon Volkman, a Wisconsin native, said no, as he had Qawi ahead 143-141. Neffie Quintana of New Mexico issued an overwhelming “yes” as he turned in a 147-138 scorecard in which he gave Holyfield nine of the final 10 rounds. Hall of Fame judge Harold Lederman cast the deciding vote, and, as was often the case, his score matched conventional wisdom: 144-140 for the winner…and new champion, Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield. For the record, Lederman gave Holyfield seven of the last 10 rounds.

Photo by Ring Magazine/ Getty Images

It is a cliche for athletes to declare they were willing to invest their very last drop in the name of victory, but in Holyfield’s case it was the literal truth. Holyfield revealed he has lost 15 pounds during the fight and the back pain he was experiencing wasn’t just muscular but also renal; his kidneys were failing.

“I was going to go to a party after the fight, but when I went to the room to shower, I kind of stiffened up and felt nauseous and got a headache,” Holyfield told Ryan. “I called my doctor and he said we needed to get over to the hospital. He said I lost so much water that I started burning muscle. That can cause kidney failure. They put me on the IV and put nine containers in me.”

According to an October 1990 story penned by the Los Angeles Times’ Earl Gutskey, Holyfield came perilously close to permanent damage.

“First, his wife (Paulette) didn’t delay in calling for help,” said Holyfield’s doctor Ron Stephens. “Second, I lived just a mile or so away, and we were able to get a (kidney specialist) at the hospital, who was waiting for us when we arrived. We right away diagnosed him as being in severe dehydration. He was unable to urinate. We put a catheter in him and there was no urine in his bladder. We put on intravenous fluids and put 12 liters of fluid into him before he could produce a drop of urine. He was maybe a few hours away from striated muscle breakdown, and if those byproducts had clogged up his kidneys, his boxing career not only might have been over, he could have wound up on a kidney machine the rest of his life. He’s lucky his wife called when she did.”

Indeed. Holyfield stopped Qawi in four rounds in their December 1987 rematch en route to becoming an undisputed champion at cruiserweight. He then went on to become the only heavyweight in history to produce four separate championship tenures, and in a 26-year-career that ended in 2011 he produced a record of 44-10-2 (29) while also earning a plaque in Canastota as part of the IBHOF’s Class of 2017.

As for Qawi, he alternated between heavyweight and cruiserweight, with his final title opportunity coming in November 1989 against Robert Daniels for the vacant WBA belt. The 34-year-old lost by split decision, and while he ended his career with an eight-round points loss to Tony LaRosa in November 1998 while scaling a career-high 232, it was just his third loss in his last 12 fights and he ended his career at age 45 with a record eerily similar to Holyfield’s: 41-11-1 (25). By retiring 12 1/2 years before Holyfield’s final fight, he beat “The Real Deal” into the Hall of Fame by 13 years as he was inducted into the Class of 2004.


Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 20 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2006. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of  “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook or Twitter (@leegrovesboxing).



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