Fight #27: Evander Holyfield vs. Dwight Muhammad Qawi
Fight #27: Evander Holyfield vs. Dwight Muhammad Qawi, July 12, 1986, The Omni Coliseum, Atlanta, GA
This fight marks a crossroads moment in boxing history in many ways, as it is probably the last classic 15-round bout in boxing history, and maybe the first compelling cruiserweight fight ever (or as the division was known at the time, "junior heavyweight.") It is indeed a great fight, but I suspect the main reason it is on this list is because it marks the first revelation of Evander Holyfield's career, in his long journey that would culminate with his ascension to the top of the heavyweight division in the 1990s.
Going into this fight, Dwight Muhammad Qawi was the defending champion, having previously held the light heavyweight championship, before losing it to Michael Spinks in 1983, and then claiming the cruiserweight belt in March of 1986 against former heavyweight Leon Spinks. At 33, Qawi had had a circuitous route to boxing fame and fortune, having fallen as a young man into a life of armed robbery on the streets of Camden, New Jersey, which ultimately led to his imprisonment for five years at Rahway State Prison. It was there behind bars that he first took up the sport of boxing, learning from fellow inmate James Scott, who had been a light heavyweight contender before landing in prison on robbery charges. In fact, Scott somehow managed to have multiple fights broadcast while he was still inside the prison, including on huge networks like NBC, CBS, and HBO.
After leaving prison, Qawi started training in Joe Frazier's Philadelphia gym, where he seems to have picked up much of Frazier's style, particularly the habit of constantly moving forward while relying on a lot of head movement to limit the damage, all so he could dominate his opponents on the inside. At just 5'7", he was far from a prototypical boxer for his weight class, but his style was obviously effective, as he gave opponents little to target other than the top of his head, which was always crowding and pressuring them into eventual submission, both physical and psychological.
It was the latter aspect that Qawi seemed most interested in pursuing in the Holyfield fight. Watching the video of this fight was a bit jarring, given all that we now know about Evander Holyfield. But at the time of this fight, he was just 23 years old, and was best known for having earned a Bronze Medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. As he would be later in his career, he was an amazing physical specimen as a cruiserweight, with broad shoulders and a trim, 29-inch waist. At 6'2", he was a full seven inches taller than Qawi, with a similarly massive reach advantage. But he was also very much unproven, with an 11-0 record against largely forgettable opposition. Even more, he had never been more than eight rounds in his career. The fact that he was given a title shot under these circumstances is difficult to imagine today, where young prospects are typically protected for longer periods of time to maximize their marketability and cash in at the right moment. But, the fight afforded Holyfield the chance to fill the Omni in his hometown of Atlanta, and to gain real national exposure.
In the opening round, Holyfield's strategy was clear, and pretty obvious. Use his left jab to maintain distance, follow up with combinations, avoid fighting on the inside. When backed into the ropes or into a corner, use his superior foot speed to turn Qawi away and reestablish distance at the center of the ring, where Holyfield could move to his right, away from Qawi's powerful right hand. When he did deploy this strategy, Holyfield seemed open for a left hook throughout the fight, but Qawi never landed one. I guess that's one piece of Frazier's arsenal that he never quite picked up.
Early in the fight, it appeared that Holyfield, egged on by his hometown crowd, wanted a knockout. On the few occasions where Qawi actually backed up, Holyfield would unleash a fury of punches. But this is where Qawi revealed one of his truly elite skills: he was absolutely amazing at slipping punches, or blocking him with his gloves. Qawi was not a flashy defensive boxer, but he was extremely effective. At one point, Holyfield appeared to miss about 8 or 9 punches in a row, as Qawi repeatedly slipped them with head movement. At other times, Holyfield seemed to settle for just hitting Qawi as hard as he could on the shoulders, because there wasn't much else to aim at, other than the top of Qawi's bald head, and that appeared to be absolutely indestructible. Especially in the early rounds, whenever Holyfield would produce these ineffective flurries, Qawi would usually respond with a shrug of his shoulders, a smirk, and then pop Holyfield in the jaw.
It was in this way that Qawi goaded Holyfield into his fight. Frustrated with his inability to knock Qawi down, Holyfield by the middle rounds abandoned the jab and the foot movement, and traded with Qawi on the inside. As the fight shifted in this direction, the announcers seemed to believe that this presaged a Qawi victory, probably by knockout. After all, Holyfield was supposed to fight on the outside, and he was supposed to tire since he'd never been past eight rounds. But the boxing world learned something about Holyfield with this fight. Holyfield not only could match Qawi on the inside, he actually outworked him, ripping uppercuts and hooks to the chin. Whenever Qawi did land a meaningful punch (often to the body, which set up overhand rights upstairs), Holyfield always responded. In fact, for a couple of moments in this fight, it looked like Holyfield was in real trouble, as he backed away from Qawi's assaults on the inside, covering up. But just when he seemed to be in the most danger, something awakened inside Holyfield and he started throwing back, and throwing back effectively. The result was that Holyfield simply outworked Qawi for most of the fight. And by the late rounds, the defending champion stopped smirking as he realized that Holyfield was a lot tougher than he imagined.
I had Holyfield well ahead on my scorecard going into the 15th round. Qawi seemed to realize he needed a knockout, but Holyfield, rather than staying away from Qawi, agreed to the terms of the exchange and traded with Qawi on the inside. With about 15 seconds left in the fight, Qawi tried an old trick. He backed several steps away from Holyfield, pretending to be hurt, hoping to catch a reckless Holyfield coming in. But Holyfield didn't take the bait, and just stood there watching Qawi. Realizing he was out of time, Qawi then desperately charged at Holyfield in one final flurry, which Holyfield parried effectively.
I thought this was a comprehensive performance by Holyfield. I gave him 12 of the 15 rounds. Although several were close, Holyfield outworked Qawi on the outside and on the inside. He won the fight convincingly. One of the three judges had an identical scorecard to mine; another had it narrower but also for Holyfield, and a third inexplicably had it for Qawi. I suspect this judge was inserting his own expectations of the fighters into how he judged the rounds. The announcers themselves seemed to think that Qawi had the advantage on the inside, until it became clear that he actually didn't. And then it became apparent that this fight was not simply a back-and-forth between an old master and a rising star, but rather a clear victory by a young master over an older one.
After this fight, Qawi and Holyfield would meet in the ring again in December 1987, resulting in another Holyfield win, this time by KO. Holyfield would not suffer his first loss as a professional until he had already claimed the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. As for Qawi, he would continue fighting until the age of 45, even making an ill-advised trip to the heavyweight division, where the 5'7" former light heavyweight champion would be blasted to pieces by an old George Foreman. Nonetheless, as a two-division world champion, Qawi earned induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004. Holyfield followed him there 13 years later.
Here is a video of the fight: