Thirty-five months ago, no one could have ever been convinced that Evander Holyfield would be headed to Moscow in 2007 for a heavyweight title fight as anything more than a spectator. Maybe a commentator. But certainly not as champion or challenger.
It was that November night in 2004, at a jam-packed Madison Square Garden heavyweight showcase, when we saw the end of the road for the former world heavyweight and cruiserweight champion, one of the best, toughest, most inspiring, and beloved fighters of his generation. Career fringe contender Larry Donald beat the 42-year old Holyfield around the ring for the entire twelve rounds, so convincingly that every boxing journalist and "Real Deal" fan in the world called for Holyfield to retire, and the state of New York revoked his license.
He fought the best, and always valiantly. He was the man who ended Buster Douglas' unlikely title reign in its first defense, knocking him out in the third round and retiring him for six years. He was prepared to face Mike Tyson in 1991 before Tyson pulled out due to a supposed training injury and was then sent to prison. We've always wondered how that would have gone, but it's one of boxing's great "what ifs?" and nothing more.
Two fights with Lewis, two fights with Tyson, three with Bowe, three with Ruiz, two with Moorer. Fights with Holmes, Foreman, Stewart, Dokes, Byrd, Mercer, Rahman, and Toney.
But it came to an end.
Last August, he returned, licensed in Texas. Even though he was fighting veteran punching bag Jeremy Bates, we groaned. Why return? The Donald fight, and decisive losses to James Toney and Chris Byrd in his two fights prior to it, could be forgotten. We remembered the warrior, the champion. The guy that was a participant in Ring Magazine's Best Cruiserweight Bout of the 1980s and Best Heavyweight Bout of the 1980s. The one that battled Riddick Bowe in that sensational 10th round in 1992.
He beat Bates via second round TKO. He moved up in class to take on another all-time fringe contender, Fres Oquendo, and scored a tight (and controversial, which people forget) unanimous decision.
Oquendo thought he won the fight. Plenty of people thought Oquendo won the fight. If you watch it, Oquendo has a good argument, though it was very close and either decision would've been tough for the other guy to accept.
Curiously, after a tough fight with Oquendo, Holyfield stepped back down in class of opposition. Vinny Madalone and Lou Savarese were simply fellow boxing AARPers, easy wins for Holyfield to continue his slightly insane quest to unify the heavyweight titles. He won both fights easily, as expected.
When Ruslan Chagaev dropped out of a title unification bout with Sultan Ibragimov, Holyfield signed. A last-chance shot. Go to Moscow, fight what most see as a vulnerable heavyweight champion. It's a Hollywood ending, one way or the other. Raging Bull was a movie, too.
And how about the champion, Ibragimov? He is all but ignored by the hype machine. While Holyfield has questionably gained some, "Ooh, he's really back!" support from many boxing writers, Ibragimov has quietly made himself a champion.
Sure, it's a weak division. Has been for years. And of course, Shannon Briggs was nothing to get excited about as the champion defeated by Ibragimov. And, yes, Ibragimov's 2006 eliminator bout with Ray Austin was one of the worst fights you'll ever see.
But a re-focused Ibragimov has looked good in his last two wins, blowing Javier Mora out of the water in March when Briggs left him hanging, and then scoring a decisive, outclassing victory over the former champion in June when they finally met. He's a solid southpaw with decent power, decent hand speed, and decent mobility. Everything about Ibragimov is just a touch above average, but there is more to a fighter than just his base skills, and more to a fight than just what's on paper. Styles make fights, as the old saying goes, and Ibragimov may simply be too much for the nearly 45-year old Holyfield.
How Ibragimov Can Win: Wear Holyfield out. Test his conditioning and his legs. Bring the fight to him. Ibragimov, by all logic, should win this fight.
How Holyfield Can Win: There are two ways: A Ruiz-like tentative approach where he steals enough rounds to score a decision, or an aggressive approach where he tests the mettle of the champion. Evander's been on far bigger stages before. This is the most attention Ibragimov has ever been given.
I'm not going to order, because Diaz-Diaz is the more relevant bout, and it's free on HBO. But it's an intriguing matchup nonetheless, and one that could be a hell of a story.
Or it could be the second end of Evander Holyfield's career.