At the beginning of 1994, the Ring Magazine heavyweight rankings saw Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis firmly positioned in the top three slots.
Holyfield sat at the summit in possession of the WBA and IBF titles having avenged his first loss to Bowe in late 1993; “Big Daddy” clung onto the No. 2 spot having pushed Holyfield all the way inside Caesars Palace a couple of months prior; Lewis was positioned at No. 3, fresh from stopping Frank Bruno and retaining his WBC strap.
What would follow over the next twelve months was chaotic, unpredictable and worthy of a revisit 26 years on.
March 19th – Herbie Hide KO-7 Michael Bentt (WBO heavyweight title)
In October 1993, Michael Bentt received a golden ticket. With a 10-1 record, the Londoner was plucked from relative obscurity to act as a tune-up for champion Tommy Morrison in defence of his WBO heavyweight title.
Morrison was expected to unify his (widely unregarded at the time) WBO strap with Lennox Lewis’s WBC title in 1994. Instead, a huge first-round TKO upset of “The Duke” by underdog Bentt sent shockwaves through the division.
Bentt’s first, and last, defence came five months later as The Den hosted an all-British heavyweight title fight between the champion and Herbie Hide. “The Dancing Destroyer” stretched his record to 26-0 via a 7th round KO of Bentt, leading the fallen champion to pass out in the locker room afterwards sustaining career-ending brain injuries.
Bentt would retire and Hide would go on to lose his title at the first hurdle a year later to Riddick Bowe in Las Vegas.
“I was willing to die that night. And, we should all be careful what we wish for because in the next fight I almost did,” Bentt recalls of the two final fights in his short, but memorable career.
April 22nd – Michael Moorer MD-12 Evander Holyfield (IBF, WBA heavyweight titles)
After climbing off the canvas in the second round, Michael Moorer caused a notable upset inside Caesars Palace to become the first southpaw heavyweight world champion.
Moorer was the mandatory challenger for both IBF and WBA straps and outworked ‘Real Deal” over twelve competitive rounds to land two of the three judges scorecards in his favour.
After the fight, Holyfield would learn that he was suffering from a congenital heart condition, with doctor Ronald Stephens claiming “it was an absolute miracle” that Holyfield finished the bout. “He fought 12 rounds essentially in heart failure,” the beaten champion’s doctor continued.
Holyfield would announce his retirement from the sport five days after this defeat, but would later go on to receive confirmation from hospital that he had a clean bill of health. His retirement lasted just 13 months, returning to winning ways against Ray Mercer in May of 1995.
May 6th – Lennox Lewis TKO-8 Phil Jackson (WBC heavyweight title)
Lewis was becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunity to land a unification fight in the heavyweight division. “The Lion” was planning to hang up his gloves at the end of 1995, eyeing Mike Tyson’s release from prison as his new target for a retirement fight.
“These things keep happening [Holyfield losing to Moorer and retiring],” he said, “and I’ve got to hope that Moorer wants to fight me, but there are a lot of politics involved.”
Lewis’s frustrations were evident as he dropped Phil Jackson three times en route to an 8th round TKO in May, a performance that would be regarded as a “statement victory” in the division just three weeks after Holyfield lost his crown.
Reports would surface that Lewis and Bowe had agreed to meet the following March or April finally.
August 13th – Riddick Bowe NC-4 Buster Mathis Jr
Bowe was returning to the ring for the first time since dropping his world titles to Holyfield the previous November.
Buster Mathis Jr was unbeaten in 14 fights but wasn’t considered to be a huge threat to the rebuild of “Big Daddy”.
Bowe dropped Mathis in the fourth round with the underdog taking a knee. Instead of relenting, Bowe would land a huge right hand on the chin of the kneeling Mathis, seeing him crumble to the canvas unconscious.
Remarkably, referee Arthur Mercante declared the result a no contest rather than a disqualification for Bowe. “You were down, I didn’t know, I’m sorry,” a distraught Bowe told Mathis, after he was revived.
September 24th – Oliver McCall TKO-2 Lennox Lewis (WBC heavyweight title)
When Lennox Lewis faced Oliver McCall inside London’s Wembley Arena, many believed this to be a final tune-up fight for the Briton before Lewis and Bowe would meet in 1995.
Manny Steward’s fighter had other plans as “The Atomic Bull” defied the odds in handing Lewis a devastating second-round TKO loss and the first of his career.
A beautifully-timed counter right hand was the undoing of Lewis that evening, as the hometown hero failed to make the count after being dropped heavily by the Chicago-born fighter.
Lewis would cite McCall’s right as a “lucky punch” and would avenge this defeat in 1997.
November 5th – George Foreman KO-10 Michael Moorer (IBF, WBA heavyweight titles)
“One for the Ages” turned out to be just that. One age, specifically: 45.
George Foreman became the oldest heavyweight champion in history as he defeated 26-year-old Michael Moorer via a tenth-round KO.
“Big George” proved too big, strong and powerful for the youngster, as he dropped and stopped the champion in front of an elated MGM Grand crowd.
Foreman would go on to dedicate his victory to all his “buddies in the nursing home and all the guys in jail,” and would later vacate the WBA title after refusing to defend the strap against the dangerous and durable mandatory challenger Tony Tucker.
Foreman knew his standing in the heavyweight division, and despite being a recognised champion was candid enough to admit that he had no desire to face the likes of Lewis or Bowe at his age.
Despite this, Foreman would win his next three until bowing out of the sport after an MD loss to Shannon Briggs in 1997.
December 3rd – Riddick Bowe UD-12 Larry Donald
1994 ended with fireworks outside of the ring, as Riddick Bowe landed a vicious one-two on the chin of Larry Donald at their Monday press conference of fight week.
Bowe was returning to action for the first time since his no contest against Buster Mathis Jr and didn’t do his reputation any favours as he sucker-punched “The Legend” five days before their scheduled meeting.
The fight underwhelmed following the explosive build-up, with Bowe cruising to a near shut-out.
“I proved, without doubt, I’m the best heavyweight in the world,” Bowe said afterwards. “I’m really happy with the fight. He never hurt me. The fight went about how I expected.”
After a year of extraordinary events, the Ring Magazine heavyweight rankings saw George Foreman at the summit, with Oliver McCall and Riddick Bowe placed in second and third spot.