He was the dominant heavyweight boxer of the 1990s, successfully earning the heavyweight title three times, something accomplished previously only by Muhammad Ali.
But unlike Ali, who was an Olympic champion, winning gold at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, glory escaped Evander Holyfield at the 1984 Olympic Games.
The youngest of nine children from Almore, Alabama, Holyfield grew up in a crime-infested neighborhood, finding respite as a seven-year old in boxing. Winning at every level as a pre-teen and teenager, Holyfield rose to international prominence by winning silver at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela. In 1984, he found himself representing the United States on the boxing team at the Los Angeles Olympics as their light heavyweight contender.
While spectators did not know much of Holyfield at the commencement of the Games, they certainly were aware of the rock solid boxer whose punishing body shots with the right, and hooks to the face with the left were making a case that Holyfield was destined for gold. He mowed down the competition in increasingly ruthless fashion, with the referee stopping the contest early in his first two bouts. Holyfield knocked out his quarterfinal opponent in the first round, setting up a match with Kevin Barry of New Zealand.
Holyfield dominated the fight. Blocking most of Barry’s punches, Holyfield landed hooks and body blows fairly regularly. Barry was cautioned a few times for clinching by holding the back of Holyfield’s neck, as that was his only way of slowing Holyfield down. A telling moment came in the middle of the first round when Holyfield landed what the announcer called a “stinging left”, which turned Barry’s legs to jelly. The referee, Gligorije Novicic of Yugoslavia, reached in to break the fighters apart, but Holyfield managed to land another solid right. Barry was given a standing eight, and looked to be in trouble as the first round ended.
The second round started somewhat cautiously for the first 30 seconds, until Holyfield landed two lefts to Barry’s gut, the Kiwi’s knees buckling momentarily. Barry, stopped Holyfield’s momentum by again holding the back of his neck. After that Holyfield began to land shots to the head and body relentlessly until the fight was stopped when the referee deducted a point from Barry’s scorecard for, I believe, hitting Holyfield late after telling them to stop. Soon after that, Novicic stopped the fight to caution Holyfield for something that seemed unclear. Soon after Barry was cautioned for a couple of rabbit punches to Holyfield’s head. Soon after Barry is cautioned for holding the back of Holyfield’s neck. Another caution for Barry. And again, another point stripped off of Barry’s score.
The fight essentially deteriorated into a herky jerky rhythm of starts and stops, primarily due to the Novicic’s need to caution and warn Barry. Then suddenly, the fight was over.
With fewer than 20 seconds left in the second round, with Barry holding the back of Holyfield’s neck yet again, Holyfield delivers a hard right to Barry’s mid-section, and at the moment Holyfield lands a second right to Barry’s stomach, the referee shouts “stop”. A split second later, Holyfield delivers a crushing left hook to Barry’s right check that sends the New Zealander to the mat. Barry gets up, but the referee counts him out.
Barry has been knocked out.
But he hasn’t lost.
Soon after, the referee calls Holyfield over and says something that sends Holyfield away in clear disgust. Novicic has disqualified Holyfield, apparently for punching Barry after saying “stop”. And just like that, the fight is over and Barry has won the fight. And when the two boxers are standing at the side of the referee, and raises the right hand of Barry in victory, Barry grabs Holyfield’s right arm and lifts it in the air. For all to see, Barry wants people to know he thought Holyfield was the winner.
Ironically, there were no real winners in the light-heavyweight competition in Los Angeles. Holyfield was disqualified, and therefore lost his chance to advance to the gold medal round. And ironically, because Barry was knocked out with a shot to the head, the rules dictated that he was “automatically rendered ineligible to fight for 28 days”, according to this article.In other words, no gold medal match for him either.
The result was extraordinary. The gold medal went to Anton Josipovic of then-Yugoslavia, who did not have to throw a punch to earn the right to the top of the medal podium.
The result was protested by the United States and the protest was denied. But in an unusual act of sympathy or compromise, the protest committee agreed to award the bronze medal to Holyfield despite his disqualification.
When Josipovic accepted his gold medal, he did what he thought everyone knew. He pulled Holyfield up to the top step. When Holyfield stepped off the podium, he was smiling widely, a classy finish to a boxer who would go on to win his next 28 fights as a professional, and become one of the world’s greatest boxers of all time.