ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - Being the older of the two fighters in last night's heavyweight bout, Evander Holyfield said he would out-think and outsmart the younger Hasim Rahman, which is another way of saying he would have to use his head.
But last night, before 9,138 at the Boardwalk Hall, he literally - if accidentally - used his noggin to win the fight.
An accidental head butt by Holyfield in the seventh round, which followed one in the fourth, appeared to cause a baseball-sized welt on Rahman's head, leading to the fight's stoppage by referee Tony Orlando, after consulting with ringside doctor Howard Taylor at 1:40 of the eighth. Taylor said the Baltimore fighter had developed a severe hematoma.
The decision then went to the scorecards, in accordance with New Jersey Athletic Control Board rules, which had Holyfield winning a technical split decision. Judges Steve Weisfeld and John Stewart had it for Holyfield, 69-64, and Melvina Lathan scored it for Rahman, 67-66. Holyfield raised his record to 38-7-2 with 25 knockouts and dropped Rahman to 35-4 with 29 KOs.
As the winner, Holyfield, the sport's only four-time heavyweight champion, became the No. 1 contender for the World Boxing Council's version of Lennox Lewis' two heavyweight titles. He also became the No. 2 contender behind Chris Byrd for Lewis' International Boxing Federation crown. Lewis defends both titles against Mike Tyson on Saturday in Memphis, Tenn., and, should he win, he must take on Byrd first.
Holyfield, who will turn 40 in October, denied head-butting Rahman, 29, until watching a replay of it on the cameras of HBO, which televised the bout.
"That shot was a head butt," said Holyfield, who first said he thought the welt came from the many other rights with which he nailed Rahman.
"I have seen shots that land very close to the temple do that. All of my right hands were hitting his temple," Holyfield said.
Shortly after being pushed to the canvas by Rahman in the seventh round, which Orlando ruled a slip, Holyfield drove Rahman to the corner with a series of punches but also clipped the younger fighter with his head. A round later, the large welt quickly materialized on Rahman's forehead over his left eye, forcing Orlando to halt the bout and take Rahman to visit Taylor in the neutral corner.
"I didn't think he could do this much damage with his head. He must have a metal plate in there," said Rahman, who hinted that his pre-fight retirement threats were false by saying he would fight Holyfield again. "But I'd have to prepare better for the head butts."
Rahman said he complained to Orlando about head butts from the opening bell.
"He was head-butting me from Round 1. I pointed it out to the referee," said Rahman, in his first fight since November, when he lost his heavyweight title to Lewis seven months after stunning the champ in South Africa.
Eventually, he said, the injury affected his vision. "Every time I threw my right hand, he would drop his head. I thought he was going to be active early."
It was the second straight time a Rahman fight ended in the eighth round at Boardwalk Hall. On Nov. 7, 1999, Rahman's 27th birthday, Oleg Maskaev knocked him through the ropes and out of the fight. That was the last fight to be held at Boardwalk Hall before last night.
"I thought he would try to end it early. He knew I had been knocked out in my last fight," said Rahman, referring to a fourth-round knockout in the Lewis rematch. "I was trying to wait until the later rounds when he would probably get tired. I was going to pick it up in the later rounds. I don't feel it was a fair or official fight. I don't feel Evander beat me tonight."
In the post-fight news conference, Rahman's wife applied an icepack to his welt, whose swelling had come down appreciably. In response to a question about whether or not he was head-butted, Rahman said, "I'm sitting here with an extra head," and added he would "wear a helmet next time."
Rahman out-jabbed Holyfield, 47-27, but the older fighter landed more total punches (129-118) and more power punches (102-71). With the exception of the fourth round, when he moved in behind his jab and landed hard rights that drove Holyfield to the ropes, Rahman was largely outhustled.
The most potent weappons were Holyfield's left hooks.
"He's a good fighter, so I knew I had to counterpunch him. I always think I win. I felt good," Holyfield said. "The only thing you can do is do your best when it goes to a decision. It's good to know that the decision can go my way sometimes."
Asked whom he would like to fight next, Lewis or Tyson, Holyfield, who earned $5 million compared to $2 million for Rahman, said: "The guy that wins next week might want a big payday.
"Don't tell me what God can't do. Don't tell me he can't revive a 39-year-old man."
The crowd cheered loudly for Holyfield as he entered the ring for what would be his first non-title fight since he scored one of the biggest upsets in boxing history by beating Tyson in November 1996. Holyfield had either challenged for a title or defended one in his past nine fights, going 5-2-2.
He gave them what they wanted in a workmanlike performance that included several big exchanges in which he teed off on Rahman with combinations to the head.
"Tonight, he put himself in position where I could hit him," Holyfield said. "He didn't keep his hands up and I was hitting him with solid shots."
Holyfield had a reputation for using his head in the ring, something Tyson bitterly complained about. He got so frustrated in their second fight in 1997 he finally bit Holyfield's ears.
Holyfield vows not to retire unless it is after winning the crown for a fifth time and, yet again, becoming undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
"My chances are as great as anybody's. And I wouldn't still be in the game if I didn't think I could beat everybody," said Holyfield, who, at age 28, knocked out Buster Douglas to become undisputed heavyweight champion in 1990. "I'm always certain that people don't believe I can do it, but they'll be believers in the end."