It was almost a nostalgic moment the other night when Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe tossed a real fight into the cartoonish den of fat men and villains that heavyweight boxing has become. Remember when a fight used to be more than just an excuse to sell pay-per-view "buys"?
Any fan accustomed to boxing's modern ways had to be confused by Friday night's theatrical and memorable 12-rounder. How could they put on a big fight without the freak show?
In that sense, Bowe-Holyfield was almost unrecognizable as a heavyweight title fight of recent vintage. Here are some familiar items that did not come included this time:
* A challenger whose age was somewhere between Rick Dempsey's and Adm. Stockdale's.
* Enough exposed fat for the panel of one of those Sally Jesse Raphael episodes about sabotaging diets. ("Why do we nosh?")
* An ex-champ who a) trains by ramming his car into a tree, b) says he will make his opponent "kiss me like a woman" and c) spawns a grim morality call on whether the fight should be held because he is about to spend five-to-15 making little rocks out of big ones.
* Don King. (Prayers do get answered.)
There was none of that this time. And for the first time in almost four years, since Buster Douglas upset Mike Tyson, the heavyweight title truly was up for grabs when the fighters stepped into the ring.
True story. Douglas, belly jiggling, was never going to beat Holyfield on the night the title changed hands. Bert Cooper, Holyfield's opponent in his first defense, was a nobody. George Foreman was great box office, but too slow to do anything to Holyfield except survive him. Larry Holmes belonged in a ringside seat.
Bowe-Holyfield was a competitive fight between two young, conditioned athletes. What a radical concept.
You would like to think that maybe it was the night the heavyweight division got serious about being serious again. But the ring wasn't even cleared out and Bowe's manager, someone named Rock Newman, was screaming about fighting Foreman for $20 million.
Boxing is nothing if not relentless in its ability to cough up these instant emperors. (Advice to consumers: Just hit the mute button.)
Big George is a funny man and more entertaining than anyone else before a fight. But if Bowe is serious, his first defense will be against Lennox Lewis, the undefeated Brit who clobbered Razor Ruddock. Enough of the seniors.
Of course, Bowe probably triples his savings account if he fights Foreman first, so who are we to judge?
Anyway, at least there was one night when boxing reclaimed the circus. There was substance to Bowe-Holyfield from the first round. And the 10th, in which Holyfield was all but out and then rallied, was boxing's best round since Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns started clubbing each other at the opening bell seven years ago.
You could argue the fight turned when it was matched, because Bowe was always going to be too big and strong for a champ who was never more than a pumped-up light-heavy relying more on conditioning than talent. But that's hindsight.
In truth, the fight turned on Holyfield's stubborn refusal to recognize that he was a boxer, not a puncher.
For some reason, probably because he was small, he has always wanted to prove he could knock out heavies. That he couldn't knock out Foreman or Holmes, and had to sweat at all, should have told him he couldn't knock out Bowe. But he didn't want to see it, so he didn't play to his strength and try to outbox Bowe. It just wasn't wise.
Still, he made for a compelling loser because he wouldn't go down despite an awful beating. If it's true he's retiring, he should be remembered not as the boring champ some insist he was, but a dignified champ who stayed in shape and didn't talk trash. It wasn't his fault that there was no one to fight but old men.
As for Bowe, there was irony in his being the winner on the night the heavyweights got serious again. He was the biggest clown of all for a long time, just an amusing, underachieving blabbermouth.
But he got serious, real serious, and after watching a handful of talented heavyweights basically self-destruct -- Tubbs, Tucker, Page, Cooney -- it's nice to see one remake himself into a champion.
We'll just have to see if it was all a one-night reprieve or really the beginning of the comeback of the heavyweights. But it was refreshing to reach the end of at least one fight night without having to point out that Tyson would have made it more interesting. Not this time. And the hell with him and his garbage anyway.