LAS VEGAS -- For close to nine rounds at Caesars Palace last night, Oliver McCall looked every bit the part of a sparring partner for Larry Holmes, the 45-year-old former champion.
But McCall's relative youth and strength proved decisive in the last three rounds in winning a close but unanimous decision in the first defense of his World Boxing Council crown.
As devastating as he was in upsetting Lennox Lewis with a second-round knockout in England last September, McCall, 29, reverted to his previous form of being just a journeyman heavyweight in trying to solve Holmes.
Only in the ninth round did McCall truly show his superiority, rocking his middle-aged foe with a series of bludgeoning overhand rights.
By the 10th, Holmes was looking every bit his age, his left eye swollen and his face puffy. But he was still a brave, old lion, showing the heart that had allowed him to survive brutal wars with Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Mike Weaver and Evander Holyfield.
The way the judges voted, McCall had to win the last round to pull it off. Barbara Perez and Tomi Tomihari gave McCall a one-point margin and Chuck Giampa called it 115-112.
"It was a good fight, but he was a little stronger," said Holmes, making his fourth unsuccessful bid to regain the heavyweight crown he lost on a controversial decision to Michael Spinks in 1985. "This is good way to go out."
Said McCall: "Holmes showed me a lot of courage, but I had the better jab, and that was the difference."
By the sixth round Holmes was fighting with more confidence, out-boxing the longtime sparring partner and scoring with hard hooks to the body.
The crowd of 8,167 began to rally behind Holmes who started the seventh round with a crunching hook and followed with a left-right combination.
But Holmes again retreated to the ropes, negating McCall's wide-arcing punches with quick clinching tactics.
Holmes again started the eighth round with a telling punch, catching McCall on the nose with an overhand right. McCall began to use his jab, but could not put two punches together and the frustration began to show.
But the fight turned dramatically in the ninth round. McCall trapped Holmes in a corner and sent his head flying with a smashing hook. This time, he swarmed to the attack with five straight jarring blows.
The barrage opened a gash under Holmes' left eye. He fought back courageously, landing several uppercuts, but it did not discourage McCall.
In an earlier heavyweight title bout, Bruce Seldon, who has heard ring-siders repeatedly question his fighting heart and work ethic, silenced the critics by stopping former champion Tony Tucker in the eighth round to claim the vacant World Boxing Association title.
Ring physician Flip Homansky ordered referee Mills Lane to stop the brutally contested fight after the seventh round after examining Tucker's damaged left eye. Homansky said that the former International Boxing Federation champion had suffered a possible fracture of the eye socket.
Although Tucker (52-3, 43 KOs) was trailing on all the judges' cards, he vehemently protested Homansky's decision and demanded a rematch.
"The doctor didn't even warn me he might stop the fight," he said. "I thought I was winning. I pleaded with them not to stop it."
Said Seldon, "This is a dream come true. He stung me, but I was determined. I knew I was going to win. I was just trying to box with him in the early rounds. I saw his eye closing, but Tucker is a veteran and good job of keeping me away from the eye."
Homansky said he had checked Tucker's eye for three rounds before telling Mills to stop it. "I was concerned about nasal and orbital fractures," the doctor said.
The WBA selected Seldon, 29, and Tucker, 35, to compete for the heavyweight crown after the organization stripped George Foreman for not fighting Tucker, its mandatory challenger. Foreman opted to fight Germany's Axel Schulz on April 22.