ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - The warrior is back.
Banned from boxing 13 months ago when doctors said he had a "stiff heart," former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield proved his fighting heart was still intact, winning a unanimous 10-round decision over Ray Mercer last night.
Although he appeared the loser, with both eyes gashed open and his trunks blood red, Holyfield turned back the clock by out-punching and out-smarting Mercer and scoring the lively battle's only knockdown in the eighth round.
Judge Eva Shain gave Holyfield a 97-92 margin. Eugene Grant ruled it 96-93, and Jean Williams called it a surprisingly close 95-94.
Holyfield needed to close the fight impressively after the ring physician, Dr. Frank Doggett, considered stopping the match as Holyfield's eyes worsened.
"I thought his cut man did a terrible job stopping the bleeding," Doggett said of Holyfleld's chief cornerman. Donald Turner. "I was giving it (stopping the fight) serious consideration."
Moments later, Holyfield rocked Mercer with a right cross and followed with two lefts that dropped Mercer to one knee. He took an eight count, but survived the final seconds of the round.
Mercer fought back gamely in the opening minute of Round 9, but Holyfield's harder punches soon had him holding on. Holyfield tried to finish It, but could not land a knockout punch.
The 10th and final round started in similar fashion. Holyfield wobbled Mercer with a crunching right. Mercer was now losing every exchange. In frustration, he tackled Holyfield, both flying to the canvas.
But by the final bell, Mercer's raising of the hands in victory was only an act of bravado.
Holyfield insisted this was not for ego, money (he added another $2 million to his estimated $102 million in ring earnings) or a chance to win the heavyweight crown a third time, a feat accomplished only by Muhammad Ali.
"This was to prove that God heals people," he said. "If it worked for me, it will work for others needing help."
Holyfield. who first won the title by knocking out Buster Douglas, and regained it in a rematch with Riddick Bowe in 1993, lost the title to Michael Moorer in April 1994 when his heart's condition was questioned.
But last night, he was clearly the stronger fighter after going 10 rugged rounds with Mercer, the former Olympic gold medalist, who was guaranteed a flat $250,000 purse.
"I felt I did enough to win the fight," Holyfield said. "I knocked him down in the eighth and got the momentum back."
Mercer, who showed new resolve in what he called his "do-or-die" fight to get back into title contention, made his most impressive performance since knocking out Tommy Morrison four years ago to claim the World Boxing Organization title.
But even at a trim 224, he could not outmaneuver Holyfield, who won almost all the toe-to-toe exchanges.
"Mercer did more things than I thought he could," said Holyfield (31 -2, 22 KOs). "He was catching me with his jab. I hit him with some hard body shots, but he was too vicious to give up."
The fight began at an unusually quick tempo with both heavyweights utilizing their jabs. Holyfield's hands appeared slightly faster as he landed several light hooks. Mercer tried to score with overhand rights, but they bounced harmlessly off Holyfield's bald head.
A lunging left by Mercer shook Holyfield early in the second round, But the former champion quickly regrouped. Fighting at close range, he caught the stalking Mercer with strait right leads and light combinations. Mercer closed the round with a hard right.
Holyfield continued to counter effectively in the third round. But the action picked up when Mercer scored with a hard right under Holyfield's heart. It now became a slugging match with both fighters landing hard lefts.
Mercer came out winging in the fourth round and swiveled Holyfield's head with two jarring right crosses. Holyfield was forced to give ground for the first time and looked slightly weary returning to his corner.
Holyfield relied more on his boxing ability in the fifth round, landing solid combinations and then artfully avoiding Mercer's counter moves.
Mercer tried slowing Holyfield by attacking the body in the sixth round, but paid heavily when Holyfield connected with a straight right to the chin. There was a collision of heads just before the bell and Holyfield emerged with a slight cut in the corner of his left eye.
Holyfield became more aggressive in the seventh round, reversing roles as he now carried the fight to the stocky Mercer.
He landed two hard rights early in the round, but jabs by Mercer started the blood flowing from both of Holyfield's eyes. By mid-round, his white trunks had turned crimson.
On the undercard, Hector Camacho (52-3) had little difficulty defending his IBC welterweight crown, winning a unanimous 12-round decision over Homer Gibbins (35-41 of Riverdale, Ga.