Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis tell the story of the last time the bands were united

Lennox Lewis unifies the heavyweight titles for the last time in 1999 by defeating Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas – Getty Images/Al Bello

It seems remarkable that for the first time this century all the heavyweight belts – eight in total – will be fought for when Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk meet in the ring on Saturday evening.

Two epic fights between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield 25 years ago saw the Brit become the last undisputed heavyweight champion. Both legends of the sport will be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when the undisputed title is once again on the line.

One reason for the long wait for an uncontested fight is that the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, refused to fight each other when they dominated the heavyweight division. Lewis has a different explanation.

“Politics,” he says without hesitation. ‘Always like that. We shouldn’t be surprised because if you put all the belts together, a lot of promoters don’t like it because all the belts are in one place and then they can’t put their guy on screen. They have to wait to make money, so splitting the tapes works for them. And the sanctions organizations don’t want that either, they also want to be able to move around. So the only ones who really want the ‘undisputed’ tag are the guys who box for it and work for it.”

Yet momentum has shifted in the past 10 months, with Saudi Arabian investment in boxing and General Entertainment Authority chairman Turki Alalshikh’s insistence that the best must meet in the ring. Now Fury vs. Usyk – “Ring of Fire” – has become an unmissable encounter with a lot at stake.

Lewis and Holyfield celebrate that the undisputed crown is back on the table. “It’s great, I’m so happy that we have people who are really interested in the game, so it’s great that His Excellency Turki Alalshikh has a passion for the best, fighting the best and investing in the sport,” says Holyfield. Telegraph Sports. “I am so happy that we have another undisputed champion.”

Lewis holding the INF, WBO, WBA and WBC beltsLewis with the INF, WBO, WBA and WBC belts

The Prize: Lewis unified the division – AP/Richard Drew

However, let’s rewind 25 years to when the Lewis-Holyfield rivalry was etched into boxing folklore. They met twice, as the first meeting was a draw in Madison Square Garden, New York in 1999. The fighting world was divided. So are the jury members. Lewis landed 348 punches, compared to Holyfield’s 130. Personally, I scored the match for Lewis.

Eight months later, the blockbuster match’s $30 million purse was split 50-50 and Lewis and Holyfield met in Las Vegas. The second coming would see Lewis’ night, by unanimous decision, as he became the undisputed champion, seven years after Riddick Bowe defeated Holyfield to become the previous undisputed heavyweight champion. Lewis claims that Holyfield was “my toughest opponent” and that his reign lasted less than six months because, predictably, ties fell apart.

The two great fighters were part of an incredible era that also included Mike Tyson and Bowe. “It was two classic fights between me and Lennox,” Holyfield said. “He was a very good fighter and I realized that. I knew it would be a tough first match and it was. And both fights were very tough. I still think we should have had a trilogy. I thought I won that second fight, but I have nothing against Lewis. It was the judges who made the decision.

“The big thing about the first fight was I got sick. It was amazing that it was a draw. I really didn’t fight well and after the second result he said he wouldn’t fight me anymore and that was it. The truth is, if I hadn’t lost, I might not have become a four-time heavyweight champion. Everything happens with a reason.

“But if I’m honest, my three fights with Riddick Bowe were my toughest. The thing about our time was that I fought everyone and we all wanted to fight the best at the time. For that reason, I don’t think this is as great as our time, but we’ll see if they all fight each other.”

Holyfield vs. Bowe IHolyfield vs. Bowe I

Holyfield says Riddick Bowe, who beat him 2-1 in three fights, was his toughest opponent – Getty Images/Richard Mackson

There was very little nonsense between the two legends of the sport at the time, but Lewis believes that was exactly the way they portrayed themselves. “We just had the arrogance to want to be the best, to want to fight the best,” he explains. “We had no animosity, we didn’t hate each other – it was more competition, we thought each of us was the best. We were more arrogant about ourselves, like he was arrogant in the sense that he is the best, no one can beat him, I thought the same way. We all thought the same way, because we all thought we were champions, or thought we could beat each other, and that’s the way champions are supposed to think.”

Holyfield agrees: “There was no deep dislike between me and Lewis. It was sport, we were prizefighters, we just wanted to be better than the other guy.

Lewis added: “Look, I wanted to be No. 1 in the sport because everything I did leading up to this point. [against Holyfield]. I wanted to become an Olympic champion [so much] that I actually went back to the Olympics twice, and then suddenly wanted to become British champion, then European champion, then world champion. My last thing was the undisputed champion, and once I became the undisputed champion, I waited for Mike Tyson so there wouldn’t be any debate about who was the best in this era. I ended my entire career and showed the whole world that I was the best of that time.

So what are their thoughts on the Fury-Usyk fight?

“To me, the smaller guy – Usyk – seems to have bigger skills, is faster and I think it could be a knockout. He’ll probably get him because he can hit him more times than Tyson can hit him,” Holyfield said. “I remember meeting Usyk and he said to me, ‘You’re Evander Holyfield. I’m going to do the same thing you did: I’m going to unify the cruiserweight division and then I’m going to be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, just like you.” I said, ‘I wish you the best, man.’

Usyk defeats JohsuaUsyk defeats Johsua

Holyfield picks Usyk to complete the British quadruple by beating Tyson Fury following his wins over Anthony Joshua, Derek Chisora ​​and Tony Bellew – Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

“I’m happy for him, but I’ve seen him fight and he’s a southpaw who just fights really hard, doesn’t give up and is always in good shape. Fury has proven to be a good fighter, but sometimes he doesn’t take care of himself. If you let yourself go, physically and things like that, it can have consequences for you. I just think Usyk has the mentality, a great mentality that’s pretty much the same as mine… He won’t give up for nothing. But we’ll see. I really don’t like picking which fighter will win because anything can happen in this fight. They’re both great fighters.”

For Lewis, the changing of the guard brings strong feelings. “Look, if I was there now I would definitely still be the best, but if Fury does this I think he should fight Anthony Joshua. He should fight him because it’s a British thing and I’m sure the British fans want to see that match. Throughout history, that has always been the plan: there is always a big British fight between two huge heavyweights.

“I think it will still be a good fight. Fury is elusive and will always be a tough guy to box, especially when he is in shape and focused. I think Usyk will use his mobility and move around the ring erratically. I think Tyson will jump and jive, feint a lot and try to take Usyk off his game, get Usyk to engage and take advantage of him.”

Without saying it explicitly, Lewis seems to be leaning towards a Fury victory. He adds: “But the bigger picture is that I will be very happy that there is another one [undisputed champion] Because I believe records are there to be broken.”

Watch Fury v Usyk, ‘Ring of Fire’ live from Riyadh on TNT Sports Box Office on Saturday, May 18. For more information visit: tntsports.co.uk/boxoffice

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