Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis tell the tale of the last time the belts were unified

Lewis lamps Holyfield on the jaw

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

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

Two epic fights between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield 25 years ago led to the Briton becoming 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 undisputed fight is that the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, refused to fight each other when they were dominating the heavyweight division. Lewis has another explanation.

“Politics,” he says, without hesitation. “Always that way. We shouldn’t be surprised because you know when you put all the belts together, a lot of the promoters don’t like it because all the belts are in one place and then they don’t get to bring their guy into the picture. They are left waiting around to make money so, for them, to split the belts up works. And the sanctioning organisations don’t want that either, they want to be able to move around too. So the only ones that really want the ‘undisputed’ tag are the guys that are boxing for it and working towards it.”

Yet momentum has shifted in the past 10 months, with the Saudi Arabian investment in boxing and the insistence from Turki Alalshikh, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, that the best must meet in the ring. Now Fury versus Usyk – “Ring of Fire” – has become an unmissable encounter with so much on the line.

Lewis and Holyfield are celebrating the fact that the undisputed crown is on the table again. “It is great, I’m so happy that we got people that are really into 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,” Holyfield tells Telegraph Sport. “I’m so happy about the fact we will have another undisputed champion.”

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

The prize: Lewis united the division – AP/Richard Drew

Let us rewind 25 years, however, when the Lewis-Holyfield rivalry was etched into boxing folklore. Twice they met, by dint of the first encounter being a draw at Madison Square Garden, New York in 1999. The fight world was divided. So too the judges. Lewis landed 348 punches compared with Holyfield’s 130. Personally, I scored the contest to Lewis.

Eight months later, the blockbuster contest’s $30 million purse was split 50-50 and Lewis and Holyfield met in Las Vegas. In the second coming, it was to be Lewis’s night, by unanimous decision, as he became the undisputed champion, seven years after Riddick Bowe had defeated Holyfield to become the previous undisputed heavyweight champion. Lewis maintains that Holyfield was “my toughest opponent” and his reign lasted less than six months as, predictably, the belts were split asunder.

The two great fighters were part of an incredible era that also featured Mike Tyson and Bowe. “They were two classic fights between me and Lennox,” Holyfield says. “He was a very good fighter and I realised that. I knew that it would be a tough first bout 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 have nothing against Lewis. It was the judges who made the call.

“The big thing with the first fight was that 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 wasn’t going to fight me anymore and that’s what it was. Truth is, if I hadn’t lost, maybe I would not have become a four-time heavyweight champion. Everything happens for a reason.

“But if I’m honest, my three fights with Riddick Bowe were my toughest. The thing from our era was that I fought everybody and we were all looking to fight the best then. For that reason I don’t think this is as great as our era, but we will see if they all fight each other.”

Holyfield vs Bowe IHolyfield vs Bowe I

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

There was very little trash talk between the two legends of the sport back then, but Lewis believes that was just how they portrayed themselves. “We just had that arrogance of wanting to be the best, of wanting to fight the best,” he explains. “We didn’t have the animosity, we didn’t hate each other – it was more competition, thinking that each one of us was the best. We were more arrogant about ourselves, like he was arrogant in the sense of he’s the best, nobody can beat him, I was thinking the same way. We all thought the same way because we all thought we’re champions, or thought we could beat each other and that’s the way champions are supposed to think.”

Holyfield concurs: “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 adds: “Look, I aimed to be the No 1 guy in the sport because everything I did was leading up to this point [against Holyfield]. I wanted to be Olympic champion [so much] that I actually went back twice to the Olympics, and then all of a sudden I wanted to be British champion, then European champion, then world champion. My last thing was undisputed champion, and once I became undisputed champion, I waited for Mike Tyson so there would be no argument who was the best in this era. I ended my whole career showing the whole world that I was the best of that era.”

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

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

Usyk beats JohsuaUsyk beats Johsua

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

“I’m happy for him, but then I’ve seen him fight and he’s a left-hander who just fights real hard, doesn’t give up, always in shape. Fury has proven to be a good fighter, but sometimes he doesn’t take care of himself, when you let yourself go, body-wise and stuff like that, it can affect you. I just think that Usyk has the mindset, a great mindset pretty much just like mine… He won’t give up for nothing. But we will see. I really don’t like to choose which fighter will win, because anything could happen in this fight. They are both great fighters.”

For Lewis, the changing of the guard brings strong feelings. “Look, if I were around now, absolutely I’d still be the best, but if Fury does this, I think he has to fight Anthony Joshua. He needs to fight him because it’s a British thing and I’m sure the British fans want to see that match-up. Throughout history that’s always been the plan, there’s always a big British fight between two enormous heavyweights.

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

Without explicitly saying it, Lewis appears to lean towards a Fury victory. He adds: “But the bigger picture is that I’ll be delighted that there’s 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 18 May. For more info visit: tntsports.co.uk/boxoffice

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