Lee Groves

10: Notable Valentine’s Day fights

 7. 1987 – Evander Holyfield KO 7 Henry Tillman, Bally’s Hotel and Casino, Reno, Nevada

For Henry Tillman, the confluence of circumstances were unprecedented. Just a few hours after Bert Cooper (who decisioned Tillman to win the NABF cruiserweight title eight months earlier) knocked out Willie de Wit (who Tillman beat for the gold medal in 1984), Tillman himself faced Olympic teammate and roommate Holyfield for “The Real Deal’s” WBA cruiserweight title.

Only twice before had Olympic teammates faced each other as pros – Fidel LaBarba stopped fellow 1924 Olympian Raymond Fee in one round while Freddie Boylstein stopped 1924 colleague Hugh Haggerty in three – but Holyfield-Tillman represented the first such fight with a major championship on the line. Yet another odd aspect to this match was that Holyfield, who weighed 177½ in his pro debut, and Tillman, who scaled 210 in his, now were separated by a half-pound (Tillman 189, Holyfield 188½). What wasn’t balanced were the 5-to-1 odds that Holyfield would retain his title.

While the two fighters were respectful during the pre-fight build-up, a scuffle nearly broke out during the final instructions when Tillman’s chief second took umbrage at Lou Duva’s finger pointing when objecting to Tillman’s high trunks. Cooler heads prevailed and within moments the sanctioned fight began.

Tillman’s plan was simple in theory but difficult in practice – use stick-and-move tactics to control distance as well as neutralize Holyfield’s strength in the trenches. The blueprint worked well in round one as Tillman landed a flashy combination capped by a stinging right to the head and ended the session with another strong right as Holyfield came in.

Tillman’s efforts began to unravel during the opening moments of round two as a right to the forehead disturbed the challenger’s equilibrium and led to a knockdown. As Holyfield gunned for the finish Tillman fought back valiantly by landing a three-punch salvo and engaging the champion in close quarters.

ABC analyst Alex Wallau described Tillman’s quandary best when he said the challenger “has the heart of a warrior but not the chin of one.” Over the next several rounds Tillman enjoyed moments of success but Holyfield’s punches and pressure took an increasingly heavy toll. Two big rights stunned Tillman in the fifth and the softening-up process continued apace in the sixth.

For Holyfield, the payoff came in the seventh. A series of hooks set up a big right that dropped Tillman for an eight-count. Moments later a hook-right drove the challenger back-first into the corner pad and down to the floor for a second time in the round. After Tillman arose at nine referee Carlos Padilla looked deeply into the challenger’s eyes for any signs of surrender. Seeing none, Padilla allowed the fight to continue, but three consecutive hooks to the jaw scored the third knockdown and ended the fight at the 1:43 mark.

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