LAS VEGAS -- Undisputed champion Evander Holyfield will only be too happy to take on the young lions in the heavyweight division after surviving his senior tour without distinction last night by outpointing Larry Holmes, a 6-1 underdog, in a surprisingly competitive 12-round match at Caesars Palace.
Holmes, 42, proved almost as stubborn a championship foe as George Foreman, another plus-40 former champion who had Holyfield in jeopardy in going the distance last year.
The decision was unanimous for Holyfield (28-0, 22 KOs), but the champion tired noticeably in the closing rounds while being bothered by a cut right eye that Holmes sliced open in the sixth round.
Judges Glen Hamada, of Washington, and Chuck Giampa, of Las Vegas, both backed Holyfield, 116-112. The third official, Carol Castellano, of New Jersey, gave the champion, who carried the early rounds and landed twice as many blows, a 117-111 advantage on her scorecard.
But a closer look at the cards showed that the fight was not that lopsided in the judges' eyes. In seven of the 12 rounds, at least one judge voted in Holmes' favor.
Said Holmes, "Ten years ago you wouldn't have even heard of Holyfield. You had Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers. You can't put the Holyfields, Riddick Bowes and Lennox Lewises in the same class.
It was Holyfield's immense pride that made it a tough fight against Holmes, 42, and 13 years his senior.
Being branded a heavyweight without the punch to match might have hurt Holyfield's chances of looking more impressive against the game Holmes, dominant champion of the '80s who proved he was not in it just for his $7 million purse.
"He wanted to knock Holmes out in the worst way," said George Benton, Holyfield's veteran trainer. "He went away from our game plan to try and prove a point. It should have been Evander's easiest fight, and he made it look extremely hard."
The biggest scare came after Holyfield caught an errant Holmes elbow to his right eye just before the bell sounded to end the
sixth round, opening a 1 1/2 -inch gash over the eyelid.
Cut man Ace Murata kept the wound under control the rest of the bout and it did not appear to bother Holyfield's vision. Holmes tried to take advantage of the injury by utilizing his stiff jab in the seventh round, but never maintained the pressure.
Holyfield, 210 pounds, did not use the eye injury as an excuse for failing to knock out his over-the-hill rival.
"Holmes was just very difficult for me to fight," he said. "I couldn't hit him with the same clean shots I nailed Foreman. He was turning his body in the corner and my punches were slipping off him. He wanted me to take the fight to him, as if he were the champion."
Holyfield's trainer, Lou Duva, said: "This is the first time he's been cut. He asked if he was cut and we said, 'Yeah,' and he just shrugged his shoulders and never mentioned it again. That's a real gladiator."
Holyfield, talking at the post-fight news conference before he went to have his eye stitched, smiled as he recalled one haymaker he threw in the ninth round.
"I missed him by a mile and fell down," the champion said. "I thought, of all those shots I threw, that was the one that I should have landed. I laughed about it."
Holyfield tried to lure Holmes into mid-ring and to engage in an all-out war, but without much success, and when both fighters showed signs of fatigue in the closing rounds, the estimated crowd of 14,000 clamored for more action.
"It's supposed to be a competitive fight," said Holyfield, "and the fans may have felt cheated. But I don't need to fight his fight to prove a point. I can't fight by myself. It takes two people to make a fight."
Holmes (54-4, 37 KOs), who reigned as champion for 7 1/2 years after winning the title here in 1978 in a stirring match with Ken Norton, did far better than the oddsmakers expected.
In fact, he wobbled Holyfield several times with straight right hands and appeared to have the unbeaten champion in trouble when he landed a booming right to the temple early in the 11th round.
"I wasn't really hurt," Holyfield insisted. "I'm always thinking that if I get hit a big punch, he'll be coming after me, and I'll be looking to counter. But I was never able to really catch him clean. He fought a real defensive battle."
In the weeks leading to the fight, both promoter Dan Duva and co- trainer Lou Duva expressed concern over Holyfield fighting a wily ex-champion like Holmes, who had embarrassed Ray Mercer in his previous match.
Dan Duva suggested Holmes, 233 pounds, would prove tougher than youthful Bowe, who is apparently next in line if he survives next month's test against Pierre Coetzer of South Africa.
Holyfield, who was guaranteed close to $18 million, wants to fight again in November.
Holmes' plans were more indefinite. Had he won, it would have set up a megabucks match with Foreman, his fellow ancient warrior turned folk hero.