Earn It: Evander Holyfield and Michael Dokes Go to War

LAS VEGAS - MARCH 11,1989: Michael Dokes (R) lands a punch against Evander Holyfield during the fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. Evander Holyfield won the WBC Continental Americas heavyweight title by a TKO 10. (Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)
Michael Dokes punches Evander Holyfield during the fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on March 11,1989. (Image credit: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)

This is the eighth piece in a ten-part series looking at the fighters whose stories make Donald McRae’s Dark Trade the enduring classic that it is. Learn more about the 1st U.S. edition of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing.


In 1989, Evander Holyfield was one win away from a fight with Mike Tyson—or at least that was the thought. Holyfield, twenty-six, was a bronze medalist in the 1984 Olympics and the former unified cruiserweight champion with pretensions to heavyweight fame. After victories over a worn-out James “Quick” Tillis and “Lost Generation” favorite Pinklon Thomas, Holyfield was considered likeliest by many to be the next lamb for Tyson to slaughter. No interviews, no press conferences went by without Holyfield and Lou Duva being asked about the power deficit that made Tyson an overwhelming favorite. Little did anyone know that it was Tyson, in fact, who was only a fight away from the bottom. Tokyo, ‘Buster’ Douglas, and all that weren’t even a speck on the horizon back then, much less arrest, conviction, and incarceration on a rape charge in 1991. Perhaps life lived at a fever pitch augured all this already—perhaps. But when Holyfield finished with Carlos De Leon and the cruiserweight division in April 1988, he had no idea that it would take the best part of a decade to get “Iron” Mike into the ring.

After stopping Tillis and Thomas, yet only by corner intervention, questions about his power and his overall suitability at the weight stalked Holyfield like the inquisition. At a lean six foot two, Holyfield presented a cut and muscular physique the likes of which no heavyweight could rival—and yet, at barely 210 pounds, he remained just a diet away from cruiserweight. Against Tillis and Thomas size was hardly an issue: the former was a slight heavyweight himself, while Thomas entered the ring in December 1988 after a nineteen-month layoff and on the verge of a drug-fueled breakdown. But bigger opponents, it was thought, would present a far greater problem. Never mind what Hugh McIlvanney once called “the great fortress” of Holyfield’s heart—the likes of Tyson, not to mention supersized up-and-comers like Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis, were bound to be less forgiving.

Thus, in early 1989, Holyfield was out to prove that he could still be considered “The Real Deal” at heavyweight, when he was matched with yet another “Lost Generation” veteran and one-time WBA titlist in “Dynamite” Michael Dokes.  This was not the first or the last time in his illustrious career that Holyfield would enter the ring with questions to answer. That Dokes was the man to be asking them was a minor miracle in itself. No fighter from the “Lost Generation” era more closely resembled an F. Scott Fitzgerald character than Dokes, who spent much of the 1980s fleeing a head-splitting comedown on whiskey and cocaine. Dokes, Akron, Ohio, had won his slice of heavyweight gold in slightly fortuitous fashion in December 1982, when his first-round blitzkrieg against Mike Weaver resulted in a premature stoppage by referee Joey Curtis. Already with a penchant for mink, Dokes’s life went straight from vaudeville to burlesque. Suddenly rich and famous, Dokes now acquired a taste for cocaine that was practically insatiable: he once told Ron Borges that he had done two kilos in nine months, “enough to kill a rhino and a good part of the jungle.” “I used to pour it out on a piece of paper on the floor like you would pour flour,” Dokes told Borges in 1989. “I’d pour it out until it looked good. When it did, I’d stop pouring. Sometimes I’d stay up six, seven days on what I poured. I’d been a casual user since I was 15, but when I didn’t care about boxing anymore, I was off to the moon.”

After surviving a rematch with the rugged Weaver, Dokes would lose his title at the brittle hands of Gerrie Coetzee in September 1983. An Afrikaner from apartheid South Africa, Coetzee had been brought to the U. S. in search of heavyweight glory by his adviser Cedric Kushner. Having drawn with Pinklon Thomas in January 1983, his search seemed doomed to end in failure. Then boxing’s most notorious racketeer—and Dokes’s promoter—Don King stepped in.

It didn’t matter that just two years earlier King had parlayed the Reverend Jesse Jackson and A.C.C.E.S.S. (the American Coordinating Committee for Equality in Sport and Society) into supporting his campaign to boycott fights that featured Coetzee’s fellow South African Kallie Knoetze on CBS. Nor did it matter that he had taken to calling Bob Arum, Knoetze’s and Coetzee’s co-promoter, “The Apostle of Apartheid.” When Coetzee’s signature became available after a fallout between Arum and Kushner, King swept in to sign him to one of his notoriously stacked contracts. “First, you don’t want to do business with me, or the fighter, because he’s from a nation that practices racial apartheid,” Kushner remembered saying to King in Jack Newfield’s jaw-dropping account of the promoter’s life. “Now you tell me that the only way you’ll do business is if you have options.”

With Coetzee signed up, and with Dokes strung out on drugs, King ruthlessly sacrificed the latter to a white fighter from an apartheid nation with the profit guaranteed to be his own. Dokes, who King liked to refer to as a son, would still be getting high forty-eight hours before the fight. Sluggish and slow, and gasping for air as early as the fourth, Dokes would be laid out by two clubbing right hands in the tenth. Newfield was right to call the ending “one of the defining, symbolic moments” of King’s boxing life. “He jumped into the ring, in his tuxedo and bow tie and gold jewelry, stepping right over the fallen black champion he called his son to embrace the new white champion from the land he had condemned. King was hugging Coetzee before Dokes could regain his senses.”

After fighting Randall Cobb in March 1985, Dokes would be persona non grata for nearly three years. Dokes had always been tempted by the high life—”The Great Gatsby didn’t have parties as good as I had,” he would one day claim. So given to temptation was Dokes that his former manager, Marty Cohen, once sent him to train in Sydney, Australia, for two months in order to keep him away from the city he lived in, Lauderhill, Florida. Now that restraint was out the window, Dokes’s life rapidly spun out of control, as he shuttled from wreckage to wreckage with a consistency that was, to his advisers, legitimately unnerving—and with disaster surely scripted as the ending. “The past few years he was moving in the very fast lane,” Marty Cohen told the New York Times in 1986 when Dokes was arrested in Nevada. “And with very, very bad company. The people around him were just no good.” Only when Dokes was handed five years’ probation on drug charges, after which he was treated for addiction in a clinic in Utah, did he finally start to straighten himself out.

Having worked his way back into something like fighting shape, Dokes had won eight straight by the time he was signed to face Holyfield, on March 11, 1989, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Holyfield was quickly installed as a prohibitive favorite—a status that seemed immediately borne out by a significant contrast in body shape. But if Dokes had added ten pounds since his heyday in the early ‘80s, he was buoyed by having recovered a sense of purpose after time spent in the very depths of hell. “The money is irrelevant,” he told Borges in the days before the fight. “If I can be a role model for the people who have counted themselves out in life, that’s enough for me. To come back from the tombs of death and live again is priceless.”

When the first bell rang, Dokes sprang from his corner as if to set on Holyfield like he had done Weaver nearly seven years before. Within seconds the two men were trading in center ring, as Holyfield—never known to back down previously—fought fire with fire. Spotting Dokes’s left slung low, Holyfield feinted a hook then snapped back his opponent’s head with a hard straight right. Under siege, as Holyfield swarmed in close, Dokes refused to take a backward step and whipped him to the body and head with a double left hook. Even when Holyfield mauled him along the ropes, forcing him there with a show of strength and supreme ring-craft, Dokes would fire back to the body and beltline.

If Dokes knew now that he was in with a man who could carry himself at the weight class—and one whose disadvantages in size were partially offset by exceptional footwork and an unusual appetite for punching in combination—then he was no less dialed-in at the start of the second. While Holyfield drilled him from range, Dokes would wait for his opponent to get close then throw hard shots to the body. Roared on by the crowd, Dokes tore out for the third with even meaner intentions. Losing his mouthpiece in a clinch only seemed to add fuel to his fire, as he whiplashed Holyfield in center ring with a triple left hook and hard right cross. Still without his mouthpiece, Dokes would eat hard counters from a resilient Holyfield but keep on coming, tearing into the body with a vicious array of punches before rocking him to head. Holyfield stumbled back to the corner on unsteady legs, where Lou Duva and Georgie Benton awaited him. “This guy’s good,” Benton confirmed.

Holyfield came out for the next round with more precisely-defined instructions: catch and pitch on the outside, smother in close. With “Dynamite” Dokes loading up on his big left hook, Holyfield circled away carefully, mindful of the previous round’s punishment. Yet if the pace let up for an instant, the free-for-all would start up once more in the fifth. Seemingly weary, Dokes had been outworked by Holyfield through the round. But with less than a minute to go, he summoned the energy to send a hard right crashing into Holyfield’s jaw, before following up with a series of thumps to the body along the ropes.

But Holyfield’s ability to absorb punishment, if not yet the stuff of legend, was already formidable. Still three and a half years before that famous tenth round with Riddick Bowe, Holyfield shoved the bigger Dokes once, twice, three times back across the ring, forcing him away by sheer willpower, then punctuating the round with an epiphanic right uppercut on the chin. While Holyfield stood waiting for the start of the sixth, Dokes remained seated in his corner, legs splayed out wide. Fighting tiredness, Dokes was still not done, instead finding the wherewithal to drive Holyfield back once more via churning combinations even after referee Richard Steele had deducted a point for low blows.

Through six, Dokes had matched Holyfield punch for punch, if not step for step. But while his chin refused to betray him, his legs looked increasingly unsure. An outrageous eighth round seesawed one way then the other, as Dokes and Holyfield took turns hitting each other with such an absurd variety of punches as to put contemporary heavyweight boxing to shame and to bring the crowd at Caesars Palace to its feet. The ninth saw Dokes, wearied to the point of exhaustion, clinging to Holyfield’s shadow like a man possessed, until at last the bell rang and he could slump into his seat.

There was not a lot left in Dokes—of anything. Soon he would be sent hurtling back across the ring by Holyfield, hurt by a vicious left hook beyond the point of return. In just a few years’ time, he would be shellacked by Razor Ruddock, then wiped out by Bowe. Shot and overweight, his career would end in anonymity in Erlanger, Kentucky. Later there would be infamy, after his conviction in 1998 on charges of sexual assault. He would die of liver cancer in 2012, at the age of fifty-four.

If boxing offers fame and fortune to a few elite practitioners at the cost of long-term physical ruination, then Michael Dokes was like so many before him in being prematurely ruined by the blood sport that was his life. And yet, it was boxing that gave Dokes purpose—however temporary—when for a long time he had none. Does that make boxing a sanctuary or a curse? “I’m fighting for self-esteem, respect, my integrity—these things last long after money,” Dokes would later say, soon after Holyfield had dropped him at last. “These are things that I’m working towards. I just don’t think I can do it for the money.” If these were the things that Michael Dokes was working toward—self-esteem, respect, integrity—then in that brief interval between rounds, before Evander Holyfield brought things finally to an end, before the grim horizon of the future, he had earned them. Against one of the best fighters in almost any era, he had earned them.

About Oliver Goldstein 14 Articles
Oliver Goldstein is a writer based in London. In recent years, his work has appeared in Boxing News, Boxing Monthly, and Inside HBO Boxing. Oliver has also worked as an Associate Producer for Showtime Boxing. He is currently writing a PhD at Cambridge.