Lennox Lewis regained the heavyweight title when Oliver McCall had a nervous breakdown and started crying mid-fight
Oliver McCall made his dreams come true when he knocked out Lennox Lewis to win the WBC world heavyweight title in 1994.
The American underdog challenger entered the fight with a not-so-flattering 24-5 record, having been beaten by contenders such as Tony Tucker, Orlin Norris and Mike Hunter.
McCall was even edged out by the unheralded James “Buster” Douglas in the fight ahead of his iconic upset win over Mike Tyson.
But on September 24, 1994, he had gone on a five-game winning streak and secured his first title against Lewis 25-0.
Disaster struck the Briton, but it was a treat for the ‘Atomic Bull’ who landed a single seismic right hand that flattened Lewis in the second round.
The champion got back to his feet, but was clearly on unsteady legs and the referee called off the contest as a result.
Lewis later reflected, “It’s a situation where you make a big mistake, the mistake was to leave you open and get caught with a shot.”
Although unable to secure an immediate rematch, he responded by making changes within his side as a direct result for his opponent.
He recruited McCall’s trainer – the legendary Emanuel Steward – and rebuilt his career with four successive wins that put him back in the WBC No. 1 contender’s spot.
Around this time, Frank Bruno defeated McCall to win his title, only for Tyson to knock Bruno out.
“Iron Mike” vacated the belt, setting up a rematch between the two top contenders – Lewis and McCall.
Two and a half years after their first meeting, the two men were to face each other again.
However, this intervening period had been far more tumultuous for McCall than it had been for Lewis.
Not only did he lose his coach and then his title, but he also spent several stints in rehab for cocaine and cannabis addiction.
McCall spent 11 months out of the ring before the rematch, during which time his life spiraled out of control.
In the summer of 1996, he was arrested twice for drug possession.
Three months before the fight, he was arrested again for vandalism, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest following an argument at a hotel bar.
It later emerged that he was then sent to rehab in hopes that he would kick his addictions.
Despite all this, no one had foreseen the toll it would take on fight night.
The first sign that something was up with McCall came during his ring walk.
He made one of the fastest entries you’ve ever seen, sprinting to the squared circle in about six seconds.
The ‘Atomic Bull’ was known to be emotional and bloated during ring walks for previous bouts, but it was particularly erratic.
Lewis stood calm and stoic in the opposite corner.
The fight started with a relatively tense first round in which Lennox boxed smartly, using his jab well.
In the second, McCall began throwing huge right hands at Lewis, seemingly looking to replicate his 1994 TKO2 victory.
The Briton, however, had learned his lesson from Steward and comfortably repelled the assault with little damage sustained.
As the second round ended and the third round began, it looked like McCall was already out of ideas.
Lewis then picked up the tempo and began to land consecutive right hands.
After each, McCall took a step back, as if assaulting Lewis, playing mind games to say he wasn’t hurt. He then dropped his hands and looked outside the ring.
A commentator on the UK show said: “McCall is trying to play mind games with Lennox Lewis.”
However, it soon became apparent that was not the case as at the end of the inning McCall refused to return to his corner.
In an unprecedented move, the American decided to walk aimlessly around the ring during his one-minute rest, periodically stopping to peer into the crowd.
He looked lost.
McCall’s corner – consisting of Greg Page and George Benton – kept yelling at him, “Oliver, Oliver”, but received no response.
The bell rang to start the fourth, but it was no longer a fight.
Lewis kept hitting McCall – like it was his job – but McCall refused to back down.
He occasionally engaged for a brief moment, before withdrawing and beginning to wander to another part of the ring while his puzzled opponent pursued him.
McCall shook his head as if he didn’t want to continue, prompting referee Mills Lane to interrupt the fight and ask what was going on.
The apologetic fighter seemed to be on the verge of tears during the conversation. He shook his head again, then nodded, and remarkably the fight resumed.
The pattern continued of punches from Lewis and wandering from McCall until the end of the round.
Boos rained down from the crowd and once again McCall refused to return to his corner for the interval.
This time, however, it became clear that something was seriously wrong.
McCall was no longer on the verge of tears. He completely broke down and started crying as he walked around the ring.
The clearly surprised referee finally pulled him back to his corner and sat him down as they naively tried to get him to continue the fight.
After being told by a cornerman, “Do it for your daughter, man,” McCall came out for the fifth round and tried to fight.
He threw a punch, then stopped.
Lewis pounced on him with a series of punches, while McCall looked away once more. It was finished.
At this point, Lane separated the pair and mercifully stopped the fight.
Lewis raised his arms in triumph, his two-and-a-half-year wait to regain the heavyweight title was over, but a bigger story had emerged.
McCall exited the ring and left on the night for Las Vegas.
Lewis later recalled, “I always say I was prepared for anything, anything that came to me that I was prepared with. Tears? I was not prepared for this.
“I still remember Emanuel Steward in the corner, he said, ‘What are you doing?’
“I said, ‘Well, man is crying, what do you want me to do?’
“He said, ‘Well, if he doesn’t want to fight, you make him fight, go ahead and beat him.
“I went in there with more effort to hit him and beat him and then Mills Lane stopped the fight.”
The aftermath was almost as bizarre as the fight.
McCall appeared in public again a few days later and held a remarkable press conference.
He started by trying to justify his actions, saying the whole episode was part of his strategy to win.
The ‘Atomic Bull’ surprisingly suggested the fight was stopped prematurely before descending into what became 40 minutes of ranting and ravings. By the end, McCall was on the verge of tears again.
His statements were followed up by a Nevada Commission psychiatrist, Dr Leonore Petty, who said in disbelief that she had assessed him and concluded that his mental state was “very good”.
Regardless, the commission temporarily suspended McCall and withheld his $3 million scholarship.
Two months later, in April, McCall was detained in a Virginia psychiatric ward after his wife took out an emergency custody order against him.
He was assessed by another mental health expert, who testified at a detention hearing that he was mentally ill and required hospitalization.
In September, McCall was deemed well enough to continue fighting, so the Nevada Commission agreed to lift his suspension.
They fined him $250,000, but eventually allowed him to reclaim his $3 million scholarship.
He returned to the ring in November and has been competing ever since.
Remarkably, at 56 today, McCall continues to fight and train boxers.
His addiction battles continued for more than a decade after the Lewis rematch.
However, in his latest interview – with iFL TV – the American appeared in high spirits.
McCall spoke like a man who has now overcome his demons, albeit after a long and dark journey.
Whether he should keep fighting – his last fight was in 2019, in Mexico – is a separate debate, but we hope the ‘atomic bull’ has finally found peace.