Las Vegas — Evander Holyfield, showing signs of age and ring wear, battled back in the late rounds Saturday to win a unanimous decision over John Ruiz and become the first boxer in history to win portions of the heavyweight title four times.
At the age of 37, Holyfield displayed only flashes of the fighter who beat the likes of Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, going 12 rounds before winning the WBA title vacated by Lennox Lewis.
Fighting a boxer who had never been in a title fight before, Holyfield won by only one point on two ringside scorecards and four points on a third. He fought best in the final round, when he battered a tiring Ruiz to seemingly pull the fight out.
In a fight that was entertaining but hardly a heavyweight classic, Ruiz exposed Holyfield's deteriorating skills much as Lewis had in a controversial draw and win over Holyfield that made him the undisputed champion.
But in the end, it was the ring generalship in his 20th title fight that allowed Holyfield to dominate the final round and pull out the win.
Judge Fernando Biso had Holyfield winning 116-112, while judges Duane Ford and Dave Moretti had him winning 114-113. The Associated Press also had Holyfield ahead 114-113.
If Ruiz had won the 12th round, he would have won the fight.
There were no knockdowns in the fight, although a left hook in the final round by Holyfield seemed to put Ruiz down and caused blood to flow from his nose. Referee Richard Steele ruled it a slip, however, though Holyfield went on to dominate the latter part of the round.
The 28-year-old Ruiz, who had never been in a big fight before, followed through on his pre-fight promise to take the fight to Holyfield, at least in the early rounds.
Holyfield had trouble early and was consistently beaten to the punch by Ruiz. Most of the rounds were marred by holding by both fighters, although Holyfield appeared to do most of it.
Holyfield, who came into the fight off the draw and loss to Lewis, was given another title chance only because a judge took the WBA title away from Lewis for failing to defend against Ruiz.
It was the fourth time Holyfield has been crowned heavyweight champion, although his performance showed that he may have trouble fighting long enough to pursue his goal of becoming the undisputed champion again.
Lewis had mocked the fight all week, calling Ruiz "Johnny Louise" and saying the public would not recognize Holyfield as a legitimate champion.
Ruiz, a 4-1 underdog, appeared ready to take advantage of his first big chance at a title, outboxing Holyfield through many of the middle rounds and beating him to the punch on many occasions.