ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Evander Holyfield is still every bit a warrior at age 39. He's also back in the heavyweight picture, with a little help from his hard head.
Holyfield used his hands and head to fight his way back into title contention Saturday night, winning a technical decision against Hasim Rahman after swelling on the side of Rahman's forehead grew to the size of a baseball in the eighth round.
Two unintentional head butts caused the swelling, but Holyfield got in more than his share of punches, too, showing glimpses of the skills that made him a four-time heavyweight champion.
The end of the fight was anticlimactic, coming at 1:40 of the eighth round on the recommendation of the ring doctor. Even so, Holyfield showed he has enough left to beat a man who was heavyweight champion only seven months ago and is 10 years younger.
''Don't tell me what God can't do,'' Holyfield said. ''Don't tell me he can't revive a 39-year-old.''
Holyfield won six of the first seven rounds on two ringside scorecards -- although a third judge inexplicably had Rahman ahead -- and landed the bigger and better punches in a no-holds-barred fight in which both boxers refused to back up.
Rahman complained he lost because of the butts, but he also took punishment from Holyfield's fists in what was possibly the former champion's sharpest performance since he beat Mike Tyson six years ago.
''I didn't think he could do so much damage with his head,'' Rahman said. ''He must have a metal plate in there or something.''
The head butt in the seventh round, which followed one in the fourth, appeared to cause the mark on Rahman's head. The swelling kept getting bigger until it had grown grotesquely on the top left side of his forehead.
''I have a cut in the middle of my forehead, and an extra head on my head,'' Rahman said.
Referee Tony Orlando let him come out for the eighth. After taking a series of punches against the ropes, though, Orlando led Rahman over to ring doctor Dominic Coletta. He told Rahman he could continue if he could see, but Rahman said his vision was blurry.
The fight went to the scorecards, and judges Steve Weisfield and John Stewart had Holyfield ahead 69-64, while Melvinia Lathan had Rahman winning 67-66. The Associated Press had Holyfield ahead 69-64.
''We did hit heads there, but I'm hitting him with shots anyway and I hit him right on it,'' Holyfield said.
Holyfield certainly looked like a winner, reaching to the cheering crowd as the judges tabulated the scorecards. Rahman, meanwhile, was dazed and confused for several minutes after the fight, while he got medical attention on his stool.
''He was head-butting me from round one and I told the referee,'' Rahman said. ''I don't feel Evander beat me. I don't think it was a fair or an official fight.''
Holyfield, the aging statesman of the heavyweight division, attacked Rahman early and often, not afraid of a younger fighter who was also supposed to be much stronger.
Rahman (35-4) entered the ring as a slight favorite, but it was clear by the second round that Holyfield had far more ring skills and savvy in a bout that was fought at close quarters.
The fight was billed as an elimination bout, and it moved Holyfield in line possibly to fight for a title again, depending on what happens next week when Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis fight and next month when John Ruiz and Kirk Johnson meet for the WBA version of the title.
''One of the guys who wins next week might want a big payday, so I'll fight the winner of that or the winner of Ruiz-Johnson,'' he said. ''But I'd rather fight the winner of Lennox-Tyson.''
It was the second straight loss for the 29-year-old Rahman, whose reign as the heavyweight champion lasted only seven months and who said he would retire if he couldn't beat Holyfield.
Rahman showed plenty of heart but couldn't figure out the cagey Holyfield, who would punch when Rahman least expected it.
''Every time he would jab me I thought he would come one way and he'd come another,'' Rahman said.
The crowd of about 9,831 at the Boardwalk Hall cheered loudly for Holyfield as he entered the ring for what would be his first non-title fight since he scored one of the biggest upsets in boxing history by beating Tyson in November 1996. Holyfield (38-5-2) had either challenged for a title or defended one in his last nine fights, going 5-2-2.
He gave them what they wanted in a workmanlike performance that included several big exchanges in which he teed off on Rahman with combinations to the head.
''He didn't keep his hands up,'' Holyfield said. ''Today he put himself in a position where I could hit him.''
Holyfield had a reputation for using his head in the ring, something Tyson bitterly complained about. He got so frustrated in their second fight in 1997 he finally bit Holyfield's ears.
''I should have prepared for the head-butting better,'' Rahman said.
It was Holyfield's reflexes that were questioned coming into the fight against Rahman, but he was able to put his punches together when it mattered. Rahman seemed to be unable to land much more than an occasional head shot.
Punch statistics showed Rahman landed nearly the same number of punches as Holyfield, 118 to 129. But Holyfield landed the more powerful blows and dominated inside.
It was a battle of former champions, although Rahman lacked the credentials of Holyfield after holding the heavyweight title he won from Lewis only seven months before Lewis knocked him out in their rematch last November.
Holyfield, meanwhile, was heavyweight champion four times and considered one of the best of his era although his speed seemed to have slowed in recent years.
Holyfield, who weighed 216, earned $5 million, while Rahman, 224, earned $2 million.
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