25 Years Later: Evander Holyfield Robbed of Gold in the 1984 Olympics

Roger PAnalyst IJuly 21, 2009

This article looks back on an event from the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, which celebrate their 25th anniversary this year.

In 1984, Evander Holyfield became a household name in the United States.

Since then, "The Real Deal" has become the only fighter to ever win the heavyweight title four times. He's been mentioned in a rap by Snoop Dogg. He even got his ear nibbled by Mike Tyson.

But what nobody remembers is how he had an Olympic gold medal snatched from his willing grasp in 1984.

Holyfield had burst onto the Olympic scene out of obscurity. He was an unknown light heavyweight and made the American team by defeating amateur world champion Ricky Womack twice in consecutive days in the Olympic qualifier.

He started to get real attention when the Olympic bouts began.

In his first fight, Holyfield defeated Taju Akay of Ghana on an RSC in three rounds. An RSC—a Referee Stopped Contest—in amateur boxing is a technical knockout, awarded when one participant has been knocked down three times in a round even if they haven't stayed down long enough for it to be ruled a knockout.

In the second, he took out Ismail Salman of Iraq in another RSC, this time in two rounds.

Then in his third duel, he massacred Sylvanus Okello of Kenya with a knockout in the first round.

He was unstoppable.

The country rallied behind Holyfield as the clear favorite to win the gold medal. He was already one of the better American stories of the Olympics, having only just made it past the quarterfinal round, for winning his three bouts on knockouts and all but inscribing his name on the gold medal.

The controversy came in the semifinal match, where no controversy should have lived.

Holyfield was to face Kevin Barry of New Zealand. Barry wasn't known as a big-time hitter but had never been knocked down in his career. All the same, the smart money was on Real Deal Holyfield.

Barry knew it, too.

"To people in America," Barry said in a 2000 interview, "it was a foregone conclusion that Holyfield would win the gold medal."

And, all through the first and second rounds, they were right.

It was a rough fight, dominated by the younger, faster Holyfield. Both fighters were issued warnings for fouls. The winner would be guaranteed at least a silver medal and would fight for gold. The loser would go home with bronze.

With just six seconds left in the second round, two things happened.

A vicious combo from Holyfield—a solid right shot to the body, followed by an amnesia-inducing left hook to the head—dropped Barry to the mat.

Somewhere in that same moment, Yugoslavian referee Gligorije Novičić called a break. He shouted for the fighters to stop, in between the body shot and that massive hook.

Barry had fallen like a bag of dirt. Novičić ruled him a knockout victim, and since he'd been stopped with a head shot, he was automatically rendered medically ineligible to fight for 28 days.

Barry was out.

But Novičić didn't stop there. With one swift country-shaking strike, he disqualified Holyfield for hitting after the break had been called.

That meant forfeiture of the match—giving the fight's victory to Barry—and disqualification from receiving any medal in that Olympic event.

Holyfield was out.

Speculation zeroed in immediately on the referee Novičić. One fighter had already won a spot in the gold medal fight, and it was Novičić's countryman, the Yugoslavian Anton Josipović.

Holyfield had lost the semifinal bout, and Barry was out for 28 days, meaning that there was no opponent in the gold medal match. Josipović was declared the gold medalist without even entering the ring a final time.

The United States filed a protest, but to no avail. Holyfield's disqualification held, and the shady gold medal stood.

Arguments came from both sides. The U.S. side argued that the fight was fixed, as Novičić had violated the rules by giving cautions to Barry, followed by warnings (which are more severe), and then reverting back to just handing him cautions.

In all, Barry was given six cautions and warnings, typically plenty to disqualify an amateur boxer.

Barry, on the other hand, years later pointed to six times when Holyfield continued to fight after breaks were called.

"He was fighting to win," said Barry. "I may have been a little bit naive, and maybe I shouldn't have taken the referee's command as being the way things should have been. I should've protected myself until there was distance between us."

But much to their credit, at the time both Barry and Holyfield played it like gentlemen.

When the match concluded, the referee held up Barry's hand to signify him as the victor. Barry then grabbed hold of Holyfield's hand and held it up, to show who he felt was the rightful winner.

Holyfield, the wronged party, absorbed it like any other blow in the ring. His coolness in the situation earned him worldwide respect among Olympic television viewers.

The protest committee came around a little as well. Though the result of the match was upheld, they decided that Holyfield should be awarded the bronze medal—which went to the loser of the Holyfield-Barry match, but which Holyfield wouldn't have normally received after being disqualified.

Finally, at the medal ceremony, the gold medalist Josipović lifted Holyfield up to join him on the gold medal platform, adding his support for the American.

The entire incident gave Holyfield motivation, and something to prove. He used the publicity to springboard into a professional career, in which he found immediate success.

Holyfield's untimely exit from the Olympic competition was one of the biggest stories of the 1984 Olympics. But at least this story has a happy ending.

Now, 25 years later, we only remember Holyfield's accomplishments and not the sketchy officiating that robbed him of a probable gold medal.

Josipović, the gold medal winner, never did much in his professional career—and later ended up covering Holyfield's career as a sports journalist.