Oliver McCall made his dreams into reality when he knocked out Lennox Lewis to claim the WBC heavyweight world title in 1994.
America’s underdog challenger entered the bout with a not-so-flattering record of 24-5, having previously been beaten by contenders including Tony Tucker, Orlin Norris and Mike Hunter.
The ‘Atomic Bull’ knocked Lewis out when they first fought in 1994
McCall could barley believe he was heavyweight champion of the world
McCall was even outpointed by the unheralded James ‘Buster’ Douglas in the fight before his iconic upset victory over Mike Tyson.
But by September 24, 1994, he had notched up a five-win streak and secured his first title shot against 25-0 Lewis.
Disaster struck for the Brit, but it was delight for the ‘Atomic Bull’ who landed a single, seismic right hand which flattened Lennox in round two.
The champion made it back to his feet, but was clearly on unsteady legs and the referee waved off the contest as a result.
He jumped for joy as he became champion
Lewis later reflected: “It’s a situation where you make one big mistake, the mistake was leaving yourself open and getting caught with a shot.”
Although unable to get an immediate rematch, Lennox responded by making changes within his camp at direct consequence to his opponent.
He recruited McCall’s trainer – the legendary Emanuel Steward – and rebuilt his career with four successive wins which put him back in the WBC #1 contender spot.
In this time, Frank Bruno beat McCall to take his title, only for Tyson to then knock out Bruno.
Britain’s Bruno beat McCall to claim the WBC heavyweight title in 1995
After beating McCall, Bruno reliniquished his heavyweight title in his next fight – against Tyson – and promptly retired from boxing
‘Iron Mike’ vacated the belt, setting up a rematch between the top two contenders – Lewis and McCall.
Two-and-a-half years on from their first meeting, the pair were due to square off again.
However, this in-between period had been far more tumultuous for McCall than it had been for Lewis.
Not only had he lost his trainer and then his title, he also spent multiple stints in rehab for cocaine and cannabis addictions.
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McCall spent 11 months out of the ring before the rematch, during which his life spiralled out of control.
In the summer of 1996, he was twice arrested on drug possession charges.
Three months before the fight, he was arrested again on charges of vandalism, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest following an argument at a hotel bar.
It later emerged that he was subsequently sent back to rehab in hopes that he would kick his addictions.
Despite all of this, nobody foresaw the toll it would take come fight night.
Lewis and McCall met in a rematch in Las Vegas in February 1997 in a fight billed as ‘Payback or Playback’a
The first sign that something was afoot with McCall came during his ring walk.
He made one of the fastest entrances you’ll ever see, sprinting to the squared circle in roughly six seconds.
The ‘Atomic Bull’ was known for being emotional and pumping himself up on ring walks for previous bouts, but this was uniquely erratic.
Lewis stood calm and stoic in the opposite corner.
The fight began with a relatively tense opening round in which Lennox boxed intelligently, utilising his jab well.
In the second, McCall started to hurl huge right hands at Lewis, seemingly looking to replicate his TKO2 win from 1994.
Lewis controlled McCall early on in the rematch
The Brit had learned his lesson thanks to Steward though, and comfotably saw off the assult with little damage sustained.
As round two ended and round three began, it seemed as though McCall was already out of ideas.
Lennox then upped the tempo and started to land consecutive right hands.
After each one, McCall took a step back, as if he was mugging Lewis, playing mind games to say he wasn’t hurt. He then dropped his hands and looked outside the ring.
McCall kept wandering off midway through the fight
One commentator on the UK broadcast declared: “McCall’s trying to play psychological games with Lennox Lewis.”
However, it quickly became apparent that this was not the case as at the end of the round, McCall refused to return to his corner.
In an unprecedented move, the American decided to wander around the ring aimlessly during his minute’s rest, periodically stopping to peer out into the crowd.
He looked lost.
McCall’s corner – consisting of Greg Page and George Benton – kept shouting at him, ‘Oliver, Oliver,’ but received no response.
The bell rang to start the fourth, but this was no longer a fight.
Lennox could not miss with his punches
Lewis continued to hit McCall – as was his job – but McCall refused to throw back.
He occasionally engaged for a brief moment, before then withdrawing and starting to wander off to a different portion of the ring while his bemused opponent pursued him.
McCall shook his head as if he no longer wanted to continue, prompting referee Mills Lane to pause the bout and ask what was going on.
The desolate fighter appeared to be on the brink of tears during the conversation. He shook his head again, then nodded, and remarkably the fight resumed.
Mills Lane spoke to McCall on several occasions
The pattern continued of Lewis punching, and McCall wandering, until the end of the round.
Boos rained down from the crowd and again, McCall refused to go back to his corner for the interval.
This time though, it became clear something was very wrong.
McCall was no longer on the brink of tears. He broke down completely and started crying as he stood wandering around the ring.
The ‘Atomic Bull’ couldn’t contain himself
McCall was visibly upset and had to be calmed down in the ring
The clearly-startled referee eventually coaxed him back to his corner and got him to sit down as they naively attempted to get him to continue with the fight.
After being told by a cornerman, ‘Do it for your daughter, man,’ McCall emerged for the fifth round, and tried to fight on.
He threw one jab, then stopped.
Lewis jumped on him with a series of punches, while McCall looked off into the distance once more. It was over.
At this point Lane separated the pair and mercifully stopped the bout.
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’s struggles with addiction and withdrawal took their toll
McCall climbed out of the ring and walked off into the Las Vegas night.
Lewis later recalled: “I always say I was prepared for everything, anything he came at me with I was prepared for. Crying? I wasn’t prepared for that.
“I still remember Emanuel Steward in the corner, he said, ‘What are you doing?’
“I said, ‘Well the man’s crying, what do you want me to do?’
“He said, ‘Well if he doesn’t wanna fight, you make him fight, go out there and beat him up.’
“I went out there with more of an effort to hit him and beat him up and then Mills Lane stopped the fight.”
The referee ended the fight in round five
Lewis was WBC champion again
The aftermath was almost equally as bizarre as the fight.
McCall appeared in public again just days later and held a remarkable press conference.
He began by trying to justify his actions, claiming the whole episode was part of his strategy to win.
The ‘Atomic Bull’ astonishingly suggested the fight was stopped prematurely before descending into what became 40 minutes of ranting and raving. By the end of it, McCall was close to tears again.
Oliver McCall press conference after Lennox Lewis rematch
His statements were followed by a Nevada Commission psychiatrist, Dr Leonore Petty, who incredulously stated that she’d assessed him and came to the conclusion his mental state was ‘just fine’.
Regardless, the commission temporarily suspended McCall and withheld his purse of $3million.
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 evaluated by a different mental health expert, who testified at a detention hearing that he was mentally ill and should be hospitalised.
Lewis did not get much credit for the win, but went on to prove himself by beating Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield
In September, McCall was deemed well enough to continue fighting and so the Nevada Commission agreed to lift his suspension.
They fined him $250,000, but finally allowed him to collect his $3million purse.
He returned to the ring in November and has been competing ever since.
Remarkably, at 55 years of age today, McCall is still fighting as well as training boxers.
McCall last fought in May 2019 and is planning to return post-pandemic
His battles with addiction continued for over a decade after the Lewis rematch.
However, in his most recent inteview – with iFL TV – the American appeared in great spirits.
McCall spoke like a man who has now overcome his demons, albeit after a long and dark journey.
Whether he should continue to fight is a separate debate, but here’s hoping the ‘Atomic Bull’ has finally found some peace.