He won’t go away. He is well past his prime, boxing’s version of a future baseball Hall of Famer still toiling in the minors.
Evander Holyfield: dedicated or delusional? Courageous or crazy? At 46, he does not care what boxing fans think. For those urging him to get a life or to find normalcy, whether out of care and concern for him or simply the desire to shove the doyen off boxing’s stage, he says: “I have respect for that. But that’s just your opinion. I have an opinion, too.”
His opinion holds that he has one good bout left, maybe more, in his still sculptured body. He will try to summon it Saturday in Zurich in a match with Nikolai Valuev, a 7-foot Russian.
At stake is the World Boxing Association heavyweight belt. Holyfield would buckle it around a waist that has barely expanded since he won his first professional title, in 1990. This would be Holyfield’s fifth heavyweight title, extending his record and distinguishing him as the eldest to reclaim a championship. He would surpass George Foreman, who did it against Michael Moorer at age 45 in 1994.
Holyfield insists such a distinction is not driving him to squeeze the last sweat drops out of his vocation. Nor is it money, even though he is sitting on an incredibly shrinking nest egg. Nor is it about pride or re-establishing his name, no small feat for someone so far removed from fame, other than for his “Dancing With the Stars” gig, that Google Earth would be hard-pressed to find him.
This fight, he attests, is about imparting a continuous lesson in perseverance to his 11 children, particularly the eldest.
Evander Jr. was 8 in 1992 when his father pondered retirement, after he lost a unanimous decision to Riddick Bowe for the undisputed heavyweight title. “My son couldn’t stop crying about it,” said Holyfield, who decided to soldier on because bowing out would have sent the wrong parental signal. “Scared the daylights out of me.”
Seven years later, Holyfield, battling illness as well as Lennox Lewis, considered leaving the ring in the middle of a bout until he spotted Junior in the arena and changed his mind, he said, cringing at the notion of the namesake someday hearing, “You’re going to be just like your daddy and quit under pressure.”
Two daughters recently beseeched him to abandon the sport. He listened, then told them: “I control my life. I make my decisions. I wouldn’t be wasting my time doing something I don’t think I can do.”
Holyfield has parried hooks and thrown uppercuts since he was 8, when a coach at an Alabama boys’ club implanted the dream that he could someday rule the heavyweight division. A career beset by physical hardships and pockmarked by bizarre incidents has left him unfazed. His longevity is a product of rolling with the punches, not only the sort delivered by a gloved fist.
One bout was interrupted when Mike Tyson’s teeth removed a chunk of his ear. Another was halted when a paraglider dropped into the ring. He had fights put off when an opponent had hepatitis and another was imprisoned for rape.
His physician informed him he had a hole in his heart in 1994, prompting the faith healer Benny Hinn to lay hands on him at a revival. (Mayo Clinic doctors later concluded the defect never existed.) The New York State Athletic Commission suspended his license after a loss stemming from a shoulder ailment. Foreshadowing the challenges and oddities was his disqualification for a supposed late punch in the 1984 Olympics, which cost him a shot at a gold medal.
Holyfield, whose ability to be calm in the swirl of chaos may be his greatest strength, has never lost his mojo.
There was the time Lewis accused him of hypocrisy for pledging to Christianity while fathering several children out of wedlock. How did he vent? By predicting a third-round knockout of Lewis (the bout ended in a draw). Holyfield said that the uncharacteristic boasting was uncalled for.
Retirement has not tugged hard on Holyfield, the rare fighter who relishes training. Inspirational gospel music blares through the gym, Holyfield singing along as he endures the mind- and body-numbing ritual of prepping for his fights.
At his camp in Houston, he skips rope and attacks the punching bag to the beat of his favorite tunes collected over two decades, each song remindful of a milestone bout.
He admits to the aches and pains inescapable with creeping age, and he may cancel a session or cut one short.
“I’m not doing what I used to do, trying to burn it every day,” he said. “My body don’t recover as fast.”
In his glory days Holyfield said that he sought divine help only on the day of a bout. Now, he summons his Lord to deliver him through training sessions. “I’m paying a superprice,” he said, “because I want it at this age.”
Besides, motivation “is hard when the money hasn’t been big for quite a while,” said Tim Hallmark, his fitness adviser and nutritionist for all but one fight in the past 23 years.
Holyfield will collect $600,000 to $750,000 against Valuev, spare change for someone with career earnings of more than $200 million, including $35 million for one memorable night with Tyson. The payday for Saturday, though modest by boxing standards, calls into question whether money needs have trapped Holyfield inside the ropes.
Two months ago he faced possible jail time when support payments lagged for his 11-year-old son. Holyfield, now remarried, reached an agreement amid estimates that he spends $500,000 a year in child support.
Last summer foreclosure papers were drawn up and an auction scheduled for his mansion, with its 17 bathrooms and 3 kitchens, on 235 acres of rolling hills south of Atlanta. Ken Sanders, serving as Holyfield’s financial adviser, acknowledged that Holyfield nearly lost his home and toyed with the idea of filing for personal bankruptcy.
“It’s a little tough for him right now,” said Sanders, who served as Holyfield’s first fight manager and is filling the role again. “He’s got some situations we’re trying to straighten out. It’s going to take a little time.”
Sanders declined to offer details, citing possible litigation. Holyfield blamed former associates, whom he accused of gaining power of attorney and borrowing against the value of the property. “It set me back,” Holyfield said, “but everything is good now.”
He added: “If I had a hundred million dollars, two hundred million, I would still fight because I have a goal.”
His goal, to retrieve all three recognized heavyweight crowns by the close of 2009, seems as pie in the sky as a peach praline in heaven.
Since 2001, Holyfield (42-9-2, 27 knockouts) is 6-4-1, mostly against little-known fighters. In his last bout, last year, he was hammered by Sultan Ibragimov. Many who embrace the sport fear Holyfield is not just tarnishing his legacy but stripping off every last bit of paint.
“People say: ‘You ain’t thinking. It’s your ego,’ ” Holyfield said.
Holyfield, who is vastly more popular in China and other countries than he is here, took a jab at the United States: “It’s a sin to get old. People stop respecting you. I know how it’s supposed to end for me as a boxer. And that’s to be on top.”
Hallmark, the fitness trainer, says he is confident Holyfield’s career will not end in an ambulance.
“If I felt Evander wasn’t physically capable of fighting, I would be the first to say that,” Hallmark said. “I haven’t seen anything that concerns me.”
Hallmark tailors Holyfield’s regimen with his client’s advancing age and his opponent in mind. For Valuev (49-1, 34 knockouts), who presents unique obstacles with his height, Holyfield’s strength training has been subjugated by conditioning. Avoiding injury is the top priority. “We have to be wise working him,” Hallmark said.
Hallmark has reeled in Holyfield’s wayward dietary habits, weaning his pupil off bean, milk and corn products, in deference to his Type A blood.
The specter of steroid use hangs over any athlete in Holyfield’s demographic, more so because his name appeared on a customer list of a company that was investigated for the illegal sale of performance-boosting drugs. Holyfield was quoted last year saying that he consumed a drug in 2004 to address “my hormonal problem,” but that neither it nor any other substance he has ingested is banned by boxing.
Hallmark recalled Holyfield’s disclosure that he had rebuffed encouragement from “people” to sample steroids. A few years ago Hallmark arranged for what he described as thorough blood tests, paid for by the fighter, that he said confirmed his long-held belief that Holyfield is clean.
“From what I’ve seen, Evander has never taken anything illegally to enhance his performance,” he said, adding: “I worked with one steroid user, a football player. The day I found out, I threw him out of the gym” and severed relationships.
“He just don’t age,” Sanders said of Holyfield. “He amazes me.”
Home briefly for the Thanksgiving holiday, Holyfield leapt from a chair and demonstrated how he would attack his imposing foe: moving, jabbing, working inside to negate Valuev’s long reach.
“I know people look at this as a freak show,” he said: the old man and the sea monster.
To those critics, he spouts personalized maxims about swimming against the tide of public opinion and likens himself to President-elect Barack Obama and the Wright brothers.
“This country is built on proving you can do it,” he said. To heck with prevailing sentiment: “I came up on the wrong side of the tracks, so nobody ever believed in me anyway.”
Asked if he could retire, forever, after one more night in the ring, Holyfield sat in unusual silence, kicked the question around, and said maybe. “Losing is quitting,” he said.
He won’t go away. Not without a fight, or three.
* By MIKE TIERNEY ; NYT,17 December 2008