By Thomas Hauser
Fighters do things that most of us can only fantasize about, endure pain that most of us can't imagine, and go places that most of us will never go. Evander Holyfield is as pure a fighter as there is in boxing. He enobles the sport.
Everyone acknowledges that Holyfield is a warrior. What is overlooked sometimes is that he has been to war on a scale that is matched by only a few ring greats in boxing history.
There have been twenty-three claimants to the heavyweight title since Holyfield turned pro in 1984; thirty-two if one considers the WBO. Evander has fought twenty bouts against these men, compiling a record of 12 wins, 6 losses and 2 draws. Including his most recent bout against James Toney, Holyfield has fought twenty-two times since winning the heavyweight championship from Buster Douglas in 1990. At the time of these twenty-two fights, his opponents had a cumulative record of 857 wins, 52 losses, and 4 draws,
"It's not winning," Evander says, "if you haven't fought the best."
Warriors can be brutal. They don't just absorb punishment; they impose it too. The great ones can be mean, and Holyfield has inflicted his share of pain. But he embodies the best of the reasons why people are drawn to boxing. "Everything else about Evander is too little," says Earnie Shavers. "But his heart is the right size."
Holyfield has confidence in himself and also that the Lord is on his side. His goal is to reclaim the heavyweight crown and, in his mind, it won't be enough to simply win a title. He wants to consolidate all of the belts and retire as undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. That leads to analogies between Evander and Captain Ahab's self-destructive obsession with the White Whale. After all, Holyfield hasn't scored a knockout since 1997. He has won just two of his last eight fights. His greatest glory, the first Holyfield-Tyson fight, took place seven years ago. He's forty-one years old with a body that carries the wear and tear of a man about to enter his twentieth year as a professional fighter.
"People say they don't want to see me hurt," Holyfield acknowledged recently. "I don't want to see me hurt either. But they've tried to bury me two or three times before and found out that I wasn't dead. For the last ten years, people been popping the same question at me: 'When you gonna quit?' They started asking after I fought Riddick Bowe the first time. So I went out and beat Bowe in the rematch, and they still said I should retire. They've been singing the same song ever since. And when they're not singing, they've been threatening that I'm gonna get carried out on my back. But I'm still standing. I'm still here."
"People keep telling me that boxing is a brutal business," Holyfield continued. "Do they think I don't know that? I've been in the ring three times with Bowe; twice with Lennox Lewis. I beat Larry Holmes and George Foreman. I whupped Mike Tyson twice; had my ear chewed off and spat on the ground in front of me. I know this business better than anyone. When I was young, I woke up sore but I still had to do what I had to do. Now I'm older and I wake up sore, but I still gotta do what I gotta do. Ain't nothing changed. I've set a goal to retire as undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. I'm not in a hurry. I'm picking my fights carefully. The goal is still there. The question is, how do I exit as champion?"
Holyfield versus James Toney was part of the plan. But looking realistically at the situation, Evander went into the fight as a gatekeeper for the heavyweight division. If he won, he would reemerge as a contender. If he lost, Toney would become the contender and Evander would be relegated to "opponent" status.
Toney is a world-class fighter, who has squandered much of his potential. After losing to Roy Jones in 1994, he went into a funk and stopped training seriously. His bout with Evander was the first time in nine years that he'd been in the ring for a fight that the public cared about.
Toney has been accused of having an attitude problem. James says that it's a case of other people having a perception problem and that he has simply been in a bad mood for thirty-five years. Either way, a little bit of James Toney goes a long way. And in the days leading up to the fight, he was exceedingly vocal.
"This will be Holyfield's last fight," Toney promised. "I'm retiring him. He's past his prime; he's had his time. He can grab his Bible, bring his choir, do whatever; it don't matter. He's in trouble. It's going to be a bloody night. I'm gonna give this old southern boy an ass-whupping; bust him up good, put him to sleep. I'm the hardest punching boxer out there. I can't wait to prove to the world that I'm the future of the heavyweight division. Any man, except for me, can be beat. I'm the greatest fighter of the millennium."
But talking doesn't win fights, and the Holyfield camp was equally confident. To a man, they believed that Evander was the better fighter, punched harder and, given his reach advantage, would be able to control Toney with his jab. Moreover, Holyfield had been hit lots of times by people who punched harder than Toney, but James had never been hit by anyone who punched as hard as Evander. Sparring with heavyweights is different from fighting one.
Thus, in the days leading up to the fight, Holyfield said of Toney's trash-talking, "Everyone has the freedom to say what they want. Some can back it up and some can't. The question is, can he take what I give him? Toney says he's going to stand in front of me and fight me. I look forward to that. That's great. That means I won't miss. If he doesn't move, they're gonna wind up moving him. He may stand there, but it won't be for long."
Meanwhile, Atlanta attorney Jim Thomas, who has done exemplary work for Evander since 1991, said simply, "The best way to deal with guys who are disrespectful is to knock them out."
The day of the fight was typical for Evander. Mandalay Bay had provided him with a palatial three-bedroom suite featuring a huge living room and kitchen area. At 10:30 am, wearing blue workout shorts and a gray T-shirt, he sat with Jim Thomas, conditioning coach Tim Hallmark, and several friends from Atlanta over a plate of steak and eggs and a stack of pancakes that conjured up the image of a tall office building.
There was no sign of nerves. Everyone seemed relaxed and confident as they awaited the battle. One reason for the confidence was that, ever since his second fight against Lennox Lewis, Evander had been plagued by an ailing left shoulder that left him unable to throw effective lefthand leads or hook off his jab. But after being out-pointed by Chris Byrd last December, he'd undergone surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. Now the shoulder was fully healed.
Both Holyfield and Toney had looked good at their final pre-fight physicals. Evander weighed 219 pounds and seemed to be in the best shape possible for a fighter two weeks shy of forty-one. Toney had come in a bit heavy at 217. But he'd worked hard during the preceding months, cleaned up his eating habits, and been off red meat for eight weeks.
"It don't matter what Toney weighs," Holyfield said when the subject arose. "If I start paying attention to what he weighs, it means I'm not paying enough attention to what I'm gonna do." Then Evander stood up from the table in his suite and demonstrated how, when Toney turns his head and shoulders on the inside to avoid a punch, he exposes his ribs. "You break something if you hit a man there," Evander said.
At noon, Holyfield went out for a walk. A half-hour later, he returned and sat down on the sofa to watch the playoff game between the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins.
One of the noteworthy things about Evander is how much more verbal he has become over the years. "Coming out of the Olympics," he acknowledged, "I wasn't comfortable communicating with people. I was concerned with my articulation and how I sounded. I thought people were laughing at me when I expressed myself. I worried about things like whether or not I was right in putting an 's' at the end of a verb."
Those days are past. Evander now understands that he's as smart as the next person and, as the afternoon progressed, he talked freely. "This isn't a championship fight," he noted. "But it's getting a lot of attention and that's a good feeling. Obviously, the fight is significant for me, but it's nice to know that it's significant for other people too."
Then the conversation turned to an overview of his career. "I've been boxing for thirty-two years," Evander reminisced. "I've had my ups and I've had my downs, but it's been good. The fight that meant the most to me was the first fight against Tyson. I knew I could beat him, but the public didn't. The fight I learned the most from was my first fight against Qawi. Before that fight, I wasn't sure if I belonged in the ring with him. Then he burned a shirt that had my picture on it. That was disrespectful. It made me mad."
The Qawi fight marked the emergence of the public perception of Evander Holyield as a warrior. He entered the ring at 190 pounds and left it weighing 175. But he survived 15 of the most brutal rounds in boxing history and captured the cruiserweight crown. Then, bruised, battered, and badly dehydrated, he was taken to the hospital for overnight observation.
"I lay in that bed," Evander remembered, "and even though I won, I said out loud, 'Oh, Lord; I don't know if I want to do this anymore.' But to be a true success, you have to endure hardship. Being a warrior isn't just being destructive. A warrior is a man who takes it to the end and doesn't quit. If you quit every time you have a setback, you'll be starting over your whole life."
Then came the familiar refrain: "When I become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world again is when I close the book on being a fighter. I might not get it when I want it, but I'll get it. The only way I won't reach my goal of becoming heavyweight champion of the world again is if I quit. And I won't quit."
Evander stayed in his suite for the rest of the afternoon. Then, after the Atlanta Braves secured game four of their playoff series against the Chicago Cubs, he journeyed down a service elevator and through back passageways to the Mandalay Bay Events Center. At 5:25 pm, he arrived in a room with plush ivory carpeting, a large-screen television, a sofa, and club chairs. It looked like the dressing room for a concert performer.
Evander sat on the sofa, directly opposite the television. "Braves won," he said. "Got one thing straight. Now it's time for the other."
The first pay-per-view fight of the evening, Cruz Carbajal versus Gerardo Espinoza, was underway. Evander turned his attention to the television and watched impassively. The atmosphere in the room was like a handful of fans sitting at home in someone's living room watching a fight. Except soon, one of the group would get up off the sofato be in the main event.
Long stretches of time went by without anyone saying a word. Evander watched silently, and everyone else followed his lead. Espinoza got beaten up. The fight ended with a left hook to the body that left him writhing on the canvas in pain. Evander stood up from the sofa, walked over to a six-foot mirror, and threw a handful of punches in exaggerated slow-motion.
At 5:50 pm, Marc Ratner (executiver director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission) entered the room with Jay Nady, who would be refereeing the main event. Nady gave Evander his preliminary instructions, closing with, "Good luck. It's an honor to be in the ring with you."
Nady and Ratner left. Evander went into the adjacent bathroom to provide a urine sample for the Nevada commission. Then he returned; turned off the sound on the television, and inserted a tape of gospel music into a cassette player.
"All praise to the King . . . Praise to Jesus . . . Nothing compares to His love."
Evander put on his high-top fight shoes and began lacing them up, singing along with the music.
"My Jesus, my Saviour . . . Glory to His name."
A look of rapture came over Evander's face and his body began to sway. The mundane work of lacing shoes took on the aura of a devotional act.
On the television screen, Joel Casamayor versus Diego Corrales began.
"Lift up your hearts to Jesus . . . Glory unto His name,"
At 6:05 pm, trainer Donald Turner began taping Evander's hands. The two men had been together for each of Evander's fights since 1994.
Still, no one spoke. Evander's eyes were closed and his head swayed to the music as he sang, "We lift up our hands and bless Your Holy Name . . . Blessed be the name of The Lord."
All the while, Turner worked efficiently, mechanically, taping Evander's hands. When the taping was done, Tim Hallmark stood opposite Evander and led him through a series of stretching exercises, Meanwhile, Joel Casamayor versus Diego Corrales unfolded silently on the screen.
"Blessed be the name of the Lord . . . Because He is worthy to be praised and adored . . . Hallelujah."
The stretching exercises ended. Evander pulled his protective cup up over his gym shorts. Blood was gushing from gashes on Diego Corrales's cheek and inside his mouth. After the sixth round, ring doctor Margaret Goodman stopped the fight.
"Good stoppage," declared Donald Turner.
"Twenty minutes," Jim Thomas said.
Everyone in the room joined hands in prayer.
"We lift up our hands and bless Your Holy Name. Blessed be the name of The Lord for He is worthy to be praised."
Then came the carnage.
"If a fight can be made," Evander once said, "I can win it." But as Larry Holmes has observed, "Sometimes the mind makes a date that the body can't keep."
Holyfield-Toney was a reality check for Evander and the check bounced.
Evander came out hard and looked pretty good at the start, but Toney was difficult to hit flush. Finally, in round three, he whacked James with his best right hand and nothing happened. Then, in round four, James hit him back solidly and Evander wobbled.
Thereafter, Toney beat Holyfield up. By round seven, he was hitting him at will with right hands. In the past, Evander had been on the opposite side of the same equation. Once, he had been the young fighter facing aging lions like George Foreman and Larry Holmes. And of course, Evander had taken beatings before and, inspired by a deep belief in God, had come back to prevail. But in boxing, belief alone isn't enough.
By round eight, Evander's face was swollen and blood was streaming from his mouth. In round nine, a barrage of blows punctuated by a brutal body shot put him on the canvas. Most likely, Nady would have allowed the fight to continue. After all; Evander is boxing's consummate warrior. But as Evander rose, Donald Turner stepped into the ring and halted the punishment. Whatever else Turner might have done in boxing, that was his finest moment.
All three judges had Toney comfortably ahead at the time of the stoppage.
Back in his dressing room, Evander glanced at his image in the mirror, opened a bottle of water, and took several gulps. Then he slumped in a chair. "I got beat up," he said to no one in particular. "The body shots got me. Toney got off before me. He out-hustled me; he beat me to position. I found myself thinking, not reacting. I was a step behind all night."
Evander bowed his head in disappointment, not prayer. For the moment, the emotional pain seemed worse than the physical. "I don't have no excuses," he continued. "My shoulder didn't bother me. I fought like I had a hurt shoulder, but the left arm was fine. The shoulder wasn't hurt at all. But I'm not ready to retire. I'll go home, rest a while, and look for a signal from the Lord."
There was a post-fight press conference marked by a standing ovation from the boxing media. Then Evander journeyed through a maze of corridors and back upstairs on a service elevator. At 9:30 pm, he was in his suite. "I feel good," he told the friends gathered around him. "I got beat; that's all. I got my head up, so don't you all be sad."
So what comes next for Evander Holyfield?
Athletes get old in a cruel way; and for fighters, the aging process is particularly cruel. Many people who care about Evander hope he retires. He, in turn, observes, "The Bible teaches that a man's end is more important than his beginning. That's why I want to retire as undisputed heavyweight champion of the world."
But there are few happy endings in boxing. And in broader terms, at age forty-one, Evander is merely at the mid-point of what one hopes will be a long happy life.
Several hours before he fought James Toney, Evander spoke of maturing and how he had learned to be less selfish over the years and put larger interests ahead of his own personal goals. Then he'd added, "I understand now that happiness is a journey; not a destination. You don't work for twenty years, make a lot of money, retire, and be happy forever. The journey goes on."
One might add that a fighter doesn't fight for twenty years, retire as undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, and be happy forever. The journey goes on.
Regardless of what happens next in the ring, the second half of Evander's life is about to begin. Thus, one might draw a parallel between his life and the Bible, which is divided into the Old and New Testaments.
The God of the Old Testament is commonly thought of as a God of Wrath. The God of the New Testament is a God of Love. Evander grew up in harsh surroundings and has spent the past twenty-five years in the brutal confines of a boxing ring. Perhaps the time has come for Book Two of his life to begin.
Evander Holyfield believes in service. He must now decide how best to serve.
Award winning author Thomas Hauser can be reached at