By Thomas Gerbasi
July 14, 2016
Remember that public service announcement about the dangers of road rage that Evander Holyfield did last year, and the face he had on when he got out of the car to confront the driver who was harassing him?
I couldn’t see the face of the normally laid-back and cool “Real Deal” when we discussed his fighting career back in 2006, but I imagine it resembled the same face when I asked him if he was always so stubborn.
“Stubborn?” he bristled. “I don’t think I’m stubborn.”
There was no laugh, no chuckle, no smile at a seemingly innocent query. It was there that you saw the fighter within one of boxing’s greatest champions. It was a fire that all the greats have, one that burns in and out of the ring, and it never goes out.
At the time, Holyfield was 43 years old and days away from a fight against a journeyman named Jeremy Bates. The former heavyweight champion won that fight in two rounds, snapping a three-fight losing streak that seemingly ended his career in 2004. But including the Bates fight, Holyfield would fight nine more times, going 6-2 with 1 NC before announcing his retirement in 2014 at the age of 51.
During that stretch he should have achieved his goal of another world heavyweight championship, but the judges didn’t agree when he beat WBA titlist Nikolay Valuev in 2008, instead awarding the seven-footer a majority decision. The fight captured Holyfield’s career in one 12-round capsule, as he always seemed to be fighting against the giants, both real and imagined, yet he was able to leave each encounter, win or lose, with his head held high.
Some might call that stubborn. He called it faith. And when he did topple the odds, he was never tempted to say “I told you so.”
“It’s not so much for me to say that a person’s wrong,” Holyfield explained in 2006. “It’s just that your life identifies how you’ve been living. Right or wrong, your life shows what you’ve gone through. Whether you’re a good or bad person, when you have trials and tribulations, it’s how you handle them. I was born poor, but I didn’t let that hold me down. I made it to a level that some people would call rich, but I didn’t let that give me a head so big that you can’t talk to me or anything like that. There had been a point where nobody knew me and I didn’t cause no ruckus. Now I’m at a point where people know who I am, and I don’t cause no ruckus. These are decisions that you have to make. How are you going to handle them? And I’ve tried to handle everything the right way.”
Ever since the 1984 Olympics, when a bizarre disqualification against Kevin Barry forced him to settle for a Bronze medal, Georgia’s Holyfield embraced the uphill battles most would do anything to avoid. He was too inexperienced to beat Dwight Muhammad Qawi for the cruiserweight title, too small to win the heavyweight crown, too shopworn to beat Mike Tyson. And even when he accomplished all those goals, to some there was an asterisk.
“They told me I wouldn’t be the heavyweight champ of the world, that I wouldn’t beat Buster Douglas,” he recalled. “‘Evander Holyfield’s a nice guy, but when Buster Douglas hits him one time, that’s it.’ I hit Buster Douglas and that was it. Then they said Douglas was fat, he was this and that, but it wasn’t up to me to keep Buster in shape; that ain’t my business.”
But there is no asterisk on the career of a man who won titles in two weight classes and defeated the best of an era when the heavyweight championship truly meant something.
Buster Douglas, Riddick Bowe, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Ray Mercer, Mike Tyson, Hasim Rahman, Michael Moorer and John Ruiz all tasted defeat at Holyfield’s hands, with the only notable heavyweight of the era that he fought and didn’t beat being Lennox Lewis.
When he hits the ballot for the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2016, expect a unanimous decision for induction in his favor, not just because of what he accomplished, but for how he made us feel.
In his early years and in his prime, Holyfield was something to see as he chugged forward, throwing combinations and eating shots if necessary just to get to the finish line and get the win. Even when he lost, he went down swinging or simply lost to the better man on that particular night. But regardless of the outcome, you always wanted to see what he would do next, and you would pay for that privilege.
But to talk at length with one of the legends of the sport about his career was something I couldn’t put a price on. Simply put, after talking to boxing greats for 20 years, this was one of the highlights. Not just to say I interviewed Evander Holyfield, but to talk to him while he was fired up and eager to let the world know that his career was built on silencing the doubters. In my original piece on MaxBoxing.com, I interspersed Holyfield quotes about all the times he was doubted into the narrative about his latest comeback. To me, the quotes said it all. Here’s a sampling:
“I lost to Riddick Bowe but then I came back and beat him. They didn’t think I could beat him. They said I was crazy. ‘You made a lot of money and we think you’re one of the nicest, smartest guys. We want you to get out of this game without getting hurt. But you can’t beat this guy. He beat you already.’ I beat him.” – Holyfield on Bowe
“They probably thought I could beat Michael Moorer, but he got a decision over me. Then they took my license and said I had a heart problem. They found out it was a bad diagnosis and I was able to get my license back. I came back, beat Ray Mercer, and lost to Riddick Bowe. I went to the press conference and they asked what I was gonna do. I said I was gonna get back in line, carry the Olympic torch in 1996, and I’m gonna be heavyweight champ of the world. They laughed me out of that place. They laughed, they laughed, they laughed.” – Holyfield on life after the third Bowe fight. He went on to beat the seemingly invincible Tyson a year later.
“In 1996 they were trying to stop the Tyson fight. They said it was wrong, that that man was gonna wind up killing Evander Holyfield. They were trying to put out petitions and march against Don King because they said it was a shame that he was gonna let that man just kill poor Holyfield. And I beat that man and it was ‘Oh, how did this happen?’ They were shocked and they wanted me to quit then. I said no, that my goal was to become the undisputed heavyweight champ of the world. I’ve been telling you that since 1992. Why do you keep forgetting that?” – Holyfield on Tyson
“I go fight Michael Moorer and knock him out, and eventually I meet up with Lennox Lewis in 1999. Now they called that fight a draw and HBO made it out that it was a big travesty. ‘Oh, they cheated Lennox Lewis,’ but Lennox didn’t do all that he could have done. The fight comes off again in November, and it was a good fight. I truly believe that I beat Lennox, but they gave the decision to him. Humbly and graciously, I did my interview with them and I went to the press conference and the question was asked: ‘Evander, how do you feel about Lennox being the champion when we know that you won the fight?’ I said it’s not about what I feel because the reality is that Lennox is the champ and this is who they crowned. Then they asked me again if I was going to retire. I said, ‘no, it means that I’m gonna get back in line.’ And as soon as they said that, everybody got upset. ‘When are you gonna retire?’ I said my goal is to be the undisputed heavyweight champ of the world.” – Holyfield on the Lewis series
“Lennox wouldn’t fight John Ruiz, so I fought John Ruiz, and I beat him. They said that was a controversy, and that boy ain’t did nothin’ in that first fight and I won. I end up being the only man who was heavyweight champ of the world four times. They come up and say you’ve got to fight this guy again. While fighting him again, he’s doing the same things that he’s been doing. I hit him with a body shot in the solar plexus and dropped him. This boy’s such a bad actor he turns on his stomach. Nobody gets hit in the groin and lays on their stomach. Then he realized that he was wrong and he rolled on his back and even when he did that he put his hand on his stomach before moving it down to his groin. (Laughs) Then he gets up, hits me low on purpose and they don’t say nothin’, and in the next round he gets me with a good shot and he drops me. I get up, hold on, but I really thought I won the fight. They give him the fight. And everybody jumps up and was so happy. We fight a third time, and this man don’t win a round. They call it a draw. ‘What are you gonna do Evander?’ I’m gonna get back in line.” – Holyfield on three fights with John Ruiz
Great stuff, and a peek into the mind - and soul – of a fighter. But the quote that stood out to me the most was when I asked him why he continued fighting in his 40s when so many people were genuinely concerned about his well-being and didn’t want to see him get hurt.
“We’re in America,” he said. “And we’ve all got an equal right to make a decision for ourselves,” he said. “Our country’s been built on people doing things that they were told they couldn’t do. Look at the Wright brothers with the airplane. They crashed a lot of ‘em, but they eventually got one up. (Laughs) Our country became the best country because we have the freedom to express ourselves, and we worked it out. Now all of a sudden, they’re telling people that when you get a certain age, you’re old, and if you’re old, then you can’t do this. Well, it’s always been proven that records are meant to be broken. We understand that we’d like everybody to live a long time and all that, but they let people smoke if they want to when they reach a certain age, even though we know what the outcome of that is gonna be, but we let people take that risk. Now all of a sudden I become very popular, and people say, ‘well, I love you. We don’t want you to get hurt.’ You don’t understand, I get hurt daily by something someone said about me or because somebody’s trying to control me or trying to tell me what I can’t do because they love me. No, no, no. I live in America, and you can love me or not love me, but you’re supposed to give me the opportunity to be the man that I am and be able to have choices. If I can’t pass the tests that are necessary to qualify me to perform, then that’s a whole different thing. I don’t need somebody trying to get the whole society on their side by saying ‘We love Evander, and he’s too nice for us to let him have a chance to go out there and get hurt.’ This is not how it’s supposed to be.”
Holyfield passed his tests, fought for five more years, winning more often than not and coming perilously close to another world heavyweight title. I would guess that if you told him he could get a fight with one of today’s champions, he would, at 53, not just take it, but get right back into the gym the second he got the offer. A fighter’s heart never dies, and some, like Holyfield’s, will live on forever.
So yeah, Evander Holyfield might not want to admit it, but he was always stubborn. And what’s wrong with that?