Boxing's Greatest Fighters: Evander Holyfield

Originally Published: July 5, 2007
By Bert Randolph Sugar | Boxing Historian

The story of Evander Holyfield is an updated version of The Little Engine that Could -- the story of a man who could no more be discouraged than ice welded nor steel melted. Exuding those essential oils of dedication and determination, he constituted a majority of one who thought that whatever he undertook could be done, and that was all it took. It was almost as if you could hear him saying, "I think I can ... I think I canů" with every challenge faced and every punch landed.

Lou Duva/Evander Holyfield
AP Photo/Douglas C. PizacHolyfield celebrates with Lou Duva (left).
Evander always believed he could, no matter the number of denials or rebuffs. Taken by his mother to the Atlanta Boys Club at the age of eight, the 65-pound youngster became fascinated by the speed bag, but was told by the boxing coach, Carter Morgan, that he couldn't hit the bag unless he joined the team. And so it was that denied his request, he joined the team where he would soon become known as "One-Punch" Holyfield," because, as he would recall, "I stopped guys with one shot-Boom . . . But then you didn't knock them out. You'd hit them hard enough for them to cry and the referee'd end the fight."

But one punch wasn't enough when, at the age of 11, he lost to the first white opponent he ever faced, one Cecil Collin, and went home to tell his mother he no longer liked boxing and wanted to quit. But his mother, the source of his spiritual guidance, told him she had "not raised a quitter," and that he could quit only after he had beaten Collin.

The scene would be repeated again; again he would lose to Collin and again he would go home and tell his mother he no longer wanted to box, and again she would explain that quitting in defeat was not acceptable, and sent him back to the club yet again. And when circumstances had so arranged themselves that he would face Collin a third time, he not only won the fight but also gained a belief in himself that he could do anything he set out to do.

Coach Morgan also believed. Teaching the youngster more than the basic rudiments of the sport, Morgan also took him under his wing, implanting in Evander's mind the thought that one day he would become a champion, saying, "Young'un, some day you're gonna be the champ of the world." For Evander, they were words that could be stenciled on all the banners all over the world, words to live by.

With his talents and body both growing, Holyfield qualified for the 1984 Olympic team as a 179-pound light heavyweight by defeating world amateur champion Ricky Womack. After cruising through his first three Olympic opponents via knockouts, Holyfield was well on his way to a fourth against Australian Kevin Barry in the semifinals, flooring the Aussie with one deep-dish left just seconds before the end of the second round. However, it was at that moment that one of the most controversial incidents in Olympic boxing history took place: Referee Gligorije Novice of Yugoslavia immediately motioned for Holyfield to go to a neutral corner, then counted out the stricken Barry, and, once finished with his count, turned and disqualified Holyfield for throwing a blow after he had hollered, "Stop." When the decision was announced, it was greeted with jeers and catcalls, and not a few flybys. An embarrassed Barry, turning to Holyfield, said, "You won fair and square," and, taking Holyfield's arm, held his hand up in the air.

A lesser mortal would not have survived the disappointment. But then again, as he would prove time and again, Evander Holyfield was no lesser mortal. With manners overcharged with courtesy, he gave insight into the man, saying, "No matter what happened, in some way I will overcome it."

And overcome it he would. Now the most famous fighter coming out of the Olympics because of the controversy, Holyfield debuted as a pro on the night of November 15, 1984, at Madison Square Garden on a card billed as "Night of Gold," along with the other Olympians, winning a six-round decision over a stepping-stone named Lionel Byarm. Following 10 more wins, he challenged for something called the cruiserweight title -- which, for all boxing fans knew, was something larger than a bread box and smaller than a battleship, somewhere at 185 or 190 pounds, depending upon which alphabet-soup organization's title it was. His opponent that night was a short, squat fireplug named Dwight Muhammad Qawi.

Conventional boxing wisdom had it that Holyfield, in just his twelfth pro fight, had little chance against Qawi, whose credentials included two savagings of Matthew Saad Muhammad amongst his 15 knockouts and 26 wins.

But Holyfield made dust out of such conventional wisdom going into Qawi's crucible of fire with reckless disregard of his underpinnings and, expending every ounce of energy he could muster -- later having to go to the local Atlanta hospital for intravenous injections to replenish his exhausted and dehydrated body -- came away with a close split-decision win. And the cruiserweight-hyphen-junior heavyweight title.

Having paid the first installment on his dues as a future great, the one-man strong-arm squad known as Evander Holyfield proceeded to lay waste to the rest of the division, becoming, in the process, first in a second-rate division. Running out of mountains and opponents to conquer, he determined to go off in that direction his ambition and desire would carry him: the real estate to the north, the heavyweight division.

But even though he possessed arms of a village smithy and a steel-anviled body that repaid instant inspection, those with Delphic franchises thought him to be little more than a cruiserweight in heavyweight clothing, one who would have scant success taking on the "big boys." Never had boxing been plagued by so many false prophets. For what they were examining was the bottle itself, not the contents -- the contents being Evander Holyfield's single-minded determination and desire.

Evander Holyfield
Holyfield (right) is still going strong.
Embarking upon a conditioning program that would push his body to do what he wanted, not what it was obliged to, Holyfield entered the deep waters of the heavyweight division. And proved his potency with wins within the scheduled limits over James "Quick" Tillis and Pinklon Thomas. All of which set up his first real test as a heavy, a match-cum-war with former champion Michael Dokes.

In what many called 1989's "Fight of the Year," Holyfield and Dokes went at it toe to toe and cup to cup, the two exchanging bone-crushing blows, many south of the border, all delivered with a this-ring's-not-big-enough-for-the-two-of-us mentality. With no caving-knee quotient, Holyfield absorbed Dokes' early attack and came back with his own teeth-rattlers, finally driving his tormentor across the ring with a volley of punches to close the show in the tenth -- even landing one last "thank you, ma'am" right after the referee had waved the two-sided massacre over.

A few of his former critics began to come back, one by one, like carrier pigeons to the deck of a ship after the storm at sea had passed, their opinion of him changing from that of a souped-up heavyweight to that of a legitimate contender. However, his name didn't exactly leap to mind as a serious contender, for most thought him to be merely an overachiever who was deluding himself by weaving sand castles in the air with his fists -- one writer remarking, "Nobody yells 'timber' when he unloads his knockout punch." Driven by that ramrod certainty that comes with knowing you are capable of triumphing over anything and everything through sheer determination, Holyfield paid his detractors no never mind, focusing instead on his fistic grail, the heavyweight title, then held by the supposedly invincible Mike Tyson. However, after Holyfield had signed to fight Tyson, the seemingly invincible Tyson became suddenly vincible, leaving his title in Tokyo. And in the hands of Buster Douglas.

With Tyson's name erased from his dance card and Buster Douglas' penciled in, Evander climbed into the ring at Vegas' Mirage Hotel that October night in 1990 with a smile playing on his lips. For his dream had become a near-reality; he was actually on the threshold of fulfilling his coach's prediction that one day he would "be the champ of the world." It would only take three rounds for him to cash in Fate's due bill as the undersized contender out-jabbed and out-manuevered the shuffling, overweight champion through the first two. Then in the third, remembering trainer Lou Duva's advice, Evander waited for an uppercut launched by Douglas from somewhere back of the fourth row and, rocking back, countered with one deep-dish straight right-hand to the jaw of Douglas, leaving the soon-to-be-ex-champ laying on the floor to do his best imitation of a beached whale as the count of ten washed over him.

Silent heresies of reason dictated that Holyfield would receive full credit for his accomplishment. However writers, being the naysayers they are, downplayed his victory, attributing it instead to Douglas' woeful lack of conditioning -- one writer, seeing Douglas unrobe, commenting, "My God, you could write 'Goodyear' on his backside and float him in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade."

The proud Holyfield bristled at such criticism. Making little illiterate use of the English language and picking his words carefully, Holyfield responded with: "They say Buster was overweight, Buster's jab was off. Yeah, his jab was off because he couldn't hit me ... The reason was because of me ... The reason he didn't do well was because of me ... I was doing well, I was making things happen. When he was doing things, I was getting out of the way."

It was always thus. Whatever Evander Holyfield did in the ring was discounted in the press. In their critical ambiguity, he was always either too this ... or too that. But to his fans Evander Holyfield was an undersized overachiever who more than compensated for his lack of weight and size with a rallying thoroughbred's heart, one who never believed the world a mismatch.

Called "The Real Deal" for reasons unknown, he came by his other nickname, "The Warrior," far more honestly, as he would prove time and time again. In his first fight with Riddick Bowe, he came back after being buffeted around the ring in the tenth to stagger the much-heavier Bowe by round's end. In his two memorable fights with Mike Tyson, he eschewed all boxing niceties and, as the highwaymen of old would say, "stood and delivered," going smashmouth with one of the heaviest hitters in heavyweight history, pummeling him into submission in their first meeting and making him quit in their "Bite of the Century" second match-up. If you're keeping score, you could write et cetera, et cetera, the et ceteras going on for about four pages or more for this one-man highlight film.

A story, it is said, is composed of three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. For Evander Holyfield, there seemed to be no end as he continued on, his efforts, like those of the pyramid builders, meeting with diminishing returns. But even as his career wound down, the sand beginning to flow faster to the bottom of his hourglass, a look back at the beginning and the middle of his career suggests that his greatness is there to be served, not argued with. For Evander Holyfield desired only what he could accomplish. And, like the Little Engine that Could, he accomplished much.

From "Boxing's Greatest Fighters"
copyright 2006, Lyons Press

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