Ex-champ shouldn't be shut out

Updated: November 19, 2004, 3:10 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | Special to ESPN.com

Evander Holyfield can still talk a pretty good fight, even if he can't fight one anymore.

He doesn't need any lawyers or a manager to do his talking for him in this, the last big fight of his athletic career. The fight to keep on fighting.

Evander Holyfield
Holyfield refused to call it a career even after being dominated in another fight.

Holyfield, a man of few words, has three of them for those who would try to protect him from himself: "No, thank you.''

"If I ain't got hurt so far,'' he says, "What makes you think I'm gonna get hurt now?''

Holyfield has a point. The former four-time heavyweight champion of the world, now 42 years old, may well have fought his last fight on Nov. 13. That night, he was beaten by the normally harmless Larry Donald at Madison Square Garden, site of his pro debut more than 20 years ago.

The day after the fight, the New York State Athletic Commission placed Holyfield under indefinite medical suspension, effectively ending his boxing career unless Holyfield and his advisors can somehow convince the commission to lift the ban (other state commissions will honor New York's suspension). Earlier this week, an agreement was reached whereby Holyfield will submit to a full neurological examination to determine whether the suspension should stand.

It seems to be a fair and sensible solution to the problem, which will not go away until Holyfield finally decides to on his own. Although Holyfield has agreed to the test, he believes it to be a case of selective examination.

"They are not suspending me from boxing because I failed a test, or I got beat up and knocked down four or five times and I'm all swollen up or the match was a big mismatch,'' he said. "They're just singling me out, and I can't tell you the reason. Maybe it's because I go through my trials and tribulations like everybody else and I handle them well. I don't bother nobody. I don't put nobody down. I don't talk about nobody. I don't boast, and since I don't do that, it seems that people say, 'Let's get him out, he may get hurt.' "

The source of most of Holyfield's frustration seems to be George Foreman who, in a title fight at age 42, took a much worse beating than Holyfield ever has in his career. But not only was Foreman allowed to continue, he was lionized for his strength and courage.

Foreman's conqueror, of course, was a 29-year-old Evander Holyfield, who at one point late in the fight bounced two dozen unanswered punches off Foreman's head and body.

"He got beat pretty bad, but nobody said, 'This guy is taking too many punches, we better go in there and stop him,' " Holyfield said. "I retained my title, and he became a folk hero. He went on and got a $120 million contract. It was a fight I feel we both won.''

Three years later, Foreman made history by regaining the heavyweight title 20 years after he had lost it, knocking out Michael Moorer -- conqueror of Holyfield! -- in 10 grueling rounds.

If it's OK for one person to fight in his 40s, why isn't it all right for me?
Evander Holyfield

Clearly, Holyfield -- who refuses to let go of his dream of retiring as the undisputed champion -- believes he can be the next Foreman.

"If it's OK for one person to fight in his 40s,'' he said, "why isn't it all right for me?''

Again, Holyfield has a point. Boxing is the most dangerous of all sports, but it is no more dangerous for a 42-year-old Holyfield than it is for a 22-year-old kid. Fights in which boxers are killed have rarely fit any particular mold; the fight can be close or one-sided, the boxers well-matched or mismatched, the victim young or old.

And right now, there is no medical evidence that Holyfield is in any more danger of being injured or killed in a fight than anyone else who chooses to make the boxing ring his office.

In truth, NYSAC has no reason to pull Holyfield's license other than what anyone with two good eyes could see for his or herself -- that the conqueror of Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, Foreman and Larry Holmes really can't fight very well anymore.

Even the commission's chief neurologist, Dr. Barry Jordan, acknowledged outside Holyfield's dressing room last Saturday: "Neurologically, he seems fine.''

And whether we like it or not, the mere fact of diminished competence at his job is not enough to justify prohibiting Holyfield from continuing to fight. There are plenty of actors and actresses, singers and comics, columnists and commentators who are a lot worse at what they do than Holyfield is at what he does, and no one is forcing them to give it up.

Granted, Holyfield has lost an inordinate number of bouts over the past five years. However, four of those five losses have come against John Ruiz, Chris Byrd and James Toney, champions all. And in between, Holyfield managed to stop Hasim Rahman, who had briefly held the title after knocking out Lennox Lewis. You see, these days there is more parity in heavyweight boxing than there is in the NFL.

The loss to Donald, a talented powderpuff, was disturbing not because of its brutality, but because of Holyfield's futility. What he cited as a positive -- "I could see every punch coming'' -- is, of course, a negative, since top-notch pro fighters are not supposed to get hit with punches if they can see them.

Holyfield shrugs that off as a function of an "off-night,'' caused by cramps in his back and quads. He doesn't recognize that as an athlete grows older, the off-night becomes the norm, the good night the aberration. Then again, what athlete who has reached the levels Holyfield has ever wants to recognize that?

"You're not gonna convince me that you love me more than I love myself,'' he says. "You can't love me so much that you're gonna take away my rights. I'm my own man, and I don't need another man to make my decisions for me.''

Holyfield's decision is to fight on, and you don't have to like it. Just respect it.

Longtime boxing writer Wallace Matthews hosts a weekday radio program on ESPNRadio 1050 in New York City

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
Follow Wallace on Twitter »  Chat archive »

ALSO SEE