Holyfield bravado has familiar comeback ring

Evander Holyfield, at 43, always has something to prove when he steps into the ring Friday in Dallas. The voluble former heavyweight champ airs out with MaxBoxing.

Originally Published: August 16, 2006
By Thomas Gerbasi | MaxBoxing.com

"They told me I wouldn't beat Dwight Muhammad Qawi, but I did it. They told me I wouldn't be the heavyweight champ of the world, that I wouldn't beat Buster Douglas. '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."
-- Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield
Holyfield

One of my first questions to Evander Holyfield last week was 'Were you always this stubborn?' He didn't laugh, chuckle, or even blow off the query.

"Stubborn?" he bristled. "I don't think I'm stubborn."

The former heavyweight champion of the world, who has won at least one portion of the title four times, then proceeded to recite chapter and verse of every time he was doubted by the fans, the media, or even those close to him. For him, it's become a crusade of sorts to prove people wrong, to show that a 'blown-up cruiserweight' armed with heart and a dogged determination can become a certain Hall of Famer in the world's toughest sport.

But he won't say, "I told you so," at least not in so many words.

"It's not so much for me to say that a person's wrong," Holyfield explains. "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."

He's right. When it comes to what happens between the ropes, Holyfield always has done the right thing for boxing. In his early years and in his prime, that 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.

"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."
-- Evander Holyfield

After fighting the best of the past era of heavyweights (Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Michael Moorer), Holyfield had nothing more to prove. He was box-office gold, he made a ton of money, and his legacy was secure despite a record of 4-4-1 against the aforementioned quartet. But beginning with his forgettable trilogy with John Ruiz from 2000 to 2001, where "The Real Deal" compiled a 1-1-1 record, the whispers asking (and sometimes even demanding) that Holyfield retire got louder and louder.

Holyfield would then lose his last three bouts (to Chris Byrd, James Toney, and Larry Donald), and the whispers became shouts, prompting New York State Athletic Commission boss Ron Scott Stevens to suspend Holyfield indefinitely due to "diminished skills and poor performance," after the decision loss to Donald in November of 2004. It appeared that the end finally was forced upon the pride of Atlanta. Needless to say, he disagreed.

"I never did think that," said Holyfield when asked if he thought he never would fight again following the suspension. "I just felt that it was unfair for a person to say, 'Well, you fought a bad fight, so we're suspending you for a poor performance.' How in the world can you do that when there's no person in this world that never had a poor performance? In boxing, there will always come a day when you're not your very best; it's just how you handle it."

"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."
-- Evander Holyfield

Holyfield's case made it to the court of public opinion, and while many disagreed with Stevens' decision and made the reinstatement of the former champ a cause celebre, just as many agreed that if Holyfield wasn't able to pull himself away from the game before he got seriously hurt, someone else needed to do it for him. This isn't an old baseball player who can't get around on the fastball anymore or an aging point guard who's lost a step; this is a fighter in his 40s who wasn't able to pull the trigger when it counted in the ring and was simply was setting himself up for disaster if he got in there with a big puncher who could make him pay in ways feather-fisted Byrd and Donald weren't.

To a lot of people, this was the right move, because no one wanted to see Evander Holyfield get hurt.

"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?"
-- Evander Holyfield

Refusing to give up the fight to get his license back, Holyfield went through an exhaustive battery of tests that turned up a clean bill of health, rested, and even participated in the hit show "Dancing with The Stars." That was something the avid dancer enjoyed, but he doesn't envision competing in again.

"Well, I don't think I'm gonna be back on 'Dancing with the Stars,' " he laughed. "I gave it my best stuff."

Ironically though, he believes it was his stint on the show that helped his cause to get back in the ring -- not because people would do anything to see him off the dance floor, but because the world got to see that this wasn't some broken down pug walking on his heels and babbling incoherently, but a well-preserved, affable 40-something man who just happened to be a professional boxer.

"Actually, I think that was one of the big reasons why I was able to get my license back," he admits. "People saw how the fans gravitated toward me, and it really boosted my ratings."

New York eventually would modify its suspension to just a statewide one, and with the freedom to pursue his craft again, Holyfield wasted no time in lacing the mitts up again. He will be back in the ring this Friday night at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas against 21-11-1 (18 KOs) Jeremy Bates, who is coming off back-to-back losses to Ray Austin and Zack Page.

"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."
-- Evander Holyfield

The fight against Bates is your typical showcase/comeback bout, but one that's interesting merely for the fact that everyone wants to see what, if anything, Holyfield has left at the age of 43 (he turns 44 in October). And strangely enough, it's the first time many of us are seeing Holyfield in this position, fighting a journeyman with double-digit losses on a show that isn't being blasted through the boxing world on pay-per-view or premium cable. (The bout will air on Fox Sports Net at 10:30 p.m. ET.) But the low-key nature of the bout hasn't required an adjustment of any sort for "The Real Deal."

"Not at all, I think this fight is just the same," he said. "With HBO or Showtime, they don't feel that I'm capable enough, they don't believe in me no more, and that's all right. That's just part of life, but I'm willing to do this on a free network to let people know that I'm not trying to do it for the money, but to show them that I'm back. I'm back and I will be heavyweight champ of the world, so when I do go on pay television, they'll be willing to pay again."

Camp reports from Team Holyfield have been glowing, but it's hard to erase the memories of watching the former champ plodding after Toney, Byrd, and Donald, unable to get off and capitalize on openings that he would have gotten to with ease in years past. Of course, in his defense, none of the aforementioned three fighters are easy to look good against, whether you're 23 or 43. And as Holyfield explains, nagging shoulder problems didn't help matters either, but he won't blame the losses on those injuries, just on his own -- yeah, I'll say it -- stubbornness.

"I had three operations between 2000 and 2004, and the doctor told me that I needed to take some time off, but I just didn't listen," he said. "I felt that I could beat these guys with these injuries. It was painful, but it was nothing I couldn't overcome. And I tried, but I was beaten by all the guys I tried with. So when they suspended me, it actually gave me enough time to recover."

It also gave him time to think about the last few years and the repeated calls for his retirement. It's a topic he treats with defiance, probably the same way any of us would act if we were told we couldn't do something.

"We're in America, 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.

"All these commentators want to speak for the people, but they don't want to give the people a chance to speak for themselves," Holyfield continues. "Every time I ever fought, the people came. But they talk so bad about me that you would think I did something to them. They try to say that if you care about me, you shouldn't watch me fight. What is this? If you love somebody, at least you're gonna support them."

Is he getting tired of this line of questioning though after a few years?

"I don't get tired of it," he said. "The point of the matter is, if I get tired, then I'm getting frustrated. So I have to not get tired and keep answering them properly because I know this is something that someone else will have to answer when it comes to them being 43 or 44."

And simply stated, he's not ready to retire yet.

"They tell you, 'Save all your money and don't spend all of it in one place because we don't want you to run out now,' " he said. "The fact is, you make a lot of money when you're young, but you'll get older and you ain't gonna be able to work as hard as you were young. So they tell you to save your money so you don't have to do that grunt job that you didn't mind doing when you were a kid. But because I took care of myself, everybody thinks you're supposed to sit down. What do mean, sit down? I took care of myself -- I took care of my body, I'm healthy, and other fighters may not be able to pass the tests, but I can. So why would you limit me? If you want to make a rule where you can't fight after 40-something years old, then you need to put that up. But you can't limit me before then. That's not fair."

"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."
-- Evander Holyfield

In 1991, 28-year-old Evander Holyfield defended his heavyweight championship against 42-year-old George Foreman. At the time, the comebacking Foreman made it a point to say that 40 wasn't a death sentence and that he was trying to win the title for all the folks 40 and over. No one expected Holyfield to be in that same position more than 15 years later, but he is, and despite all the skeptics, and despite what you've seen with your own eyes, he wants you to believe again, even if only for a night.

"I think when it all comes down, I've got a history of standing for more than just money, more than just pride, or anything like that," he said. "I had some injuries but I'm not gonna lie and get up in the ring and say 'I'm better than this guy and the only reason he beat me was because of this.' I got up in the ring and I thought I could win. But I made bad decisions. The doctor told me not to fight, but I did it anyway. So why should I sit here and complain? This time I'm better, and I'm willing to fight on free television just to prove to people that I am better. It costs me money, but I've got to feel that why would anybody want to pay and see me fight if I don't have the skills no more? They can't pay me for how it used to be; they have to pay me on how I am now. Now I've got to prove it to them and take this thing from this point on up if I want the people to pay the pay-per-view dollars that they paid those other times. And I'm willing to do the things that are necessary."

So can he do it?

"There wouldn't be no reason to come back if I wasn't any better than in the performances with Larry Donald or Chris Byrd," he said. And what about the less-than-stellar state of the heavyweight division, which recently saw another old-timer -- 37-year-old Oleg Maskaev -- get crowned king? Would he still be chasing after the crown if there was a dominant champion at the top of the heap?

"Of course I would, because odds are that I'd feel that I was better than him ,too," he laughs. "But I think it's still my era. My work may be cut out for me, but that just means I'm gonna have to do a little bit more."