Commentary

At 46, Holyfield still chasing ghosts of glories past

When George Foreman tells you it's time to call it quits, you know you've been fighting too long. Still, 24 years into his professional career, Evander Holyfield continues to trudge forward and shows no signs of letting up -- for better or worse.

Originally Published: December 13, 2008
By Brian Doogan | Special to ESPN.com

ZURICH, Switzerland -- The streets of Moscow were coated with sleet and slush when Evander Holyfield exited the Khodynka Ice Palace in October 2007.

"The fight went to a decision and Sultan Ibragimov won …," Holyfield said of his bid to win the WBO heavyweight title. "I just have to get back in line, but this doesn't mean that it [the title dream] is over."

Holyfield's refusal to acknowledge that it has been over since the turn of the decade, when he lost four out of six fights and drew one of the others, is symptomatic of a 46-year-old prisoner of his glorious past, a four-time world heavyweight champion whose mind is filled with dangerous delusions.

He says he will "work hard to win the title" when he challenges 7-foot WBA belt holder Nikolai Valuev on Saturday in Zurich but, for a mere $750,000 purse, he will be putting his health at risk long after the skills which distinguished his Hall of Fame career have eroded.

"It's like falling in love with a bad girl who does not love you, who's done with you, and yet you keep hanging on," said George Foreman, who at 45 became the oldest man to win the world heavyweight title when he knocked out Michael Moorer in 1994.

"We just don't know how to move on, all of us. I stayed in too long myself, because you fall in love with something that you ought not to fall in love with. Holyfield's head is starting to attract punches and I don't like it, I really don't like it.

[+] EnlargeEvander Holyfield
AP Photo/Steffen SchmidtThat's a stretch: Evander Holyfield feels he can still compete at the highest level.
"He never was a big, strong man. He's a frail guy [for a heavyweight], and he's getting the worst of it every time he boxes. Win, lose or draw, he should move away from boxing for the sake of leaving a good name for the sport."

The most disturbing aspect of a fight which reflects the freak show which much of heavyweight boxing has become is that Holyfield remains immune to the echoing criticism. It seems that only serious impairment or a permanent injury will deter him from his present course.

"My performance will surprise many people," Holyfield said this week at a news conference. "I have been asked about my age so many times, but that's fine. It is not about how old you are. It is about how old you feel and what you can do inside the ring.

"I am very experienced, I am in great shape and I know what I have to do against Valuev."

There was a time, of course, when Holyfield would have known precisely what to do against the Russian Giant, whose sheer bulk and size compensate for his lack of boxing skills and physical dexterity. But that was more than a decade ago, when Holyfield was one of the finest fighters of his generation, rather than the touring celebrity loser he has become.

Why, then, does he do it? Whatever his assertions to the contrary, and whatever he says about his desire to retire as the reigning heavyweight champion, money accounts for a large part of Holyfield's motivation to extend his 24-year career.

While he has earned more than $200 million, he has enough outgoings to require the budget of a small country. His 11 children by seven different women, five of whom were born out of wedlock, are all supported by Holyfield. Alimony payments to his two ex-wives are a further strain on his resources, along with the upkeep of his opulently furnished mansion in Fairburn, Ga., on the outskirts of Atlanta.

[+] EnlargeNikolai Valuev
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty ImagesNikolai Valuev might have age on his side, but he isn't about to underestimate Evander Holyfield.
"Yes, it is true that my home has more than 100 rooms, but I have worked very hard for it," Holyfield said. "My first championship fight against Buster Douglas, I made $8 million. My second, I made $22 million; the third, $17 million. I become four-time heavyweight champion, then all of a sudden I get $250,000 to fight [Jeremy] Bates [in August 2006]. I fight [Fres] Oquendo [in November 2006] and it's supposed to be $2 million and I get a goose egg.

"But it is not about the money for me. Money is not the issue. I think God feels boxing is just another job. What matters to Him is whether it's done fairly, whether it's done right. He is not concerned about material things and neither am I."

It takes a lot of material things, however, to sustain the unconventional kind of lifestyle to which Holyfield and his family have become accustomed.

Valuev -- who has lost only once, against Ruslan Chagaev, before he regained the vacant WBA title against John Ruiz in August -- explained that his new house in St. Petersburg (currently, he is living in an apartment in which he has to duck his head to walk through the doors) is not yet finished.

"Evander Holyfield is a living legend, and I am full of respect for him," Valuev said. "However, once you are inside the ring, neither names nor titles matter any more."

Neither would this heavyweight title fight if Holyfield were not involved. It has been three years since he was suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission on the grounds of "diminished skills." Ron Scott Stevens, the commission's chairman, was emphatic in the wake of a listless performance by Holyfield against Larry Donald, his third defeat in succession.

"I'm not looking to end his career if it's not warranted, but the health and safety of the boxer is the main concern of the state commission," Scott said. "To my practiced mind, Holyfield shouldn't be fighting any more. He has absorbed enough punishment throughout his great career. It's time the bleeding stopped."

But the blood money will be paid to the aged legend on Saturday, and it is unlikely to rack the conscience of anyone involved, Holyfield least of all.

Brian Doogan is a sportswriter for The (London) Sunday Times and is a longtime European correspondent for The Ring magazine.