A Scorched Legend

[Note: this is reproduced from the once-great, now defunct, SportsonEarth site from June 2014]

Yesterday, former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield finally announced his retirement from boxing at the age of 51, bringing to the end a remarkable career that included three separate reigns as the consensus heavyweight champion of the world, a feat matched only by Muhammad Ali.  Holyfield will continue in the sport as an advisor to Chinese heavyweight, Zhang Zhilei.  Or so he says.  Boxing fans can be forgiven if they’re skeptical.  You see, this is not the first time Holyfield has announced he is hanging up his gloves.

Evander Holyfield first retired from boxing following a defeat to Michael Moorer when a post-fight physical revealed what appeared to be a hole in Holyfield’s heart. It was 1994.  At the time, popular morning shows were doing light-hearted segments about a funny-sounding new technology called “the Internet.” Swedish pop group Ace of Base was atop the Billboard charts with The Sign; the Oscars honored Forrest GumpPulp Fiction and The Lion King; and a 21 year-old kid from East Los Angeles named Oscar De La Hoya won his first title belt in just his twelfth professional fight. The consensus Minor League Baseball Player of the Year was a Yankee prospect named Derek Jeter. It would be seven months before Moorer would losethe belts he had won from Holyfield to George Foreman in one of the most unlikely and famous upsets in heavyweight history.  Had it all ended there for Holyfield, it would have already constituted one of the most remarkable runs in boxing history.

Holyfield was raised in crippling poverty, the youngest of nine children, in Atlanta, Georgia.  The skinny soft-spoken kid took up boxing at his local Boy’s Club.  His physical appearance intimidated few, but his iron chin and superhuman will to win quickly propelled him to stardomin America’s loaded amateur ranks.  He took home a Bronze Medal in the 1984 Olympic Games after a controversial disqualification took him out of Gold Medal contention.  He won his first professional title just two years later – well ahead of his more-heralded Olympic teammates Pernell Whitaker and Meldrick Taylor – by defeating Cruiserweight Champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi in one of the greatest fights of the 1980s

In 1988, Holyfield jumped into the heavyweight ranks with an eye towards a megafight with undefeated superstar “Iron” Mike Tyson.  While it is all but impossible to remember today, at the time, the fight appeared poised to be among the most memorable in boxing history.  Two undefeated young champions at the absolute pinnacle of their profession.  The unstoppable force of Mike Tyson charging headlong into the immovable object of Evander Holyfield.  Although Tyson would have entered the ring heavily favored, a significant percentage of insiders thought that Holyfield had the right package to finally end Iron Mike’s reign atop the division – the fearlessness, the will, the physical and emotional control that Tyson increasingly lacked.  It would have been the biggest fight of all time.

It didn’t happen, of course.  Tyson’s shocking loss to Buster Douglas – an upset so huge that even its location, Tokyo, has become a slang term in the boxing vernacular – and his subsequent conviction for rape ended any chance of the superfight taking place.  But even that could not slowHolyfield’s conquest of the heavyweight division.  Holyfield humiliated a bloated and undertrained Buster Douglas to take Tyson’s belts, and defended the title three times (including wins over faded legend Larry Holmes and seemingly-faded legend George Foreman).  It appeared to fans everywhere that Holyfield was poised to reign atop the sport for a long time; at least until Tyson was released from prison. What actually happened was far more interesting. 

In his fourth title defense, Holyfield met lowly regarded Riddick “Big Daddy” Bowe, a fighter then as well known for his oversized belly as his oversized talent.  In boxing, there are certain special moments in history when the two men in the ring mesh in a way that obviates their entire history and future.  The odds cease to matter, the picks of the experts cease to exist, the normal rules cease to apply, and all that is left is the glory of two men locked in a state of unadulterated combat that leaves them forever linked in history.  Hagler and Hearns.  Castillo and Corrales.  Gatti and Ward.  In Bowe, Holyfield found just such an antagonist. 

The first nine rounds of the fight were among the best in Holyfield and Bowe’s careers.  Each man had his moments, though Bowe had more than Holyfield, and the action never ceased.  But, no one remembers them, what people remember is Round 10.  Seconds into it, Bowe lands a crushing jab that leaves Evander shivering like a leaf swept up in an autumn breeze. Moments later, Bowe connects with one of the strangest and most devastating punches you will ever see – with the two men in a clinch and Holyfield turned almost 90 degrees away from Bowe – Bowe somehow lands a massive uppercut that instantly transformed the iron-chinned champion into one of those drinking bird toys, involuntarily bobbing and wobbling from the head down.  For the next minute, Bowe hit Holyfield with a series of brutal, bone-crushing punches that sent Holyfield stumbling around the ring like a marionette being handled by Frank Drebin after a four-day bender.  And then, in a flash, everything changed.  Bowe paused a second to catch his breath and Holyfield seemingly smelled the blood in the water.  He threw a few wild punches that missed, but quickly regained his composure.  First, he peppered Bowe with some jabs and straight rights – testing the bigger man to gauge his response. When Bowe was unwilling or unable to retaliate, Holyfield suddenly turned the clock back to the first round, bouncing on his toes and unleashing a vicious beating that left Bowe teetering on the edge of consciousness as the bell rang.  The two tired warriors patted each other on the stomach as they returned to their corners, forever etched in boxing lore together. To this day, the second result in a Google search for Bowe is Evander Holyfield’s Wikipedia page. 

Bowe was awarded the fight in a narrow decision, and immediately embraced his newfound celebrity.  At the encouragement of his flamboyant manager, Rock Newman, Bowe began a worldwide goodwill tour that saw him appearing everywhere from the David Letterman show (where he thrilled the crowd with a pitch perfect Ronald Reagan impression) to South Africa.  While this earned Bowe a huge following amongst casual boxing fans, he infuriated boxing insiders by antagonizing his old rival, Lennox Lewis, and then shamelessly refusing to fight him.  In the crescendo, Bowe and Newman called a press conference in which Bowe literally threw a championship belt into a garbage can rather than defend it against Lewis.  It was offensive as it was cowardly.  Holyfield, meanwhile, avoided the spotlight in favor of a preferred activity: He trained.

Like its predecessor, the rematch between Holyfield-Bowe is remembered because of the events of a single round, butthis time it would be for all the wrong reasons.  Bowe entered the ring looking soft, an indication of the lavish lifestyle he was enjoying outside the ring.  Holyfield, by contrast, was notably more muscled than in the first fight – his rippling muscles, like his fists, seemed ready to leap out and attack of his foe.  Despite both men’s changed appearance, the first six rounds were eerily reminiscent of the first fight – an evenly matched, tit-for-tat, war.  But no one remembers any of them, or the final five rounds.  No, what everyone remembers is Round Seven, and they remember it not for any punch that landed or missed, but for a buffoon best known as “Fan Man” who flew a homemade fan-driven parachute glider into the outdoor arena, before getting himself tangled in the lights above the ring, and eventually being pummeled mercilessly (albeit deservedly) by the assembled Nation of Islam security detail at ringside. Bowe’s wife fainted in the chaos and was taken to the hospital on a stretcher but the fight continued.  At the end of the night, Holyfield had bested Bowe in a close decision, and again was atop the heavyweight division.  

This run, however, was even briefer than the one that preceded it.  Holyfield’s next fight was against Michael Moorer, a talented young southpaw who was the most recent superstar to burst forth from legendary trainer Emmanuel Steward’s Kronk Gym. The mercurial Moorer split from Steward (who had also trained Holyfield for the Bowe rematch) before the Holyfield fight, and signed on with Teddy Atlas.  Atlas had a personality that could rival Moorer’s: he once had been dismissed from Cus d’Amato’s gym after sticking a gun in the face of a 15 year old traineewho made advances toward his pre-teen niece (the traineein question, Mike Tyson, did not seem to absorb that particular lesson). 

Just as Holyfield brought out the best in Bowe, Atlas seemed to bring out the best in Moorer.  After Holyfield dropped Moorer early in the fight, Atlas got into his man’s face.  At one point, Atlas even sat on Moorer’s stool between rounds and asked his charge if they should switch jobs.  It worked.  Moorer rallied, and Holyfield uncharacteristically seemed to fade down the stretch.  The close decision was scored for Moorer, and Holyfield’s second reign was over after a single fight. 

The worse news came after the fight, however, when doctors claimed to have found a hole in Holyfield’s heart and recommended that he immediately retire. Holyfield took their advice, but then sought a second opinion, this time from faith healer Benny Hinn.  After Holyfield wrote Hinn a substantial check, Hinn pronounced Holyfield healed, and Holyfield successfully passed a physical.  Holyfield blamed the heart problem on post-fight morphine injections he’d received.  At the time, the popular and devout fighter’s miraculous recovery was boxing’s ultimate feel good story. Years later, however, a more sinister culprit emerged:  Dr. Margaret Goodman, a prominent ringside physician, revealed that the Nevada State Athletic Commission suspected that Holyfield’s heart problems were caused by the misuse of Human Growth Hormone (HGH). Whatever caused the problem, and its equally quick disappearance, Holyfield was back.  

Holyfield may have been back in boxing, but his comebackdid not get off to an auspicious start. Holyfield barely managed to squeak by borderline contenders Ray Mercer and Bobby Czyz, while being knocked out for the first time in his career in his rubber match with Bowe.  He seemed slow.  Particularly against Bowe and Czyz, his reflexes seemed dull and his once prolific energy levels bordered on lethargic.  To anyone who watched those three fights, Holyfield appeared to be just one more shot former champion who was hanging around for one paycheck too many.  And, as luck would have it, that was exactly what Mike Tyson’s promoters were looking for in an opponent. 

Tyson was fresh out of jail and, once again, was the biggest star in the sport. He immediately compiled a string of highlight reel knockouts against inept competition that stirred memories of his glory days a decade earlier.  If anything, he seemed less balanced, more dangerous, and more intimidating than before his trip to prison (when, many forget, the ferocious Tyson doubled as a smiling TV pitchman for products like Diet Pepsi). Pundits thought he was unbeatable:  in the pre-fight hype, Showtime announcer, former Muhammad Ali cornerman, and generally irascible racist scumbag, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco compared Tyson’s post-prison reign to Ali’s post-suspension heyday.  Oddmakers made Tyson the 25:1 favorite.  Of the 50 writers polled before the fight, only Ron Borges picked Holyfield.  Everyone was sure that it was going to be a massacre. 

It was, however, not the massacre that people expected.Unlike other Tyson foes, Holyfield entered the ring confident, bouncing, singing along with his gospel entrance music.  From the opening bell, Holyfield dominated Tyson. Borrowing a page from the Buster Douglas playbook, Holyfield used his size and leverage to bully Tyson: pushing the shorter man around, working Tyson’s ribs during clinches, never backing down from Tyson’s intimidating stare, which quickly turned to a look of sheer bewilderment.  In the fifth round, Tyson unleashed a vicious triple uppercut combination – the sort of beating that had floored many opponents in the past – and Holyfield didn’t blink.  In the sixth, Holyfield caught an off-balance Tyson with a quick shot to the chest and floored him for only the second time in his career (the first being the knockout against Douglas).  Tyson wasn’t hurt, but his face was now a mask of utter confusion and despair.  From there, Holyfield slowly busted Tyson apart.  In the 10th round, just as Pacheco claimed to have observed the first signs of weariness in Holyfield, Evander caught an exhausted Tyson with a brutal right hand that sent the battered champion stumbling backwards into the ropes, his legs flailing about as if no longer cooperating with whatever signals his brain was desperately trying to send to them.  Only the bell saved Tyson from being knocked out right there.

As the 11th round began, it was still inconceivable to many viewers that Holyfield was actually on the verge of permanently defanging Iron Mike.  Even as Tyson wobbled out from his corner looking unsure where he was, the announcers felt the need to reiterate that Tyson still possessed knockout power (an almost absurd suggestion in retrospect, but surely something that everyone watching believed at the time).  As Holyfield began his final surge, Steve Albert delivered the most memorable call of his career, “No matter what happens from here on in, you are looking at a sports legend in the purple trunks, Evander Holyfield.”  Although I knew what Albert had said, sitting at home that night, and every time I have thought about it since, I have always preferred to imagine that Albert said “a scorched legend” because that’s what Evander was about to become.  He was, to borrow from a particular apt source, like burnished brass, scorched in the fires of hell for three days, preparing to rise from the depths to dispense with his legion of doubters and reward the faith of his handful of true believers.  One last brutal combination, and Tyson was gone.  In many ways, he never returned.

The next phase of Holyfield’s career is the one that people will most remember, and just as in his first act, it will be for a moment that had nothing to do with boxing.  In Holyfield’s first fights with Tyson and Bowe, his greatest moments came in the 10th round.  In his second fight with each man, it was an utterly absurd fiasco that would emblazon it into history.  

When people talk about Tyson-Holyfield II, they will think only of the two bites that Tyson delivered to Holyfield’s ears in the third round, the moments that forever transformed Tyson from a fighter to some sort of demented novelty act.  And this is a shame, because the first two-plus rounds were some of the finest of Holyfield’s career.  During the pre-fight staredown, Holyfield projected such concentrated ferocity and focus that Tyson nervously broke the stare and looked away, a virtually unprecedented display of submission.  After the bell rang, Holyfield nearly flattened Tyson with a right hook in the first round that left Tyson on rubbery legs.  As in the first fight, Tyson was able to land his best punches and Holyfield appeared entirely unmoved.  Holyfield was on his way to topping his previous effort until Tyson took the shortest and easiest way out. 

With Tyson firmly behind him, Holyfield became boxing’s most marketable star.  He busted up a now grossly overweight version of Michael Moorer, dropping him five times en route to an eighth round stoppage.  He pulled out a one-sided albeit unimpressive decision over fringe contender Vaughn Bean.  And, then, he prepared for what was supposed to be the crowning achievement of his career: a showdown with Lennox Lewis in which Holyfield guaranteed a third round knockout.  Instead, the taller Lewis used his jab to keep Holyfield at bay and dominate the fight, only to be awarded a horribly corrupt draw.  The rematch was, ironically, a far closer fight, one that quite defensively could have been scored a draw, but the judges were determined to avoid the controversy of the first fight and awarded Lewis a wide decision.  It’s hard to find much fault in that result. 

After the fight, Holyfield again contemplated walking away from the sport.  It was 1999.  Cher was atop the charts asking whether the country believed in life after love, a coquettish 17 year old named Britney Spears was making waves with her first music video, Tim Couch topped the NFL draft, and a virtually unknown 20-year old Filipino fighter suffered a brutal knockout in just three rounds, jeopardizing what had been a promising career.  It would be more than two years before Manny Pacquiao would fully recover and move to the United States, where his fortune would take a turn for the better.  Holyfield was 37, and once again, he appeared to be finished.  

Again, however, Holyfield’s time away from the ring was brief.  He returned a year later to fight a wretched trilogy with a naturally occurring Ambien reservoir named John Ruiz.  Although Holyfield split the three fights, and Ruiz was a legitimate opponent (albeit a dreadfully dull one), he looked terrible doing it.  He was given little chance in his next fight, a showdown against top contender Hasim Rahman.  Today, most boxing fans regard Rahman in much the same fashion that most snake owners regard mice, but at the time, Rahman was just a single fight removed from his greatest triumph: his shocking upset knockout of Lennox Lewis in South Africa, and still very much a legitimate star.  Holyfield, on the verge of his 40th birthday, was in grave danger, or so it seemed.  

Like his rematches with Tyson and Bowe, Holyfield’smatch with Rahman ended up more of a freakshow than a prize fight.  An early clash of heads caused a massive hematoma on Rahman’s forehead that swelled grotesquelyas the fight went on until the referee was forced to halt the fight in the 8th round.  Holyfield, however, had clearly done more damage in the fight (headbutts aside) and was awarded a clear technical decision.  In his post-fight commentary, Larry Merchant gushed that Holyfield had his doubters “right where he wanted us” and predicted that he had regained his standing at the top of the heavyweight division.  Holyfield had, it seemed, miraculously turned back the hands of time yet again.  Instead, we soon learned, the clock had simply stopped ticking.

Following the win over Rahman, Holyfield lost three consecutive fights, each more painful to watch than the one before it.  Against the awkward Chris Byrd, Holyfield looked frustrated and unable to let his punches go.  He refused to sit on his stool between rounds and could not use his size to bully the smaller Byrd.  He looked spent.  It got worse in his next fight against middleweight-champion-turned-oceanic-cruise-liner, James Toney.  Holyfield was on the defensive against the smaller man all night, and his longtime cornerman, Don Turner, was forced to throw in the towel after Toney dropped Holyfield in the 9th round.  Turner had seen enough and walked away.  On an interview with HBO’s Real Sports, he compared Holyfield’s diminished ring skills to a 40 year-old Ted Williams flailing against a curveball.  Holyfield, however, insisted on fighting on.  While his losses to Byrd and Toney were one-sided and uninspiring, at least Byrd and Toney were legitimate opponents.  His next opponent, Larry Donald, was an unvarnished journeyman. The result, though, was the same.  Holyfield’s third consecutive uncompetitive performance finally prompted action: the New York State Athletic Commission suspended Holyfield’s license due to his “diminished skills.”   

It was now 2005.  Gwen Stefani’s first solo album was driving music lovers and people with ears B.A.N.A.N.A.S.Crash was topping movie critics “Best of” lists, and a mouthy kid from Grand Rapids, Michigan named Floyd Mayweather Jr. had just become a household name with his blowout win over Arturo “Thunder” Gatti.  Evander Holyfield’s first retirement was already more than a decade in the rearview mirror and the former world champion spent the year finishing in fifth place in the inaugural season of Dancing with the Stars. 

Holyfield was able to get a license to return the ring in 2006, but he could not attract real competition.  His first fight was against an insurance salesman and Butterbean lookalike named Jeremy Bates who had to be lured out of retirement when offered the chance to meet Holyfield.  Holyfield stopped the just-happy-to-be-there Bates in two rounds.  Holyfield’s next opponent was fringe contender “Fast” Fres Oquendo.  For those of you who are lucky enough to have no idea who he is, Oquendo is essentially a gigantic mosquito.  He can’t actually hurt you, but he can irritate you to the point of madness if you don’t swat him into a bloody pulp as soon as you have the chance.  Holyfield flattened Oquendo early, but then seemed to wilt, barely hanging on for a decision victory.  Finally, he earned a shot with a legitimate title contender, Sultan Ibragimov.  Fighting on Ibragimov’s home turf, Moscow, Holyfield looked flat and lost a wide decision. 

Once again, Holyfield looked completely finished, but he had one near surprise left.  In 2008, he fought massive Russian sasquatch and heavyweight-champion-in-the-sort-of-nonsenical-sense-of-the-word-champion-that-could-only-exist-for-a-Don-King-promoted-fighter, Nikolai Valuev in a surprisingly competitive bout.  Though Valuev eeked out a majority decision, Holyfield acquitted himselfsurprisingly well against a reigning titleholder, and many experts believe he deserved the nod.  It would be Holyfield’s last moment in the spotlight as a fighter. 

Since then, Holyfield has continued on with a collection ofwashed up fighters of his vintage, like South African Francois “The White Buffalo” Botha, and Danish white supremacist and enormous tub of lard, Brian Nielsen.  In between, he had to stop after being cut against a guy named Sherman Williams, who is so obscure that Google assumes you are looking for paint if you try to search for him. 

In recent years, even as he has dealt with financial and legal issues in his personal life, Holyfield seems to have mellowed.  He has appeared in two commercials that poked fun at his serious persona: a Taco Bell ad in which he dressed up as his grandmother and a hilarious Foot Locker ad in which a tearful Mike Tyson returned the missing chunk of his ear.  When Luis Suarez bit an opponent during the World Cup, he jokingly tweeted out “I guess any part of the body is up for eating.” After a decade spent relentlessly pursuing a heavyweight title he had little to no chance of recapturing, the Holy Warrior finally appeared at peace with where he was in life. 

It’s 2014.  Iggy Azaela, who was three years old when Holyfield first retired, is atop the charts.  The top movie is 22 Jump Street, the sequel to a movie that was a throwback to a TV series that had premiered after Holyfield won his first world title. Derek Jeter is getting ready to retire after one of the most storied careers in baseball history.  No player will be drafted in any major sport this year who has known a moment of life on the planet without the word “champion” preceding Evander Holyfield’s name.  And the Real Deal is finally retired, for good. 

Or so he says.

One response

  1. Pingback: A Collection of Links to My Best Work (updating…) « Uppercutting

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