Boxing: A rich man and his dangerous obsession

Evander Holyfield is a $100m away from being a hungry boxer but still he fights; Harry Mullan fears that the inner fire of an ageing champion may spark his downfall
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Why,, exactly, is the World Boxing Association heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, fighting his International Boxing Federation counterpart, Michael Moorer, the man who beat him in 1994, in Las Vegas on Saturday? The easy answer would be the money, but then Holyfield is already amongst the richest athletes in the world. At 35, he lives with his second wife - a doctor from Chicago - and six children in a 54,000 sq ft mansion in Atlanta which boasts 17 bathrooms, an Olympic-size swimming pool and its own 135-seat film theatre. The house costs more than $1m (pounds 600,000) a year to maintain, but he could comfortably pay 10 years in advance from Saturday's cheque and still have change to restock his two five-car garages.

The ostentatious home might suggest otherwise, but he is essentially a frugal man who got married in T-shirt and jeans and held his wedding breakfast in a roadside diner. If he hasn't still got the first dollar he earned as a teenage airplane refueller at Atlanta airport, he could probably tell you where he spent it. Money matters to him, but he is, by conservative estimate, at least $100m away from being a hungry fighter. Despite his claim that "I'm not interested in [championship] belts any more - I'm interested In breaking purse records", he was probably closer to the truth when he acknowledged that, "I've made enough money for it to make me money."

Lou Duva, the venerable head of the promotional-managerial team Main Events with whom Holyfield spent most of his career, takes the cynical view. "When they say it's not about the money, you know it's about the money," he says. "In boxing, it's always about the money." Holyfield, though, just might be the exception to that rule. Moorer is one of only two men to have beaten him in a fabulous 37-fight career (won 34, 24 inside the distance), and for a man with such burning pride in his achievements and his record, revenge is a much more compelling motivation than cash.

The loss to Moorer, in April 1994, was the low mark of Holyfield's career. He looked old and sluggish, his competitive fire barely an ember, and the man who four fights later took Mike Tyson's fighting heart away could not cope that night with an opponent whose own resolve was so fragile that he had to be cajoled and shamed into continuing. Teddy Atlas, the short-fused young trainer who once went after Tyson with a gun, sat down on Moorer's corner stool in the ring after a particularly listless round and offered to change places with him. The shock tactics, and the memorable lecture he gave him between the eighth and ninth rounds, convinced the former World Boxing Organisation light-heavyweight champion to make just enough effort over the final rounds to edge a majority decision, but this time he will not have Atlas in the corner.

The trainer, a rare man for whom principle actually outweighs money, walked out on his cut of Moorer's hefty purse after Moorer struggled to retain the IBF belt against the obscure Vaughn Bean last March, and has been replaced by Steve Collins' trainer, Freddie Roach. With a fighter of such psychological uncertainties, the loss could be crucial: Roach is a thorough professional with an ex-fighter's appreciation of what is required, but Atlas is a motivator of genius.

Lou Duva, another who ordered Moorer out of his gym after a brief and stormy part- nership, once remarked that "boxing is 90 per cent mental and 50 per cent physical". He was joking, of course. Men who have problems with arithmetic do not usually prosper at the Duvas' multi-million dollar end of the business. But the underlying point is valid enough. This is a sport in which character and strength of mind can negate an opponent's technical or physical superiority, as Holyfield has demonstrated on so many unforgettable occasions.

In terms of technique and pure skill, Moorer has the edge, but the revitalised and rejuvenated Holyfield is on a high after those two famous victories over Tyson and his self-belief is absolute. In the years since beating Holyfield, Moorer has done little to convince. The ancient George Foreman flattened him with one punch in the 10th round to become the game's oldest champion, and Moorer has subsequently looked less than intimidating in victories over the journeyman Melvin Foster (who took him the 10 rounds distance) and three IBF title wins over Axel Schulz, Frans Botha and Bean. Only Botha, a roly-poly South African, failed to complete the course and he even lasted into the 12th and final round, so there is nothing in that form-line to frighten Holyfield.

Yet take away the two wins over Tyson, and Holyfield's form since the first Moorer fight is equally unconvincing: a desperate struggle with Ray Mercer, a knockout loss to Riddick Bowe after he had Bowe on the floor, and an unimpressive retirement win over Bobby Czyz, a blown-up cruiserweight veteran. Could it be that the Tyson results flatter him, that the former champion had lost more in his four-year lay-off than his string of easy comeback wins suggested? Or was it simply that, as the Americans would put it, Holyfield "had Tyson's number" and would have given him hell at any point in their respective careers, much as Ken Norton, an infinitely less gifted heavyweight than Muhammad Ali, gave Ali three of the toughest fights of his career?

It seems churlish to attempt to diminish his achievements, but Holyfield's apparent transformation from "shot" fighter to world champion defies logical explanation, and is certainly unprecedented in my near-30 years of observing top-class performers. He may never again be able to touch those heights, but I do not believe he will be asked to by Moorer.

The southpaw will try to keep Holyfield at bay with his excellent right jab, but if Mike Tyson could not stem Holyfield's advance then Moorer surely cannot. I do not expect a thrilling fight, any more than their first fight was (despite the closeness of the scoring). Holyfield should do enough to grind out a points win, and then the drum-beating will start in earnest for a unification match with Lennox Lewis.

The World Boxing Council champion is suddenly hot property after his demolition of Andrew Golota, and would probably start favourite. But Holyfleld has upset the odds before, and if he got past Lewis then he would surely be unable to resist a third fight in late 1998 with a re-licensed Mike Tyson. After that, there will no doubt be another challenge to face, another mountain to climb, and so it may continue until even his warrior's heart can carry him no further.

And that, sadly, is when he could get hurt. Ironically, the competitive instinct which is his strongest asset may yet prove to be his most dangerous liability.