Boxing: Holyfield emboldened by high spirits

HE CUTS a quietly impressive figure at the lectern, addressing a congregation of media folk. His dress is austere, his manner direct. His speech is sometimes halting, but the hesitations are caused by a search for meaning. In his Southern back porch way, Evander Holyfield talks not just a good fight but a pretty good career.

Some back porch, too. That career has landed him, his wife and their four children with an Atlanta mansion worth $15m (pounds 9.5m), probably the most lavish home in all of sporting history. And the chances are that Holyfield, unlike so many of his predecessors and rivals, will hang on to the spoils of the ring. For this is a man to whom the virtues of humility and frugality are not unknown, who deals not in hype but in realism.

And Holyfield was not afraid to talk this week, ahead of his reunification match with Lennox Lewis tomorrow night in New York, about the stuff that hurts. Whose punch, he was asked, had hit him the hardest?

"It's hard to say," he replied, "because I've been hit a lot of times, and all of 'em hurt. But I got over it."

Getting over it sometimes took every scrap of willpower. "Problems are part of life," said the man born the youngest of eight children raised by a single mother in Alabama. "The one who finds the solution is the one who gets through."

He talked about the lowest point of his career, and how it all turned around. Not surprisingly, the story concerned the first of his two tumultuous fights with Mike Tyson in 1996, the heroic victory achieved by a stoppage in the 11th round, through which he regained the World Boxing Association title.

"At the time I fought Tyson I was at my lowest," he said. "I didn't know if I still had it." The decline had started the previous year, when he lost for the second time to Riddick Bowe. "I had already told people I was going to carry the Olympic torch as the heavyweight champion of the world in 1996 and then I got in with Riddick Bowe and lost. That fight made me feel that I'd been derailed."

Six months later he found himself in the ring with a much lesser fighter, Bobby Czyz. "I went in there trying to blow him out and I didn't do it. I got the victory but I thought, who can I beat? I wondered if I can't get through Bobby Czyz, what can I do? I felt real bad. Real discouraged. That was my lowest point. I was getting beaten up in sparring. And I was asking the Lord, `When is the skill going to come back to me? You supposed to rejuvenate me!' Then He made me start praying. Praying and praising. The Lord told me, victory is mine. A couple of weeks before the Tyson fight, it all came back. Through my prayer and my praise, the Lord had uplifted me. That was it. I would never lose again."

The combination of Holyfield's constant willingness to share credit for his fortune with his Lord and the allegations that he has fathered up to half a dozen children outside his marriage form the evidence that persuaded Lennox Lewis, searching for a weakness, to call him a hypocrite. Lewis was on surer ground when he described Holyfield's most recent performance, a points win over Vaughn Bean in Atlanta last September, as very ordinary.

"Things like that don't matter because they don't make me no less," Holyfield said this week. "I'm not inspired by what people say. I'm inspired by what I do. That's his opinion. If I was ordinary to him in that fight, that's fine. That don't have nothing to do with this fight. I'm glad that each and every time I come into the ring I have the opportunity to do better and the opportunity to redeem myself once again."

Holyfield's uncharacteristic assertion that he will knock Lewis out in the third round has been disparaged by those who have examined his record since he reached the top and have found little to support his claim, particularly in his three fights between 1992 and 1995 against Riddick Bowe, the fighter who in size and style most resembles Lewis. After the two men had won one fight apiece over the full distance, Bowe decided the series with an eighth-round stoppage.

"What does the past have to do with today? It's a different time and a different place," Holyfield said. "Riddick Bowe was able to do something I wasn't able to figure out, that's all. And I don't say that I'm still that same fighter that fought Riddick Bowe. If I were still fighting with the same skills I had in 1992 or 1994 or 1995, I wouldn't stand a chance. Lennox would whup that guy. So I'm not going to let you hold me to my past."

Despite the evidence of his lacklustre post-Tyson displays, Holyfield insists that, at 36, his development is continuing. "The only thing I see in myself is improvement," he said. "The majority of fighters decline when they're 30. As you can see, I'm rapidly growing. The difference is that I've learnt from my mistakes. I've been fighting an uphill battle all my life and I always overcome things."

The contrast in physique and styles could hardly be more marked: the former cruiserweight with the six-pack stomach against a former Olympic super-heavyweight champion. "I don't watch tapes that much," Holyfield said, "but I've seen Lennox fight a few times and in general I know his style. My concentration is on what I have to do to win. He's a target. He's a big target. And when a person's a big target, what is there to do but hit him?"

The famous third-round prediction continues to cause surprise among those who associate Holyfield with a more cautious attitude. "Nothing's changed," he said, "except that I'm a lot more confident than I've ever been. That's the only difference. It happened when I was doing an interview on the telephone and my spirit just said, `Go ahead, tell them you're going to knock him out in three rounds.' It jumped out. It don't have anything to do with Lennox. It has to do with this place and this time. I've been doing this thing over and over since I was eight years old, so I should have the confidence to say what I'm going to do. I have my ups and I have my downs, but I've always been able to overcome. Here's a point in time that I'm in my high spirits, and I know that I can do this not because of what Lennox can do but the fact that I know what I'm capable of doing.

"Lennox Lewis is good. I'm not talking him down. You have the best of the best in this fight. Because you have the best of the best, and two people are really trying to win, somebody's going to get knocked out because that's the only way you can hit somebody, when they're trying to hit you. So I'm going to hit him first and get him on out of there in the third round."

Was he concerned about the motivation of an opponent facing a fight that will define his entire career? "I'm not concerned with what Lennox needs to prove. I'm not concerned with what he may do, because anything Lennox does, I'm going to use it against him. If he moves well, I'm going to use it against him. If he don't move well, I'm going to use that against him. But my whole thing of doing what I'm doing is not based on Lennox Lewis at all.

"I'm at my very best and that's why I'm going to knock him out in the third round. I'm not telling nobody to believe me right today, but you're going to believe me now or later, one of the two. It don't bother me. And in a way you're right. One should be smart enough to say, `Why should I believe that?' Then later you can say, `Shoot, he was right.'"

But what if... "Ain't no `What if'. Ain't no Plan B. Plan A got to work. Ain't but one way. Lennox is the toughest guy out there, but he's still going in three rounds."

And would that, and the reunification of the three major world heavyweight titles, which he held from 25 October 1990 to 13 November 1992, finally allow Evander Holyfield to call himself one of the greatest boxers of all time?

"I'm one of them already," he said, "whether people know it or not. If you look at boxing, you'll see that all the greats built themselves on the foundation of the older fighters. I looked at Ali, I looked at Joe Frazier, I looked at the Brown Bomber, I looked at all those guys. They are the foundation. So the only thing I can say is, I am the very best of this era.

"And after that, people can say what they want to say. But I was the best in this era, just like those guys were the best of theirs."

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