Boxing: Holyfield still in pursuit of grail

Ken Jones, in Las Vegas, assesses the twice world champion's prospects against the formidable Mike Tyson tomorrow night
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The morning after Evander Holyfield lost the undisputed world heavyweight championship to Riddick Bowe on 13 November 1992, his associates advised retirement from boxing. "You've got more in the bank than you are ever likely to need and there isn't anything left to prove," Lou Duva said.

So what was it that kept Holyfield in the ring: fame, the warrior instinct, a fear of anti-climax or, as Mike Tyson who is defending the World Boxing Association title against him tomorrow believes, the effect of an acquisitive nature?

Barely six months on from an effort that had left him utterly exhausted, Holyfield gained a 12-round decision over Alex Stewart in Atlantic City. No longer connected with the Duvas, who had switched their attention to Lennox Lewis, and struggling to overcome the moderate resistance of an opponent Tyson blew away in one round, he looked awful.

Remarkable as the story became when Holyfield took back the WBA and International Boxing Federation titles from Bowe, the tests he underwent for cardiac problems following a subsequent loss to Michael Moorer in April 1994 brings anxiety to this week's proceedings.

The ancient creed by which Holyfield abides does not allow for equivocation. That he has always been prepared to leave the ring on a shield makes people worry for him. Holyfield asks himself, "How many fights have I been in to the point where my will has been tested?" The answer encourages Holyfield to believe that he can stand up to Tyson, one of the most devastating hitters boxing has ever known.

Holyfield will never be remembered with Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, who were truly big men as well as great talents, or with Rocky Marciano, who was a crude phenomenon, but as a two-times heavyweight champion he claims a place in history.

"I see greatness in a different way than a lot of people see it," he said this week, after completing a lively sparring session. "You're only as great as the guy you fight. Sometimes you win because you're more talented, but there will always be people who step up and meet you head on. Then it is how you respond to defeat, if it comes, or how you respond to fighting somebody who hits just as hard and keeps coming back at you."

Holyfield has the reputation of a conscientious, hard-striving fighter, the kind who relies mostly on courage and endurance, qualities that are nevertheless evident in the men he admires. "All the fighters who have been considered great are people you couldn't look at and always be sure they would win," he said. "Sometimes they won because of what they were willing to go through. It comes down from Louis, Marciano, Ali, who went in with fighters who were winners too. You don't get a big name in boxing get all the way to a championship by overcoming opponents who choose not to fight. When it is time to examine my career, to figure out where I stand in history, the names on my record will be important."

The most recent is that of Bobby Czyz, no more than a passable imitation of a heavyweight who lasted five rounds last May when he faced Holyfield at Madison Square Garden. "I know I didn't look very good that night," Holyfield said, "but I found it very difficult to get interested. It isn't the same when a fight doesn't appear to be very important. You remember those other nights when there was everything to go for and it affects your concentration. There isn't the same buzz, that feeling of uncertainty that helps to get you up for a fight."

Holyfield is not the most forthcoming of men and he finds articulation a problem. "Only time is really going to prove the point, but this fight here will take me to a different level," he added. "People have different perceptions of how they think a boxer should be and whether they think him to have real talent. I think I will be more appreciated when my career is over. Then there will be an understanding that I didn't get hit as often as some may imagine. That I slipped most of the shots."

Fears about Holyfield's health are less relevant to tomorrow's contest than the probability that he is a spent fighter. However, that conclusion does not bother him.

"The same was said before the second fight against Bowe, but I proved to have more than he could handle. I came back when most of the writers thought I was finished."

Two days before that contest at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, quite late at night, I came across Holyfield in an elevator. He was with the girlfriend he married two months ago and I thought it odd behaviour so close to the contest. The impression you got was that it would be enough to go out against a younger man and prove that he was no quitter. Instead, he defeated Bowe, taking advantage of the champion's slackness in preparation.

If Holyfield had lost that fight, it is probable that he would have gone into permanent retirement, which is what he should have done anyway. "Maybe," he said, "but I was convinced that I could beat Bowe in the way I'm sure I can surprise everyone by beating Tyson. I've proved a lot in my time, came back after being written off even by people who had believed in me, and it is all about having a positive attitude and putting your trust in God. I'm not suggesting that God is on my side, but if I felt He was against me in this, I would be out of boxing."

By conservative estimate, Holyfield has grossed more than $100m (pounds 62m) in ring earnings and his thrift is legendary. His wedding breakfast was held at a roadside diner. Holyfield does not have the first dollar he ever made, but he probably remembers what it was spent on.

What Holyfield will not accept, of course, is that he is about to become another of Tyson's hapless victims. "I think Tyson's beatable," he says. Which is why people worry about him.