Boxing: Holyfield's fighting spirit threatened by age concern

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Evander Holyfield's re-match with Michael Moorer tomorrow may be one fight too far for a great heavyweight. Ken Jones reports from Las Vegas.

The way Evander Holyfield goes about his work in the ring is not beautiful or complicated, but each performance raises fresh admiration for a remarkable fighting spirit.

However, Holyfield's warrior instinct and realisation that he is still not identified as one of the great heavyweight champions could be a recipe for disaster.

Because so many of Holyfield's 36 professional contests, on top of the 174 he fought as an amateur, have fallen into the brutal category, his enthusiasm for the possibility of a unifying bout against the World Boxing Council champion Lennox Lewis and another collision with Mike Tyson is worrying.

Lewis's trainer, Emanuel Steward, is not alone in thinking that Holyfield, who recently turned 35, should have gone into retirement last June after his second victory over Tyson. "Evander is running a big risk," Steward said this week. "It is always difficult persuading fighters to quit, especially one so proud as this guy, but if he isn't careful we could have another Muhammad Ali tragedy. Of course, a unification contest suits our purpose but I'd hate to see it happen because Evander could get badly hurt. Lennox is simply too big and strong for him."

Almost exactly five years ago, the morning after Holyfield lost the undisputed championship to Riddick Bowe on a decision, I fell into conversation with his then trainer, Lou Duva. A hard fight, one of the best in recent heavyweight history, had been notable for the extent of Holyfield's will, but there did not seem to be much of a future for him in boxing. "It's all over," Duva said. Together with other members of the family organisation, Duva was convinced that Holyfield would settle for the retirement they advised. "There's no point in him going on," I remember Duva saying. "Evander's got more money than he'll ever need and if he wants to stay involved in boxing we'll find a place for him in the organisation."

Choosing to ignore Duva's advice, Holyfield returned to the ring seven months later against a limited opponent, Alex Stewart. In winning a 12-round decision he looked awful. People shook their heads and reflected on the fact that fighters are usually the last to know when time has run out for them.

When Holyfield signed to try and regain the World Boxing Organisation and International Boxing Federation belts from Bowe (the champion had been stripped of the World Boxing Council championship for refusing to defend against Lewis) no hope was held out for him and it was feared that he would take a terrible beating.

A couple of nights before the contest at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas I came across Holyfield in a lift. It was quite late and he was with the lady, a doctor, he subsequently married. Holyfield smiled and said that all was well with him. The encounter persuaded me to believe that Holyfield was merely trying to prove something personally and would disappear permanently from boxing if Bowe again proved too much for him.

Instead, he defeated Bowe before figuring in events that eventually caused people to think again about where a man who has had three separate reigns as champion stood in the all-time heavyweight rankings.

The loss of his titles to Michael Moorer figures as much in an assessment of Holyfield's status as the superiority he twice established over Tyson. Consequently, when Holyfield goes to his corner against Moorer tomorrow for the WBA and IBF titles they hold respectively, he will again have questions to answer. Was his defeat by the man from Detroit due to a shoulder injury or an undetected illness that led to concern, later removed, that he was suffering from a heart condition? Or was it simply that Holyfield could not overcome the difficulties posed by Moorer's southpaw stance?

For all his shortcomings that night, Holyfield is convinced that he did enough to win a close contest. "The judges didn't see it that way," he said, "and I lost the titles. You can't erase what is in the record book so above all else this is an opportunity to redeem myself.

"The southpaw thing really wasn't that much of a problem. I just wasn't myself in that fight." Holyfield was sitting on the apron of a ring in which he had gone three rounds with one of his four sparring partners. As usual he wore a serene expression. "When people ask how I could possibly have lost to Moorer, they should realise that a lot of things went on. I had injuries, especially in my shoulder, but I thought I could win without giving my all and didn't want to ask for a postponement. I allowed that to happen so I can't blame Moorer for my failure. When you lose it's your fault. There is no excuse."

If Holyfield's preparation for this contest has not been charged with the intensity that Tyson aroused, he is not taking Moorer lightly. "Tyson is a much stronger man than Moorer," he said. "If I choose I can push Michael into a position where he can be hit. Against Tyson, I could sit back and fight my fight because I knew he was going to be there. With Michael being a little awkward, I will have to press things. I need to come out and set the tempo immediately."

What Holyfield must also do is think seriously about what the hardest and most dangerous of sports, one that should never be referred to as a game, might eventually do to him.