Boxing: Human story heavy in heroism and hypocrisy

Gerard Wright says Holyfield is drawing on a deep well of willpower in Houston's House of Pain
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The Independent Online
A TRUE STORY from a good friend of an atypical champion in a troubled sport: 10 years ago, Evander Holyfield, the newly crowned cruiserweight champion of the world, was invited to New York for a photo shoot for Ring magazine.

On his arrival from Atlanta, Holyfield called in at the office of his friend Jay Larkin, an executive with the boxing network Showtime. The champ was neatly dressed and carrying two paper bags, one in each hand.

Curious, Larkin enquired about their contents. The first bag contained a pair of boxing trunks. The second contained an iron, so that Holyfield could smooth the wrinkles in them before he appeared in front of the camera.

They walked to the basement of the nearby building housing the magazine. "There's Evander Holyfield in the basement of this building, in his underwear, ironing his boxing shorts," Larkin recalled. "That attention to detail is what helps make him one of the greatest fighters of all time - certainly of his era."

Every great, dominant sportsman acquires his own myths along the way to achieving such status. Mostly those myths make the champion seem larger than life. The stories about Holyfield - his religion, his 1996 wedding reception at an Atlanta family restaurant, his turning up unannounced, unencouraged, at Larkin's apartment building ("a Mr Holyfield to see you, sir," the doorman announced the first time this happened, his voice incredulous) - render him no more than life-size and human.

Holyfield has slain the giant, Mike Tyson, twice. In his sport's Hall of Fame, Holyfield shares the space with just two others, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, as the winner of three heavyweight titles. He has also earned well over $100m. In this country he is seen as heroic, and a little hypocritical: the unspoken man of God who has admitted to fathering nine children in a variety of relationships, some of which have been more formal than others - a prophet without honour.

It may make Holyfield more human, but not necessarily more endearing, in as much as the purchase of a ringside seat can be regarded as a term of endearment. Even the promotional heft of Don King can't alter that.

So last week, Holyfield went on the offensive. He has been training, as he usually does, in a gym in a seedy section of downtown Houston called the "House of Pain". Larkin, his boxing agent, says the fight is a "pick- em". In Las Vegas, he is a shade the favourite at 7-5. To all of this, Holyfield, usually respectful of his opponent and circumspect in his predictions, begs to differ.

"I can tell you in this match, that everybody said is really tough, I will knock him out in the third round," he said of Lewis. "I'm not saying Lennox won't do a good job for the time he is in there. But he is going to get knocked out." This is the single-minded Holyfield his friends know, the one who retired after being diagnosed with a heart ailment in 1994, then returned in 1996 to face Tyson, "re-energised by the whole episode" - in Larkin's words "it gave him an even deeper well of willpower".

And even now, at the age of 36, there remains every indication that Holyfield can go to that well again, even when there is no material need to. The $100m-plus he has already earned will be supplemented by a $20-25m pay- day against Lewis.

A son of the Atlanta ghetto (one of his father's 20 children, he says), he now owns the biggest house in Georgia, a 54,000sq ft mansion that took $15m and more than three years to build.

"Money is certainly an important issue, but by no means the most important one," Larkin says. "What really drives him is the accomplishment, the goal." That, and to prove his detractors - whoever they might be - wrong.

"Cain and Abel" was the promotional headline Don King plucked out of the air when this fight was announced at Madison Square Garden. "Cain and unAble," a New York Post columnist unkindly riposted.

Whatever. Should Holyfield win and become the holder of all the world heavyweight titles, it still won't be his last fight.

King has divined, and Holyfield has apparently accepted, that America's appetite for a Tyson-less heavyweight division has been pretty much sated. A dud fight in the United States can be an historic, exotic event in another country, say South Africa, where Holyfield is contracted to a re-match with the game but undistinguished Henry Akinwande, who is aged 33.

Beyond that, there are plans for bouts in Europe and possibly England, for the inevitable re-match with Lewis.

There is money to be made and audiences to be plucked. So maybe this is not an atypical heavyweight boxer after all.