Holyfield driven by the hatred of failure

Former champion refuses to walk away from the ring as he tries to break Ali's record and set up final showdown with Lewis James Lawton in Las Vegas
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The Independent Online

Angelo Dundee, the quicksilver cornerman of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, walks vigorously down a back corridor of the Paris Casino Hotel in search of a dwindling breed. He is looking for a full-time American boxing writer to besiege with the glories of his latest protégé, Arthur "Flash" Johnson, a graduate of the East St Louis ghetto who tonight fights Timmy "Cincinnati Kid" Austin for the IBF world bantamweight title.

Angelo Dundee, the quicksilver cornerman of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, walks vigorously down a back corridor of the Paris Casino Hotel in search of a dwindling breed. He is looking for a full-time American boxing writer to besiege with the glories of his latest protégé, Arthur "Flash" Johnson, a graduate of the East St Louis ghetto who tonight fights Timmy "Cincinnati Kid" Austin for the IBF world bantamweight title.

Dundee is almost portly now, in his 70s, but if he is dismayed to find an empty press room just a few days before Evander Holyfield's historic attempt to become, uniquely, a four-time heavyweight champion of the world here tomorrow night, there is no hint of weariness or despair at the current plight of his sport.

"Boxing has been written off so many times," he says, "but the longer you're in it the more you know it doesn't change. It is always in crisis of one kind or another - but it cannot be killed off, not by governments or the stupidity of people in it, because it is part of life more than any other sport. The hook is that it is so basic. People will always want to see a fight. That desire may lie low for a time, but it always comes back.

"Heavyweights are the pulse of fighting and now they're saying that the division is dead, but they've said that so many times - when I was a kid it was Joe Louis's bum-of-the-month time - and then suddenly there is a fight that captures the imagination. One thing leads to another. Holyfield beats this kid Ruiz and gets his hands on a belt again and then another Tyson fight comes into focus and there's Lennox Lewis sitting on top of the mountain, and suddenly there's a new agenda.

"People ask why Holyfield, with all his millions, is still fighting but they don't understand the make-up of great fighters. Holyfield's a freak; he has this high-tech body which has survived so much, but the greatest survivor is his spirit. I saw it with Ali and Leonard. I told them to quit but deep down I knew they wouldn't. Why? Because they knew there would never be any greater illumination of their lives than the one which came when they stepped into the ring. What's Holyfield doing here? He is doing something that he knows is the best thing he will ever do."

In fact Holyfield has been spending much of his time defending the legitimacy of his fight with the 28-year-old John Ruiz of Massachussets for the WBA title stripped from Lewis by a New York judge. "Lennox," Holyfield was saying this week, "opened the door for me when he didn't abide by the rules and ignored his contract to fight Ruiz. That gave me the chance to get a title back, a big step towards me being able to end my career as undisputed champion of the world. That's my goal. I want to leave boxing at the top, as Rocky Marciano did as champion. If this situation hadn't come up, I had another course of action.

"I was going to fight often, blow people away and put the pressure on Lewis to fight me again after the close decision in our last fight. I was going to do whatever it took to get into the ring with Lewis again. Maybe this is my short cut, a gift. I thank God for it."

Short cut or another parody of competitive values, another notch on the endless belt of boxing cynicism? "It is the way it is," says Holyfield. "A lot goes on in boxing that a fighter can't control, but if you do your work well enough, you win certain advantages. People ask me how I feel about the fact that I earn millions [$5m (£3.3m) tomorrow night, against Ruiz's $1m] while other guys go in the ring for $600. I say I don't have a problem with that because I fought free for so many years, right through to the Olympics, and I learned my trade and I made things happen."

Holyfield is in expansive form, revived beyond recognition from the battered, pain-racked figure who had difficulty in standing after his first fight with Lewis, and who made only muted protests over the wide decision in favour of his opponent after the second and much closer fight. He talks happily of freshly hatched dreams and even manages a few wry smiles when the subject of his recent divorce settlement - which is said to have consumed around half his fortune, or $90m - is raised. He says: "When I get to be undisputed champion again, people will not be asking me why I'm still fighting, they'll be urging me to carry on because there will be so much money involved. But I will walk away then and the effect will be sensational. I will be saying: 'You see, it hasn't been about money'."

What then? "It has been about going through life learning from your mistakes, getting it right. When I fought Riddick Bowe the second time I honestly didn't know how I was going to beat him. I was stunned when I lost the first fight. I was just laughing before that fight. I knew he was going to run out of gas. I set a hard pace, and then I looked over at his corner and I saw him joking and I just couldn't believe it. I felt humiliated. I wanted to hide when they announced the scoring, I couldn't believe I had been beaten that bad."

At the core of Holyfield is a horror of quitting on the job. It was implanted by his mother Annie, the strongest influence in his life by some distance and from whose death two years ago he is only now recovering. "I lost my first fight when I was eleven. I was traumatised. My mother said I had to go back in the ring because she didn't breed a quitter." The episode still lives vividly in his mind. He was beaten by a white boy named Cecil Collins. But he was white with a difference. "He came from the wrong side of the tracks like me. He didn't wear the smart ring clothes of most of the white guys. We used to look at them in their short shorts and know we had them. But not this kid. He had long shorts like us and long stringy hair and was kind of cross-eyed. He was a tough guy and he beat me again the second time we fought. In fact I was disqualified. I was losing going into the third round and my trainer said: 'Go out and beat him up.'

"That's what I did after throwing him down. This taught me that you should be careful about telling kids what to do because they might just do it."

Holyfield fought Collins a third time - and won. At stake was a trip to a tournament in Tennessee. "I had never been out of Atlanta, and I wanted that trip so badly. I reached the final and then I found out I was fighting this kid Collins. I didn't even know he was in the tournament. They laughed at me because I was so scared of losing this fight. But I won it and when I went home my mother said: 'You can quit the ring now. You've proved yourself'."

Holyfield's energy has long been a wonder but it is remarkable now in what many consider the desperate dog days of his sport. He thinks that Tyson has a serious chance against Lewis, especially if the champion reverts to a counter-attacking style utterly jettisoned in the thumping dismissals of the challenges of Michael Grant and Frans Botha. "If you back off Tyson at all he gets very strong; it is what he wants. I could see Tyson beating Lewis in the right circumstances." Predictably, he can see no possibilities for Ruiz, the earnest son of a broken Puerto Rican family and devoted husband of a high school sweetheart he married at 17, and father of two children. Ruiz stood to applaud Holyfield when he was presented with the "man of the year" trophy awarded by DARE, an organisation committed to fighting drug problems, and later explained his commitment to youth work back home in Massachussets.

His father, of whom he knew little, died as the result of alcoholism recently. "Boxing," says Ruiz, "steered me clear of drugs and drinking and the problems that come in the streets, and I will always owe it that. Evander Holyfield is a great fighter but he has had his time." Has boxing? Angelo Dundee, who in the end tracked down an audience, insists it has not. "My kid [the bantamweight challenger Johnson] came out of one of the toughest corners of America," he says. "He has been to college, is a musician and fights beautifully. Okay, boxing has had a rough time, but the cream comes to the surface. The game will go on."

Dundee would say that, as inevitably as Don King mangled the French language in this resort's bizarre reproduction of the French capital. The "over-and-under" bet, which is normally concerned with the round at which a fight finishes, was devoted to how long it would take King to utter a mispronunciation of the French at his press conference. Twenty eight seconds was the nominated dividing line. He did it in two seconds with "bonjeer," shortly before referring to the artist Telise La Truck.

As Dundee was saying, most things in boxing never change.