Holyfield's historic triumph fails to hide the inevitable ravages of time

First man ever to win four world titles does not impress and at age of 38 must fight the most feared opponent of all
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The Independent Online

Evander Holyfield, boxing's least perishable spirit, became the first four-times world heavyweight champion in history here when he outpointed John Ruiz for the World Boxing Association title taken from Lennox Lewis in a New York courtroom. But if the old warrior's appetite for battle continues to stir the blood, it also troubles the conscience.

Evander Holyfield, boxing's least perishable spirit, became the first four-times world heavyweight champion in history here when he outpointed John Ruiz for the World Boxing Association title taken from Lennox Lewis in a New York courtroom. But if the old warrior's appetite for battle continues to stir the blood, it also troubles the conscience.

There are times - and there were many in this fight - when every wave of cheering seems more than anything another small conspiracy against a brave and brilliant sportsman seeing sense.

The truth is Holyfield's greatest achievement was not to put down the passion of Ruiz, who in the early going looked as if he had wandered into the showroom of the Paris Casino Hotel from a discarded Rocky script, but to elude the deadliest assassin in all of boxing. Time, the old, indiscriminate tyrant, nearly caught up with the man who says he will fight on until 50 if that is what it takes to walk away as undisputed world heavyweight champion. On the evidence of this night, simply walking away might be the realistic limit of his hopes, not at 50 but the next time he steps into the ring with Lewis.

That is Holyfield's ambition, one apparently undeflected by the fact that the ill-considered Ruiz was able to land punches almost at will before losing a unanimous, but surprisingly close decision. None of those punches began to match the power of Holyfield's and the belief of many at ringside, including the broadcasting Showtime television analysts, that Ruiz had been robbed, hardly warrants serious reflection. What does is the fact that Holyfield was at times a dismayingly easy target and Lewis, especially in his current frame of mind and fighting condition, could confidently expect to exact more withering damage.

Holyfield, as ever, is eager to re-invade the mouth of the cannon. He declares, "Sure, it was a hard night's work but sometimes it happens that styles make a difficult fight, and Ruiz is an awkward fighter. He leads with his head, and he doesn't have a real rhythm. Great fighters have a rhythm that you understand and deal with, but he didn't have that and it was difficult. But I have plenty left in me and I'll fight anybody. I'll fight Lennox or Mike Tyson if these fights can be made. I have part of the title and I hope Lennox will come after it; his people should tell him that he will have to fight three or four fights to earn what he'll get for fighting me. Why would he risk fighting those extra fights? I think Lennox likes money and I can see the fight happening."

If it does, and Holyfield's principal paymasters, Showtime, are not displaying anything like outright enthusiasm, it will be above all the result of Holyfield's extraordinary self-belief and, so far at least, his ability to confound all previous evidence of decline. A few months short of his 38th birthday, he says, "The reason I've made history is that I'm somebody who can deal with setbacks and get over them. How many times have I been written off? You all know what the world said about my chances against Mike Tyson. Three times I've come back from defeats people said were the end of me. There is no doubt about it. I will fight on." Such is the apparently unquenchable fire in Holyfield, but Jay Larkin, the Showtime TV chief, best caught the mood of the early hours of yesterday morning when he said, "No one loves Evander more than me, but he has nothing left to achieve, and therefore no reason to continue."

It was an assessment which went to the heart of the night's reality - and the fact that if two of the judges, Americans Duane Ford and Dave Moretti, had not given Holyfield an extra point for the third round in which he stunned Ruiz with a superb right to the temple, but did not force a knock-down, the fight would have been declared a draw. Ford and Moretti gave it to Holyfield by 114-113, with the Venezuelan Fernando Viso scoring it 116-112.

Ruiz, despite swollen eyes and a broken nose, protested angrily, saying, "I was definitely robbed. I had control of the fight. Holyfield threw everything at me, including elbows and his head. I'm surprised he didn't throw a knee at me. I was very surprised by the judges' decision. But it is up to them. I don't know what fight they saw. Like people say, I was robbed without a gun. I'm going to keep working hard at my career, but this was a big setback. This is something I've been dreaming about. I won the fight and he knows it. People came to see Holyfield fight. They never game me a chance. They wanted Holyfield to win another title. They wanted to see history on his side."

Of course, they did - and the reasons leap out of even the most cursory review of his journey from the poor side of Atlanta to the Olympic stadium of that city where he carried the flame, his extraordinary comeback fight against Riddick Bowe, his demolition of the myth of "Iron" Mike Tyson and here, last year, his courageous reaction to the supremacy of Lewis in their first fight in New York. It is a career profile which some time ago placed him immovably in the pantheon of great fighters and inevitably there were moments against Ruiz when his sheer instinct to fight overwhelmed, at least briefly, all reservations.

In the third round only the intervention of the referee, Richard Steele, prevented what would have been a quick, and, for Holyfield, reinforcing, victory.

Ruiz clung to Holyfield like a drowning man after Holyfield's fist had exploded on his temple, though the man from Massachusetts was less than grateful. He said, "I wasn't really in trouble in the third round. I stayed on my feet and kept going. He used all the tactics against me,elbows, low blows and he threw me down. Richard Steele came in and told us he would watch low blows and elbows, but he lied to me." Ruiz was perhaps lying to himself. He was in desperate trouble in the third and the final round, when what seemed like an authentic knock-down was ruled a slip, and if there were times when Ruiz effectively took the fight to Holyfield, especially in the first half of the fight, the cold view had to be that this owed as much to Holyfield's errant timing as his own merit.

Certainly Ruiz was vastly encouraged by his ability to place a jab in Holyfield's face - and land acouple of good uppercuts in the first round. He won the first round with some comfort - and on every scorecard - and rallied bravely after Holyfield's threateningly heavy punching in the third.

When Ruiz won the fourth round, the disturbing shadow of one result on Ruiz's record of 36-3 began to creep into Holyfield's work. His opponent had been knocked out by David Tua, Lewis's next opponent, in 19 seconds. Such devastation was clearly beyond the power of a man who in his prime would have had too much speed, too much power and too much nous to permit any seriousextension of this action.

Holyfield's instincts remained acute, but not his performance. Ironically, the TV analyst who so bizarrely judged sweepingly in Ruiz's favour was the former cruiserweight champion Bobby Czyz, whose ability four years ago to withstand Holyfield for five rounds in Madison Square Garden persuaded Tyson's camp that the former champion had become a shell. It was a point Holyfield was quick to make here when his victory was questioned. Do not doubt him in the resurrection department, he was saying. Didn't everyone know now that he could turn around any circumstances, however unpromising?

Ruiz, to be fair, fought with both nerve and courage and at the end, after embracing his tearful wife, he found the grace which so often comes to fighters when they have gone to their limits. "I thought I won the fight, but in the end you have to leave it to the judges. I acknowledge that Holyfield is a great champion who always come to fight."

It is the kind of tribute which has an indefinite shelf life. Its most likely reappearance is early next year when Holyfield hopes to go against the winner of the Lewis-Tua collision for the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles. Showtime's Larkin has said that there will be pork chops growing on trees in Tel Aviv before Lewis's TV patrons HBO allowed Lewis to fight on Showtime television, but Holyfield's manager, Jim Thomas, believes that now his man has a share of the title again there will a public appetite for a third fight and that, "the pork chops will be forgotten." Along with the pork chops, almost certainly, there is compelling evidence that Holyfield's talent is programmed to run beyond its time. It is the oldest tragedy in boxing and in the case of Evander "The Real Deal" Holyfield it seems that all the conditions are in place.

Except, of course, for the need for money. Even after a financially punishing divorce, Holyfield's fortune is estimated at $90m (£60m). His promoter Don King naturally talked of fresh triumphs, and also his decision to dedicate the fight - great fight, he called it - to his wife Henrietta, who by way of celebration would shortly be in receipt of a large diamond. It was not the most uplifting moment on a night when the issue seemed to be not rocks on the finger of a promoter's wife, but in the head of one of the greatest fighters the world has ever known.

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