Ken Jones: Holyfield the warrior trapped in a world without end

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The Independent Online

The morning after Evander Holyfield lost the undisputed heavyweight championship to Riddick Bowe on 13 November 1992 it was unanimously agreed by his management team that it was time to quit. "You've done enough," Lou Duva said.

The morning after Evander Holyfield lost the undisputed heavyweight championship to Riddick Bowe on 13 November 1992 it was unanimously agreed by his management team that it was time to quit. "You've done enough," Lou Duva said. At Madison Square Garden, New York, last Saturday, returning to the ring after more than a year, Holyfield, 42, was outpointed by Larry Donald. Holyfield was credited with only one of the 12 dreary rounds. He landed only 78 punches.

Holyfield's performance against an opponent peripheral even by the present parlous standards of the heavyweight division was so abject that he has been suspended indefinitely by the New York State Athletic Commission. The salient phrase in a statement issued by its chairman, Ron Stevens, is that fighters must be protected from themselves. "To my practised mind, Holyfield shouldn't be fighting anymore," Stevens said. "He has absorbed enough punishment throughout his great career. It's the responsibility of the Commission to save a boxer from himself."

Though the states of California, Nevada and New Jersey are likely to follow New York's lead, Holyfield vows to fight on. "What have I done to the game that they don't want me in it anymore?" he said. "Ain't that much love in the world to go against a person's will."

Even in a sport where self-delusion is an occupational hazard, where time rings with a coarse cadence, Holyfield is an exception. Unlike many who have gone on past their prime he is not driven by financial imperatives. From a 20-year career he has earned upwards of £80m - second only to Mike Tyson. His home in Atlanta is a 109-room mansion with an Olympic-size swimming pool, cinema and bowling alley, all acquired since the Duvas called time on his career 12 years ago.

But there is emotion, world without end. How long can a boxer hold his passion to be a boxer? How long can he retain his enthusiasm for repetitive and frequently painful experiences? "You can look at the past fights and you can see that my skills have declined," Holyfield recently said. "But I have a fight, then if I win I have another fight. You have to understand that a lot of people who say I should retire have never been a winner. I have. I came from the ghetto. I always had a rough time and I had to make adjustments. When I won the title [the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation versions in the second of three contests against Bowe] they thought I wasn't going to win anyway. Why would anybody think that I can win the heavyweight title again when they didn't think I would win it coming up?

"My work is what I choose. For whatever reason, I choose to box. That should be all right. It's not illegal. The ego is not as big as it used to be but nothing changes the fact that my goal is to be the heavyweight champion of the world. I could be doing something else but I have been brought up to close the situation out. When I actually retire I will close the book and never open it again."

Other boxing eras would not have found Holyfield unique. Few men have ever become world champion without facing the dark side of the one sport that should not be referred to as a game; Holyfield is one. In three contests against Bowe, two against Tyson and two against Lennox Lewis, he passed the personal test of courage many times.

One central truth lies at the heart of boxing and it never alters: pain. Pain is a priority. It may even be man's strongest and most undeniable reality. And that is why boxing stirs us, even as it repels us. In Holyfield's slurred speech there is the effect of 48 professional contests. Since losing to Lewis in November 1999 he has won only two of eight; against Donald he threw only single punches.

Following a knock-out by James Toney in his previous fight, Holyfield parted company with his long-time trainer Don Turner, who had acquainted him with realities he continues to ignore. According to Turner, the former champion, the man who twice licked Tyson, the man who fully earned the warrior status he was accorded, looked old; his timing had gone, his reflexes had slowed. "Time to quit," Turner told Holyfield. Ignoring the advice he had first been given 12 years earlier, Holyfield showed Turner the door.

Promoters and television networks cannot deny complicity in the destruction of Holyfield's brain cells. For last week's effort, promoted by Don King, he is reputed to have been paid $2m (£1.1m). As an American friend puts it, "offer Holyfield two hundred thousand dollars and then we'll see how much he is in love with boxing".