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Boxing: 'I'm old school, Haye would be a simple fight,' says Holyfield

At 47, 'The Real Deal' is a world title-holder again – but is the last of America's great heavyweights heading for a tragic ending? Steve Bunce on how a die-hard boxer is finally losing his public

It was the most disturbing and remarkable win in a career that has never been short of "did that just happen?" moments. On Saturday night, at the Thomas & Mack Centre in Las Vegas, Evander Holyfield recorded his 43rd win as a professional boxer to claim the WBF heavyweight title. And so the man who famously fought with Mike Tyson twice (his opponent taking a bite out of his ear in the second bout), and Lennox Lewis another two times, became a world champion at 47 years of age.

Holyfield refuses to throw in the towel and take up a position behind a microphone. It was a simple victory, over fellow veteran South Africa's Frans Botha, himself 41, fighting on "the retirement circuit". But there is no safe retreat in the brutal business of boxing for old men – no veterans' "friendlies". Instead, the latest turn in the story of Holyfield, who first won the world heavyweight title in 1990, has confirmed his place at the top of a tragic and often tainted heap of recent American heavyweights.

"I'm back, back in the heavyweight business and ready to fight any of the champions," said Holyfield, whose visits to hospital in victory and defeat have become legend. "I look at the champions and I know ways to beat them. I'm from the old school and they are not. David Haye would be a simple fight for me." It is possible, incredibly, that the two may yet fight.

Holyfield is the only active boxer to have fought the old 15-round distance, which he had to do in his first world title fight back in 1986. For the record he was just 23 and having his 12th fight when he won a split a decision over Dwight Muhammad Qawi for the World Boxing Association cruiserweight title. It was a brutal fight and both boxers ended up in hospital needing time to recover from the savagery.

At present it is possible to argue with some force that there are just three Americans in the top 20 heavyweights and the trio are not much to write home about. There is Tony "Tiger" Thompson, Chris Arreola and "Fast" Eddie Chambers and they have all been knocked out by one of the Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali. Thompson lost every round against Vitali before jumping on the floor in the 11th round in 2008, Chambers never threw a punch at Wladimir and collapsed in the 12th a few months ago, and Arreola survived 10 against Vitali but never won a round last year.

Yet the truth is that Holyfield is more marketable at his age because there is no talent coming through in America. But even now, in the American media following the fight at the weekend, there are growing calls for him to stop. "Holyfield once was a true warrior and champion," said Colin Linneweber of the website Bleacher Report. "Now, 'The Real Deal' is everything that is wrong with boxing and he is making a mockery out of his legacy." The Las Vegas Review-Journal called Saturday's fight "a geriatric wrestling match".

Holyfield has never really been far from the top during the last 20 years and in late 2008 he travelled to Switzerland to fight Nikolai Valuev for the WBA heavyweight title. He came close, dropping a majority decision; less than 12 months later Haye beat Valuev by split decision to win the title. Holyfield, in many ways, showed Haye how to beat the Russian giant. The Briton admitted as much after his safety-first victory.

Holyfield has been involved in a world heavyweight fight in 14 of the last 20 years and some of his 19 title fights are recognised as the best of all generations of heavyweights. His trio with Riddick Bowe in the early 1990s, which included the night in Las Vegas when the "Fan Man" parachuted into the ring and was knocked unconscious by Bowe's henchmen, is the best triple in history. The final Bowe fight was particularly brutal, with both on the floor before Bowe won in round five. A few years later Bowe was made to retire because of brain damage he was meant to have suffered. After the Bowe hat-trick Holyfield was winning and losing world titles in epic scraps with Tyson and Lewis when Bowe had long since retired.

"I knew that I could beat Tyson," Holyfield said again and again. "Lennox was much harder." Holyfield and Tyson had come close to blows during an amateur training camp before the 1984 Olympics when it is claimed that Holyfield got in Tyson's face and forced the bully to back down. In the ring 12 years later Holyfield did the same thing and broke Tyson's heart in the first fight. In the rematch, known forever now as "The Bite of the Century", Holyfield took more than Tyson's heart, he took his dignity and forced him to foul his way to permanent ignominy. Holyfield was back in hospital, $30m (£19.5m) richer and part of his severed ear was stuffed in ice. I saw the pair embrace a few years ago and remember catching Tyson eyeing the gap in Holyfield's ear. Tyson insists that Holyfield was the best man he ever fought. Holyfield, a sometime Christian preacher, refuses to accuse.

The two Lewis fights were simple toe-to-toe encounters and both results divided the fans. The first was a draw in Madison Square Garden and when we sat for the return eight months later in Las Vegas I was reminded of just how big a world heavyweight championship fight could and should be. America was watching, Vegas stopped and the two walked to the centre of the ring. It was 1999 and the old magic was back; it was a fight for the history boys and it was also the last really great heavyweight title fight to take place involving an American in America.

Holyfield is still flying that damaged American flag and there is nobody on the American boxing horizon to take it from his clenched fists.

Too many champions: Heavyweight headache

Wladimir Klitschko The world No 1 is WBO, IBF, IBO and The Ring magazine champion.

David Haye The British WBA champion has covincingly won all four of his heavyweight bouts.

Vitali Klitschko The 6ft 7in Ukrainian has held the WBC belt since 2004.

Evander Holyfield At the age of 47 the "Real Deal" became the oldest boxer to win a heavyweight title in history on Saturday when he won the lightly-regarded WBF belt.

Sheldon Hinton The Canadian, holder of the minor WBB strap is currently ranked 204th in the world.

Hector Ferreyro Won the IBC title in March, beating Arron Lyons.