Goodbye is the hardest word

Harry Mullan says Holyfield and Benn are taking the warrior spirit too far; Judgement night: On either side of the Atlantic, two of boxing's greatest warhorses are refusing to grow old gracefully
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The Independent Online
Those saloon-bar heroes who proclaim "For $5m, I'd get in with Mike Tyson" might view the matter differently if, like Evander Holyfield, they already had $50m or $60m tucked away in the bank. Whatever imperatives are driving Holyfield back into the ring to face Tyson in Las Vegas on Saturday night, they are not financial. The man demonstrably has more money than sense, a gap which is likely to be even wider after Tyson has finished with him.

Las Vegas odds have Tyson a 25-1 on favourite to beat the ex-champion, which would have been unthinkable when the pair were first scheduled to meet five years ago. Then, Holyfield was in his prime, a fighter of unbreakable will and blazing courage, while Tyson's life was already collapsing into the chaos which eventually brought him a three-year spell in jail for rape. Today, as was painfully illustrated when Holyfield met Riddick Bowe for the third time a year ago, he is a spent force. The courage is undimmed but the punch resistance and stamina have gone - and that is a dangerous combination to bring into the ring with the most punishing heavyweight of any era.

A rare few fighters - Marvin Hagler was one - can walk away from the game with their health and reputation undiminished, but too many linger, with often distressing consequences. Sugar Ray Leonard, the man who ended Hagler's career with a highly debatable points decision in 1987, is preparing for a comeback at 40 while Hagler enjoys a film-star life in Milan. Who was the real winner nine years ago?

For men like Holyfield, Leonard and Nigel Benn, goodbye really is the hardest word of all. Benn, clearly, is finding it wrenchingly difficult to turn his back on the sport. He figures in the first part of Sky Sports' boxing extravaganza on Saturday night when he attempts to take the WBO super-middleweight title from Ireland's Steve Collins, who beat him in four rounds in July. They meet in the Nynex Arena in Manchester, which was also the setting for their first fight when Benn limped to his corner after injuring his ankle. That unsatisfactory conclusion is the justification for the rematch, but there are many who wish it wasn't happening and prefer to remember Benn in his pomp.

In truth, he has been in marked decline ever since that heroic and ultimately tragic victory over Gerald McClellan. There were subsequent championship victories over Vincenzo Nardiallo and the obscure Danny Ray Perez, but they were flawed successes and the deterioration was obvious when he lost the WBC title to the ancient Sugarboy Malinga and then failed again against Collins, who was clearly on top when the ankle injury occurred. After each defeat there were emotional "I quit" announcements, but the retirements barely lasted as far as the dressing-room showers.

Boxing and - dare we say - violence has been too much a part of Benn's Iife for too long to allow him to be satisfied with crown green bowling or golf as a substitute. He was a teenage tearaway who took particular delight in seeking out and beating up racist bullies on the streets of West Ham, and who survived two tours of duty with the Royal Green Jackets in Northern Ireland when the shooting war there was at its height. He gives the impression of being a man with little in his life except boxing, and the glamour which his stature brings with it.

Hagler once memorably said: "If they cut my bald head open they will find one big boxing glove. That's all I am. I live it." He proved himself spectacularly wrong by building a successful and fulfilling life away from the ring, but others who are genuinely one-dimensional find it hard to let go. Men like these, who are compelled by their ego and the memory of their youth rather than by any hunger for money, do not grow old gracefully. But when the rewards are as high as they are for Holyfield there will always be sycophants and backslappers who encourage his self-delusion. George Benton, the legendary Philadelphia trainer who masterminded most of Holyfield's triumphs, is conspicuously not among their number: he was "replaced" for this comeback venture, but I do not believe he would have wanted to be part of it anyway.

This fight troubles me, not least because I have always had such admiration and affection for Holyfield. His two epic championship clashes with Bowe, both of which I covered from ringside, are among the greatest in heavyweight history, and his warrior spirit in them both was unforgettable. Yet it is precisely that quality which could lead to catastrophe on Saturday. The worst that can happen to Nigel Benn is that he loses to Collins, but the possible consequences for Holyfield go far beyond a mere debit entry on the career record sheet. Collins beats people, but Tyson damages them. Were Holyfield a more timid soul we could rely on him exercising his own good judgement about how much punishment was enough, but this is a man who would march through Hell rather than acknowledge defeat.

According to those who have seen him in training, he is gearing up for a short and violent confrontation. He has trained for bulk rather than speed, adding pounds which he hopes will give him strength to take on Tyson head-to-head. Men who predict quick fights against Tyson have an unfortunate tendency to be proved right, although not in the way they hoped. Everyone Tyson has faced since relaunching his career 14 months ago (McNeeley, Mathis, Bruno and Seldon) offered equally stirring promises, but only the embarrassingly inadequate McNeeley made any real effort to deliver.

Beau Williford, a Louisiana trainer with a Deep South accent you could spread on bread, likes to relate how his head-strong protege Lorenzo Boyd told him in the dressing-room before facing a young Tyson in 1986: "Beau, I'm going to go out there and back him up." Williford, ever the realist, replied: "OK, and while you're doing that I'll be backing the ambulance up."

Backing Tyson up is a quick way to commit suicide. The man is not so much a fighter as a force of nature, as unstoppable as a waterfall. The only way to beat him, as Buster Douglas demonstrated in 1989, is to stay at range behind a fast and hard jab, and then go on the offensive when Tyson's mental rather than physical strength begins to crumble. Maybe the Holyfield of 1991 could have done that, but thisshopworn version has no chance.