Holyfield's compulsion to compete: Former heavyweight champion eschews retirement for the thrill of the ring while victory at Olympia promises riches

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The Independent Online
EVANDER HOLYFIELD did not enjoy being heavyweight champion of the world. It made him rich but it did not make him happy. It ruined his marriage and separated him from his children. He found God but not happiness. 'Being champion means serving people,' he said.

And yet, just two days into the retirement Holyfield announced immediately after losing the undisputed title to Riddick Bowe in Las Vegas last November, he was planning a comeback. 'Don't ask me why, because I can't fully explain it,' he said. Few of them can.

Sugar Ray Leonard was a millionaire many times over with a clutch of career opportunities when he returned to the ring. 'No matter what else comes along, boxing is what I do best,' he said. 'It's the only way I know of fulfilling myself.'

Holyfield felt the same compulsion, which is why he is fighting Alex Stewart tonight at the Convention Center in Atlantic City. Not the money, not the fame, just that mysterious thrill. 'I'm excited again,' he said. 'And that's the main thing. I have my enthusiasm back. If you thought I was tough before, I'm even tougher now. the Lord is my strength.'

Not everything remains the same. Although Holyfield is held to a promotional contract by Main Events, the New York-based Duva Organisation, he has broken with their trainers, Lou Duva and George Benton. His guiding spirits now are Emanuel Steward, the driving force behind Detroit City's renowned Kronk gym, and the rap singer, Hammer, who is co-promoter.

As a result, Holyfield weighed in at 218lb, the heaviest he has been. 'Evander's not a concern,' Steward said. 'I'm more interested in the kind of shape he's in, and he's in great shape.' Steward insists that he can so improve a fighter's punching power that Holyfield will carry more threat than ever before. 'It's a matter of showing a man how to turn his weight into punches,' he said. 'You will see a little bit of that in this fight. You'll see a bit more the next time. But we have focused on improving Evander's movement, getting him to think more out there.'

This does not go down well with Benton, who was not best pleased to hear Steward say that Holyfield had lots to learn. 'If Emanuel can teach Evander more, God bless him,' Benton said. 'I hope he goes on to make dollars 30-40m more.'

Holyfield is motivated by the irritating knowledge that he was never accorded much credit as champion. Not for taking the titles from a disgracefully bloated and patently uninterested James 'Buster' Douglas, nor for boringly achieved decisions over ring relics, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. When he came close to being knocked out by a fringe contender, Bert Cooper, who came in as a substitute, people said that a real champion would never have found himself in such difficulties.

Holyfield's finest hour came against Bowe, who held distinct advantages in height and weight. Since he is small by modern heavyweight standards this was not an uncommon experience for Holyfield, but he did not feel inclined to go along with Benton's defensive strategy. There is too much of the warrior in him for that. Carrying the contest to a younger, stronger man, never flinching from the line of fire, Holyfield lost his titles but gained tremendous respect for an extraordinary display of will and power. 'If a guy is trying to knock my head off, I have to show he can't take me out that way,' Holyfield said. 'Then after I get his respect, I can do my thing. Once I had things under control, I should have boxed Bowe. But I got into an emotional thing. I had too much ego. I wanted to knock him out. Every shot I threw, I was trying to take him out of there. I didn't put together any combinations.'

Even as Holyfield felt the warmth he had been denied, he could sense people wanted him to bow out on a gallant note. 'It's hard to stay with anybody who thinks you don't have it any more,' he said. 'When you're being told to retire and enjoy your money, you're being told that you haven't got anything left. I'd lost my titles and it was my first defeat. That was hard to handle, but it wasn't good enough reason to quit.'

In deciding to come back, Holyfield upset his 65-year-old mother, Annie, who was getting used to the idea of the youngest of her eight children being an ex-fighter. 'When I told her that I was coming back, she had a sad look on her face,' he said. 'But she said: 'If this is what you want to do, I'll support you.'

What Holyfield, 31, really wants is to climb back into the ring with Bowe, a dubious ambition because the champion has grown so much in confidence that probably he would win by a knock-out. 'Evander has to stifle the warrior's instinct,' Steward said. 'He can't keep going head to head with these big, young guys. Against big, old guys, he set the tempo. You have to know when to attack, when to back off.'

Retirement also figured prominently in the mind of Lloyd Honeyghan, who took the undisputed welterweight championship from Donald Curry in Atlantic City seven years ago. 'Mickey Duff called to offer me a fight, but the money was so poor I decided there wasn't much point in going on,' the Commonwealth light- middleweight champion said. Four hours later Honeyghan took a call from Dan Duva offering him a fight against Vinny Pazienza on tonight's card. 'Some retirement,' he smiled.

(Photograph omitted)