Saturday, August 4, 2007

Evander Holyfield: Like Don Quixote, But With A Storied C.V. And A Better Chance Of Defeating The Windmills

Bite his ear off, dislocate his shoulder, palpitate his heart, turn him in a 44-year-old man... nothing stops Holyfield, at least not for one more big fight. (from

I never experienced Evander Holyfield the way more veteran boxing fans did, in real-time, from his prime to his endless tragedies and resurrections when he was still one of, if not frequently the, best that the heavyweight division had to offer. Rather, I have experienced him as he was in the distant past via the wonders of old fight replays and as he has been for the last several years. The former is by far the preferable.

It did not take long for me to recognize from fight tapes why "The Real Deal" was so beloved. The cruiserweight version of Holyfield may have been the best, but no one ever pays much attention to the cruiserweights; the division, now limited to boxers below 200 lbs., has always been a temporary stop-over for the visibility of fighting the biggest of the big at heavyweight. The cruiserweight Holyfield had it all. He was faster than most everyone, and certainly more powerful. He put together flashy, destructive combinations then nimbly bounced around on the way to throwing more beautiful, devastating flurries. Holyfield eventually succumbed to the temptation of becoming a heavyweight, where his speed still mattered but his power mattered less. It is here where Holyfield became a living legend. Routinely smaller than his gigantic opposition, he fought with such pure guts that he became the people's champion -- the small guy who could step into the ring against a monster like Riddick Bowe and soak up such punishment that it was impossible not to root for him when he stormed back into the fight, as he did in the classic 11th round of their first scrap. By the time he got his long-sought match with Mike Tyson, he'd been through so many vicious wars that people feared he would very likely die should Iron Mike connect with one clean punch. But whereas Buster Douglas' victory over Tyson looked like a fluke in so many ways, Holyfield more than anyone punctured the invincibility of Tyson. In every other fight I've seen of Holyfield's from his glory years -- even those down times when he lost and was suffering from heart conditions and shoulder injuries -- what stood out more than anything is that just when it appeared he was about to lose, he would find a way to reverse it all. The fifth round rally against George Foreman, the knockdown of Bowe in their rubber match... there were so many amazing moments.

The latter way I've experienced Holyfield is as a shell of his former self. When his boxing license was pulled in New York after his listless loss with Larry Donald in 2004, I couldn't have agreed more. All the signs of a magnificent boxing career coming to an end were there: He'd been defeated by a never-was; he looked bad losing, not like he was always clawing toward victory as he was in his defeats of old; and he'd won a total of two fights in five years, losing five and drawing once. Someone needed to pull the plug for Evander, because he wasn't going to do it for himself.

Holyfield insisted, upon his most recent comeback via the states that were willing to license him, that he was merely injured, not shot, and that now he had recovered. He insisted, once again, that he would win the heavyweight title. Even when he clobbered Jeremy Bates in his first two rounds back in the ring in nearly two years, no one was convinced. Bates was an insurance salesman who moonlighted as a boxer, although one who was very good at getting hammered around by better fighters and delivering the occasional dangerous-looking punch. Some of Holyfield's more recent competition was slightly more accomplished, but not a threat to even a B-level heavyweight. The pleas continued. We beg you, Evander, stop fighting. If you think you're going to win a title, you're delusional, and you need to stop getting hit in the head.

Having only moments ago viewed his
defeat of Bates for the first time, I can vouch that he looked infinitely better than in his previous unflattering showings, but Bates, by virtue of walking directly into his punches, certainly helped on that account. With each successive win, though, boxing writers have warmed more and more to the idea that the now-44-year-old Holyfield was only injured after all, and that there are heavyweight champions Holyfield might stand a chance to beat in an era of heavyweights among history's worst.

And now he has just that heavyweight: Sultan Ibragimov. Ibragimov is probably the most vulnerable of the four men wearing a championship belt, and once a unification bout fell through with another vulnerable champion, Ruslan Chagaev, Sultan picked Holyfield as a replacement for Oct. 13. Unlike with Mexican warrior Erik Morales, a subject of a recent post, I am going to give Holyfield the benefit of the doubt. I am going to say I believe he will win this fight.

There is a type of athlete unique to boxing that simultaneously provokes thrills and anxiety. He takes unbelievable punishment and soldiers on still. He suffers career depths that are all but insurmountable and somehow surmounts them. He switches from victim to superhuman from round to round, fight to fight, year to year. You grow to love him because of this, but you fear for his life for the same reason. They are the Marco Antonio Barreras, the Aruto Gattis, and yes, the Evander Holyfields. I don't know for sure that Holyfield has more than one big fight in him, if that. But he's proven he has at least a little something left. May he summon it all for the conclusion to his latest, and hopefully last, resurrection.


bob said...

i still say if the state of Indiana didn't mess with Tyson he would have killed every other heavyweight during the last 17 years.

Tim -- said...

I beg to differ! His technique had gotten sloppy by the time of Buster Douglas. A hypothetical version of Tyson that would have kept doing all the things that Cus D'Amato taught him? THAT Tyson kills every other heavyweight during the last 17 years, although Lennox Lewis would've been a terrific strategic challenge....

Neil said...

Tim, your hypothetical begs the question: Does that Tyson handily dispose of Holyfield, sometime in the 1991-1993 period? And if so, in that universe, where does Holyfield's career go?

Also: I look forward to taking your money Oct. 13.

Tim -- said...

Holyfield gets defeated by a Tyson who still fights as he's taught by Cus by the time they meet in the early 90s, jail or no. Not easily, though, because Holyfield never made anything easy.

What does Holyfield do after? I have no idea.

And I wouldn't BET that Holyfield wins Oct. 13. It's just a feeling.

Neil said...

Ya, fair enough on the feeling. I've always been guilty of viewing Holyfield's success as a sole consequence of Tyson's fast erosion and not appreciating how the 90s played out. So ignore the haters! (me)