EVANDER HOLYFIELD is universally recognised as the finest cruiserweight in the division’s history, and one of the most decorated heavyweights to ever grace the sport, “The Real Deal” is in the record books as one of the best big men of all time.
Today sees the 26th anniversary of Holyfield’s first ascension to the heavyweight throne. His easy, third-round KO win over James “Buster” Douglas – who had, of course, shocked the world by smashing Mike Tyson to take the undisputed titles in February of 1990 – was not a great fight in any way. Still, the bout is memorable as it saw Evander realise his lifelong goal.
Here, Holyfield – who walked away with a 44-10-2 (29) record (six of these defeats coming at a time when the 1984 Olympian had long since passed his peak) – looks back on the win over Douglas and some of his other legendary fights.
It’s 26 years since you first became heavyweight champion, with your October 1990 win over James “Buster” Douglas. Does it seem that long ago to you?
Evander Holyfield: “Well, time has gone quick. It still feels the same. It was a whole lot different in 1990, [me] winning the heavyweight title. All these people had all these expectations of me now that I had reached my goal. They said I wasn’t the real champion, that I hadn’t beaten the real champion. They said Tyson was still the champ. They [the critics] were not too happy. I didn’t anticipate that much expectation – people wanted to judge me by how I talked, how I walked, how I dressed. At that time, I didn’t know what to expect or how it would feel being the world heavyweight champion. Everyone wants to beat you at something. One time, they asked me to throw out the baseball at a game and they criticised me for my throw. I said, ‘hey, this is not what I do!’ It was kind of harsh how some people judged me. I never spoke all that well, but I said, ‘boxing is not a speaking contest!’ They didn’t know my family background. I spoke the way my mom spoke; I took after her and pronounced things the same way as her. I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until I came back to beat Riddick Bowe that I got the respect.”
Can you recall who you sparred for Douglas?
E.H: “I had three different guys. The only guy I can remember, because it’s  years ago, is a guy called Kevin, I can’t remember his surname. He was a big guy, 6ft 6ins and around 250lbs and he had the technical skills [to imitate Douglas]. You bring the best guy in first and I sparred with Kevin every day.”
Can you remember what you thought when you first saw Douglas and the shape he was in? Were you disappointed that Douglas was a flabby 246-pounds?
E.H: “Not at all. My whole thing was to not be at all detrimental about the shape he was in. I was just ready to fight my best fight. With me, it was only about myself and me fighting my best. I was never going to underestimate what he might do on the night. My whole career, I never cared about anyone else, I cared about myself and being at my best. When people said after the fight (won of course by Holyfield, a 3rd-round KO) that Douglas could have gotten up, that he laid down, I wasn’t concerned. It was him that got hit and not me! I never got hit, he did, and he never got up, so I was happy (laughs). You know, I didn’t tell him [Douglas] to lay down (laughs). Some guys I hit [in my career] I hit them with really hurtful shots and they got up and I couldn’t believe they did get back up. But this is boxing – some guys have the desire to get up, others don’t.”
You said you didn’t get your respect and that the so-called experts were harsh on you until some years after you beat Douglas. Did that bother you badly?
E.H: “Of course I cared what the experts said. They are the experts and I wanted to play by the rules. Their job is to write and of course you want to be in the books as the best. I was always a guy who wanted to do it right, to win and be fair. My mom always said to me, it’s not just doing it, it’s doing it right. With the size [of me] and them saying I couldn’t do it because I was too small for a heavyweight, I looked at it like, with size, it’s a matter of believing how big you have to be to become heavyweight champion. People cannot see determination or perseverance. But when I won the title back by beating Riddick Bowe (in 1993, avenging a 1992 loss to Bowe), it was different. When I beat Tyson (in 1996), it was real different. I had the respect now.”
After you beat Douglas, who did you want to fight next, in your first defence?
E.H: “I actually wanted to fight Tyson next. My manager at the time, Shelly Finkel, he told me that I didn’t want to fight Tyson next. I asked him, ‘how do you know!’ I told him not to tell me how I didn’t want Tyson next. But he said it was his job to make me money and that people would pay me $20 million to fight George Foreman. I said I wanted $30 million to fight Tyson. He explained how a lot of people didn’t think I could beat Foreman and that If I beat Tyson first, they would no longer offer to pay me $20 million to fight Foreman – that if I beat Tyson, people would think I’d kill George! So it was all about building the [Tyson] fight. So he [Finkel] was doing the right thing business-wise. Money is great of course, but I fought for 12 years as an amateur and I didn’t earn a penny. That made me the fighter I am.”
The wins over Tyson and Bowe were superb and you have so many great wins. Can you possibly name just one fight as you at your very best?
E.H: “I feel my greatest night in the ring was my fight against Dwight Muhammad Qawi, at cruiserweight (in 1986, Holyfield winning his first world title, the WBA cruiser belt). That was 15-rounds and at the time I had not gone past eight-rounds. And, geez, that fight was like a marathon. To be tired in the fourth-round, when there are still 11 rounds to go (laughs), it was a stressful time. And that guy [Qawi] was so cagey. He had a great defence and he threw lots of punches as well. That made it a really difficult fight.”
Yet in the rematch, in late 1987, you KO’d Qawi in the fourth-round.
E.H: “In the rematch, I wasn’t intimidated. I had been there before. I had gone 15-rounds and I knew I could do it if I had to do it. He was the same fighter and some fighters are not able to make adjustments. I was able to make adjustments. Also I was stronger, older and a lot more mature. That all made a lot of difference.”
Q: Is it true you lost over 12lbs of weight through fluid loss in that first great fight with Qawi? And did you even consider retirement because that fight was so gruelling?
E.H: “I lost 15lbs. It did cross my mind [to quit]. But what stopped me from quitting was, I said to myself, I’d rather die than quit. He [Qawi] told me, ‘you’ll never make it.’ I wanted to make it to the end [of the 15-rounds] and prove him wrong. Later, I reconsidered what I’d said. I didn’t want to die! But my manager at the time, Kevin Sanders, he told me I’d never be in as tough a fight ever again. And he was right, I was never in that tough a fight again.”