OCTOBER 25, 1990. Mirage Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas. Evander Holyfield delivers a crisp blast to James Douglas’ chin and watches the world heavyweight champion crash to the mat. “Buster” had beaten Mike Tyson just eight months before, causing jaws the world over to hang in shock. But that incredible courage and determination was a one-time deal. Douglas, now rich beyond his wildest dreams, does not get up. Murmurs of the fallen king’s cowardice cloud Holyfield’s coronation. All that greets his reign is indifference, and a feeling that Tyson will soon be back to remove this latest imposter from the throne.
“It was exactly like that,” Holyfield said, just shy of 52 and only a few months into retirement. “They were saying that Tyson would bust me up. For years people were telling me that. They did not regard me as the best heavyweight in the world even though I was the world heavyweight champion. They said I was a substitute champ. It did make me mad. But then I realised I couldn’t get mad at people just because they had an opinion.”
In truth, opinions about the 1984 Olympic bronze medallist’s deficiencies had been heard long before he trounced Douglas. After emphatically cleaning up the cruiserweight division in the late-1980s, Holyfield ventured into a landscape decimated by Tyson. His struggle with the scraps that remained – the Michael Dokes’ and the Alex Stewarts’ – proved to virtually everyone he was too small and vulnerable to stand any chance with the fearsome young slugger.
“I was the No.1 contender at heavyweight for two years,” Holyfield recalls. “I worked my way up. I beat everybody at heavyweight to prove I deserved my shot and I did that over a period of time. People kept telling me I was just a blown-up cruiserweight, that I wasn’t big enough, and that Tyson was too strong. But by the time I challenged for the title I had been at heavyweight for as long as I’d been at cruiserweight.”
Tyson’s comeback was gathering pace until he invited beauty queen Desiree Washington to his hotel room in July 1991. Six months later he was imprisoned after being convicted of her rape. Holyfield carried on regardless, and three successful defences surrounded his rival’s demise. And with each victory, Evander’s reputation eroded further. George Foreman – still three years away from completing his fairytale – was considered something of a middle-aged gimmick until he took Holyfield the distance. Late substitute Bert Cooper’s reputation soared after he floored the champ en-route to going down in seven. And four years after being obliterated in 12 minutes by Tyson, the ancient Larry Holmes managed to last 12 rounds with Holyfield.
With Tyson out of the equation, and Holyfield out of favour, the public turned to a new face in the hope of finding a saviour. Enter Riddick Bowe, a gifted and charismatic boxer-puncher who had impressed during the reconstruction of the division. In November 1992, he was matched with the champion. It birthed the most savage heavyweight rivalry since Ali-Frazier.
Beaten after a hellacious opening slugfest that earned him more respect than any of his previous victories, Evander ignored calls to retire, and stunned the world when he outscored “Big Daddy” in the return. In 1995, with both now ex-champions, they engaged in a decider. After flooring Bowe in round six, he was halted in the eighth. Afterwards, he again rejected pleas to quit. Holyfield’s bloody-mindedness led him straight to the enemy.
“One of the things I have never done is quit,” Holyfield explains . “You ain’t going to be your best all the time, but you don’t give up because if you do, it will plague you. You have to suck up the bad times and go through them. Treat them like a booger. Suck it up. And that third fight with Riddick Bowe was like a booger. I had got sick, I had got hepatitis by eating some sea food and people told me not to go in the ring. I was like, ‘Shoot, I haven’t worked this hard all this time to give up my $9 million.’ I went in there and it was just like they said. My energy was up, and then it would drop. I was beating the living daylights out of him, and then all of a sudden my energy was gone, it was amazing. I was disappointed. I had been stopped for the first time and I knew I looked bad. But quit? I don’t think so. Then I looked bad against Bobby Czyz, so I got the opportunity to fight Tyson. And shoot. I beat him.”
November 9, 1996. MGM Grand, Las Vegas. “Iron Mike” has regained two portions of the world heavyweight title, and thrashed four opponents since his release from prison. Holyfield – widely thought to be shot – is given no chance whatsoever.
“That was a critical time,” Holyfield recalls with an audible smile. “I was always hurt in the 80s, and in the 90s my body was changing. When I hit 34, shoot, everything clicked into place. That was when I was at my best. Everything had been building up for that moment that I was in the ring and Mike Tyson was staring back at me. I knew from the start I was going to win.”
Commander Vander stood tall. Tyson burrowed inside. It’s an even fight until Holyfield dumps Tyson on his pants in round six. Holyfield carefully unfolds the upset. Thirty seven seconds into round 11, it’s all over. He is champion again.
“Out of all the nights, that was the one when I had no criticism. Every other victory came with criticism. But that fight silenced the critics. It’s strange. But I was the good guy and Tyson was the bad guy and they all thought there was no way the good guy could win. The good guy was finished. The good guy should retire before he gets hurt by the bad guy. He was supposed to beat me up. But the good guy whooped the bad guy.”
The critics, who had hounded Holyfield for years, gleefully swallowed their prophecies of doom in the aftermath.
“There was a tiny amount of people who thought I could win,” he says. “Hardly anyone, really. Then there was a lot of people, some very powerful people, who could not see how I could win, and told everybody I could not win. Then I win. So what happens? I’m suddenly surrounded by all these people who said I was going to lose jumping on my side.”
Undoubtedly, it was the peak of Holyfield’s career. And the money men swooped. Cash poured into his bank account like water into a bath. But cracks would soon appear. Mammoth fights followed, like the infamous Tyson ‘bite’ rematch, the two fights against Lewis, yet by the turn of the century, it was clear he was in decline. He refused to retire. And it was then that rumours surrounding his depleting fortune began, as child maintenance bills stacked up from a wasteland of broken relationships.
“I have made a lot of mistakes,” Holyfield admits. “I was the first person in our family to make a lot of money and I guess it was hard to deal with. When my mother passed in 1996 that was when the problems started. She was my buffer. If anyone wanted to talk about my money, what I earned, what I paid, they had to go through my mother. So after she passed I didn’t have that buffer. At that point I had a contract that said I would make $20 million a fight and you think there’s no way you could ever run out of money when you’re earning that much. I hired a lot of family members to help me and that didn’t go well. They didn’t have the experience and they made mistakes. They didn’t tell me when they made mistakes. I didn’t really have control of the situation. I didn’t blame anybody, I just took it on the chin, just like I always have. When you trust people, and they misplace that trust, it’s hard. I have never been the kind of person to bring in someone to watch over those I trust. But that’s what people do – I didn’t use money in a wise way. Now I realise when you suddenly get money, you have more people trying to get more money than you’ve actually got.”
Is it his biggest regret?
“It’s not a regret because I learnt from it. My kids won’t have to go through that if they do what I ask them to do. My mother says she was poor for me to be rich, but once you get rich, and you come from a background that ain’t used to being rich, you need someone to tell you how to stay rich. Don’t tell me how to get rich, tell me how to stay rich.”
Holyfield fought on until 2011 – claiming at the time he was chasing glory – in an effort to recuperate his fortunes. Only this year, after accepting a fight with current leader Wladimir Klitschko was neither feasible nor welcome, he officially announced his retirement. There is no bitterness in Evander, and no longing to have his time again. The fighter who built a legendary career out of defying the odds, seems, at long last, to have found peace in a life defined by war.
“I just want to be remembered for the things that I hadn’t got,” he says when asked about his legacy. “I was told I was going to be nothing as a kid. When you’re in a poor area you come across a lot of negative people who tell you won’t be nothing. Ain’t nobody wanted to be my friend because I wasn’t promising. My mom was the only person who said I could be something. When I was eight years old I was told I could be like Muhammad Ali if I didn’t quit. Within 20 years I became heavyweight champion of the world. It took faith. And it’s because I didn’t quit. It’s because I didn’t listen to anyone telling me I couldn’t do it.”