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Legend’s fall: The end of Holyfield

Evander Holyfield
James Toney vs Evander Holyfield - The night the whole world knew the journey was over. By Thomas Hauser

EVANDER HOLYFIELD was boxing’s consummate warrior and as pure a fighter as there ever was in the sport. He embodied the best of the reasons why fans are drawn to boxing. But all good things must come to an end. For Evander, the end of his days as an elite fighter came on October 4, 2003, when he fought James Toney in Las Vegas.

The public perception of Holyield crystallized on July 12, 1986, when he outwilled Dwight Muhammad Qawi over fifteen brutal rounds to claim the WBA cruiserweight crown. After that fight – bruised, battered, and badly dehydrated – Evander was taken to the hospital for overnight observation.

“I lay in that bed,” Holyfield later remembered. “And even though I won, I said out loud, ‘Oh, Lord; I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.’ But to be a true success, you have to endure hardship. Being a warrior isn’t just being destructive. A warrior is a man who takes it to the end and doesn’t quit.”

Four years later, Holyfield knocked out James “Buster” Douglas to become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. More historic triumphs followed highlighted by a 1993 victory over Riddick Bowe and two conquests of Mike Tyson.

“I’m really not interested in being the baddest man on the planet,” Evander said after knocking out Tyson in the eleventh round of their first encounter. “My only interest is being the best man in the ring.”

During the course of his career, Holyfield defeated Tyson, Bowe, Douglas, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Michael Moorer, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, John Ruiz, Hasim Rahman, and Frans Botha. That’s eleven men who wore a major heavyweight championship belt at one time or another.

“I fight people who fight back,” Evander said. “My whole career, I’ve fought people when they were at their best. You can’t prove anything to me by doing it to someone else. You got to do it to me. And I don’t look to beat somebody because he makes mistakes. I want to be better.”

But as he readied to fight James Toney, Holyfield’s career was on the decline. In the previous five years, he’d won twice in seven bouts. He was fifteen days shy of his forty-first birthday and hadn’t scored a knockout since 1997.

“This will be Holyfield’s last fight,” Toney pledged. “I’m retiring him. He’s past his prime. He’s had his time. He can grab his Bible, bring his choir, do whatever; it don’t matter. He’s in trouble. It’s going to be a bloody night. I’m gonna give this old southern boy an ass-whupping.”

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

But talking doesn’t win fights. And the Holyfield camp was confident. Although Toney was six years younger than Evander, Team Holyfield believed that their man was the better fighter, punched harder and, given his reach advantage, would be able to control Toney with his jab. Moreover, Holyfield had been hit lots of times by people who punched harder than Toney. James had never been hit by anyone who punched as hard as Evander.

In the days leading up to the fight, Holyfield said of Toney’s trash-talking, “Everyone has the freedom to say they want. Some can back it up and some can’t. The question is, can he take what I give him? Toney says he’s going to stand in front of me and fight me. I look forward to that. That’s great. That means I won’t miss. If he doesn’t move, I’m gonna wind up moving him. He may stand there, but it won’t be for long.”

“People say they don’t want to see me hurt,” Evander added, acknowledging the talk about his decline. “I don’t want to see me hurt either. But they’ve tried to bury me two or three times before and found out that I wasn’t dead. For the last ten years, people been popping the same question at me: ‘When you gonna quit?’ They started asking after I fought Riddick Bowe the first time. So I went out and beat Bowe in the rematch, and they still said I should retire. They’ve been singing the same song ever since. And when they’re not singing, they’ve been threatening that I’m gonna get carried out on my back. But I’m still standing. I’m still here. Ain’t nothing changed. I’ve set a goal to retire as undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.”

Still, looking realistically at the situation, Holyfield was going into the fight against Toney as a gatekeeper for the heavyweight division. If he won, he would reemerge as a contender. If he lost, James would become the contender and Evander would be relegated to “opponent” status.

At 10:30 AM on the day of the fight, Evander sat in his palatial three-bedroom suite at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Attorney Jim Thomas, conditioning coach Tim Hallmark, and several friends from Atlanta were with him. Wearing blue workout shorts and a grey T-shirt, he eyed a plate of steak and eggs and a stack of pancakes that conjured up the image of a tall office building.

There was no sign of nerves. Everyone was relaxed and confident. One reason for the confidence was that, subsequent to Evander’s second fight against Lennox Lewis, he’d been plagued by an ailing left shoulder that left him unable to throw effective lefthand leads or hook off his jab. But after being outpointed by Chris Byrd in December 2002, he’d undergone surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. Now the shoulder was fully healed.

Holyfield and Toney had both looked good at their final pre-fight physicals. Evander weighed in at 219 pounds and seemed to be in the best shape possible for a fighter on the verge of turning forty-one. Toney had come in a bit heavy at 217.

“It don’t matter what Toney weighs,” Holyfield said when the subject arose during breakfast. “If I start paying attention to what he weighs, it means I’m not paying enough attention to what I’m gonna do.”

Evander stood up from the table and demonstrated how, when Toney turned his head and shoulders on the inside to avoid punches, he exposed his ribs. “You break something if you hit a man there,” he noted.

At noon, Holyfield went outside for a short walk. A half-hour later, he returned and sat down on the sofa to watch the playoff game between the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins. Then the conversation turned to an overview of his career.

“I’ve been boxing for thirty-two years,” Evander reminisced. “I’ve had my ups and I’ve had my downs, but it’s been good. The fight that meant the most to me was the first fight against Tyson. I knew I could beat him, but the public didn’t. The fight I learned the most from was my first fight against Qawi. Before that fight, I wasn’t sure if I belonged in the ring with him.”

Then came a familiar refrain: “When I become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world again is when I close the book on being a fighter. I might not get it when I want it, but I’ll get it. The only way I won’t reach my goal of becoming heavyweight champion of the world again is if I quit. And I won’t quit.”

Holyfield stayed in his hotel suite for the rest of the afternoon. Then, after the Atlanta Braves (his hometown team) secured game four of their playoff series against the Chicago Cubs, he traveled down a service elevator and through back passageways with trainer Don Turner and several other team members to the Mandalay Bay Events Center. At 5:25 PM, he arrived in a room with plush ivory carpeting, a sofa, club chairs, and a large-screen television. It looked like the dressing room for a concert performer.

Evander sat on the sofa, directly opposite the television. The first pay-per-view fight of the evening – Cruz Carbajal versus Gerardo Espinoza – was underway. Holyfield watched impassively. The atmosphere in the room was like a handful of friends sitting at home in someone’s living room watching a fight. Except soon, one of the friends would get up off the sofa to fight in the main event. Long stretches of time passed without anyone saying a word. Evander watched silently. Everyone else followed his lead. Espinoza got beaten up. The fight ended with a left hook to the body that left him writhing in pain on the canvas.

Holyfield stood up from the sofa, walked over to a six-foot mirror, and threw a handful of punches in exaggerated slow-motion. At 5:50 PM, Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Marc Ratner entered the room with Jay Nady, who would be refereeing the main event. Nady gave Evander his preliminary instructions and closed with, “Good luck. It’s an honour to be in the ring with you.”

After Nady and Ratner left, Evander went into the adjacent bathroom to provide a urine sample for a commission inspector. Then he returned, turned off the sound on the television, and inserted a tape of gospel music into a cassette player.

“All praise to the King… Praise to Jesus… Nothing compares to His love.”

Holyfield put on high-top fight shoes and began lacing them up, singing along with the music. “My Jesus, my Saviour… Glory to His name.”

A look of rapture came over Evander’s face and his body began to sway. The mundane work of lacing shoes took on the aura of a devotional act. On the television screen, Joel Casamayor versus Diego Corrales began. “Lift up your hearts to Jesus… Glory unto His name.”

At 6:05 PM, Don Turner began taping Evander’s hands. Still, no one spoke. Holyfield’s eyes were closed with his head swaying to the music as he sang. “We lift up our hands and bless Your Holy Name… Blessed be the name of The Lord.”

Turner worked efficiently. When the taping was done, Tim Hallmark stood opposite Evander and led him through a series of stretching exercises. Joel Casamayor versus Diego Corrales unfolded silently on the screen. “Blessed be the name of the Lord… Because He is worthy to be praised and adored… Hallelujah.”

The stretching exercises ended. Holyfield pulled his protective cup up over his gym shorts. Blood was gushing from gashes on Diego Corrales’s cheek and inside his mouth. After the sixth round, ring doctor Margaret Goodman stopped the fight.

“Good stoppage,” Don Turner said.

It was almost time.

Everyone in the room joined hands in prayer. “We lift up our hands and bless Your Holy Name. Blessed be the name of The Lord for He is worthy to be praised.”

Then came the carnage.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Holyfield-Toney was a sad fight for people who cared about Evander. “If a fight can be made,” Evander once said, “I can win it.” But as Larry Holmes has observed, “Sometimes the mind makes a date that the body can’t keep.” Holyfield-Toney was a reality check for Evander and the check bounced.

Holyfield came out hard in round one and looked pretty good at the start. But Toney was difficult to hit flush. Finally, in round three, Evander whacked James with his best right hand. And nothing happened. Then, in round four, Toney hit Holyfield back solidly and Evander wobbled.

Thereafter, Toney beat Holyfield up. By round seven, he was hitting Evander at will with right hands. In the past, Holyfield had been on the opposite side of the same equation. Once, he had been the young fighter facing aging lions like George Foreman and Larry Holmes. And of course, there were times when Evander had taken beatings and come back to prevail.

But not this time.

By round eight, Holyfield’s face was swollen and blood was streaming from his mouth. In round nine, a barrage of blows punctuated by a brutal body shot put him on the canvas. Most likely, Nady would have allowed the fight to continue. After all; Evander was boxing’s consummate warrior. But as Holyfield rose, Don Turner stepped into the ring and halted the punishment. For only the second time in his ring career, Evander had been knocked out.

Whatever else Turner might have done in boxing, that was his finest moment.

All three judges had Toney comfortably ahead at the time of the stoppage.

In his dressing room after the fight, Evander glanced at his image in the mirror, opened a bottle of water, and took several gulps. Then he slumped in a chair. “I got beat up,” he said to no one in particular. “The body shots got me. Toney got off before me. He outhustled me. He beat me to position. I found myself thinking, not reacting. I was a step behind all night.”

Holyfield bowed his head, not in prayer but in disappointment. For the moment, the emotional pain seemed worse than the physical. “I don’t have no excuses,” he said. “My shoulder didn’t bother me. I fought like I had a hurt shoulder, but the left arm was fine. The shoulder wasn’t hurt at all. But I’m not ready to retire. I’ll go home, rest a while, and look for a signal from the Lord.”

There was a post-fight press conference marked by a standing ovation from the media in Evander’s honour. Then he journeyed through a maze of back corridors and up to his suite on a service elevator. “I feel good,” he told the friends who gathered around him in the living room. “I got beat; that’s all. I got my head up, so don’t you all be sad.”

That would have been a good time for Holyfield to end his career as an active fighter. But he didn’t. He fought ten more times over the next eight years, beating Jeremy Bates, Fres Oquendo, Vinny Maddalone, Lou Savarese, Frans Botha, and Brian Nielsen, while losing to Larry Donald, Sultan Ibragimov, and Nikolay Valuev. He also fought Sherman Williams and was trailng on points when the bout was stopped and ruled “no contest” after Evander was cut by an accidental head butt.

But those fights were fought without Don Turner in his corner. The two men had worked together for sixteen fights against the likes of Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, and Lennox Lewis. Since 1994, Turner had readied Evander for battle and watched his back once the fighting began. Now his services were terminated.

“Toney was slick and hard to hit,” Holyfield explained after Turner was fired. “So I was playing possum to lure him in. But Don didn’t understand that and didn’t have faith in me as a fighter so he stopped the fight. I can’t have a trainer who doesn’t believe in me.”

Turner, not surprisingly, had a different take on things. “Evander only hears what he wants to hear,” the trainer responded. “And if you don’t tell him what he wants to hear, you’re gone. I’m a big fan of reality. And the reality is that Evander isn’t what he used to be. I told him so and got fired. But I’d rather lose my job than go to a funeral.”

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