Finding a Reason to Fight: Evander Holyfield’s Biggest Battle

by Damon Ealy (aka PghWindmill)

In the spring of 1994, Evander Holyfield’s personal physician gave him very bad news. Worse news, even, than had come down from the Caesars Palace loudspeakers just days earlier, announcing the majority-decision loss of his WBA and IBF titles to Michael Moorer: The best body in the heavyweight division had a defective heart, with weakened arteries and literally with a hole in it. Holyfield, warrior, would have to retire. And he did so without complaint. He’d earned about $100 million as a professional, $10 million of it from the Moorer fight. He had reasons to walk away. He said at the time, “I wasn’t afraid at all, but it gave me a reason to get out of boxing. And I said, ‘My head is right. Ain’t nothing wrong with me. I got money. So what’s the big deal?”
These were reasons that rational people could go along with. But a couple of months later, large-livin’ evangelist

Benny Hinn filled the hole in Holy’s heart. That’s the ticket.

Benny Hinn filled the hole in Holy’s heart. That’s the ticket.

Benny Hinn touched Holyfield in Philadelphia. A “warm feeling” went through Holyfield’s chest. (“Holyfield ‘Healed’ for Return,” The New York Times, June 14, 2004) His Georgia doctors noted some improvement. He started considering a return. Then, in the fall, Mayo Clinic doctors let Holyfield know: there’d never even been any heart defect.

He had reasons to come back. He was still in his typical great shape. Belts were there for the taking. Most importantly, there were fights to be made with the biggest boxing names of the generation, major-money fights with Tyson and Lewis. A rubber match with Riddick Bowe. At the time, the estimation that he could double his career earnings might have seemed a conservative one to Holyfield. (Turns out he’s made about $200 million in his career, including $35 million for the second Tyson fight.)

“I wasn’t afraid at all, but it gave me a reason to get out of boxing. And I said, ‘My head is right. Ain’t nothing wrong with me. I got money. So what’s the big deal?”

 In 2008, Holyfield’s December 20 opponent, Nikolay Valuev, is the big deal. Literally. Seven feet tall and fighting at about 320 pounds, he puts Holyfield at about a 10-inch, hundred-pound deficit. In his last two fights, Holyfield looked pretty sharp against an admittedly on-his-way-out Lou Savarese, tired and slow in a WBO title bout against Sultan Ibragimov. Is there still a “Real Deal” to show up in Switzerland?

If we can safely assume one thing about Holyfield, it’s that he’s not afraid of Nikolay Valuev. That “warrior” tag that sticks to Holyfield? It’s a deserved one—and, we’re constantly reminded leading up to this fight, one that the fighter earned a long time ago. His is a pro career that started in 1984, the year heavyweight Raphael Butler, last seen on the Toney-Oquendo Versus undercard, was born. (And I think most of us would take Holyfield in that fight, if we’re just talking hypotheticals here.) Besides, Holyfield (and the world) knows a little more about Valuev than did Clifford “the Black Rhino” Etienne, who in 2005 went to Germany to fight a pre-title Valuev and somewhat famously tried to find a way of avoiding all confrontation with “the Russian Giant.”

     “[A]t the scales he realized what he would be up against in a little more than 24 hours. [A 112-pound] disadvantage and a whole foot in height was not Etienne’s idea of a fair fight. That evening he arrived in the hotel bar and began drinking. ‘Nobody told me I was taking on Bigfoot,’ he cried. Returning to his room, he packed his bags, rang his manager and told him he was on the first plane home. Only Henry Akinwande ’s ability to block the door prevented him from doing so. ‘It won’t be so bad,’ the British heavyweight assured him, and indeed it might have been worse, for Valuev took him out in three rounds.” (“The Big Interview: Nikolay Valuev,” The Sunday Times, January 15, 2006)

Holyfield and his people, naturally, say his condition is as good as ever. At 46 years old, is it good enough to outwork Valuev over 12 rounds? It’s happened to Valuev—in his lone loss, to 6’2” left-hander Ruslan Chagaev, in 2007. Valuev finished that 12-rounder tired. And he’s never faced anyone with the pro experience of Holyfield. (And yeah, John Ruiz’s 43-8-1, one NC, equals 53 bouts in number, but it’s just not quite the 53 of Holyfield’s 42-9-2.)

We know Holyfield won’t come in needing a calming influence. He won’t drop his left hand to welcome a running-start lead right from Valuev, as Monte Barrett did in 2006. And the old man probably won’t even blow his knee out trying to throw a punch (Jameel McCline) or try to square up and slug it out with Valuev à la Gerald Nobles from South Philly. Nobles was psychotic, ballsy, proud or some combination enough to try that in the early rounds of his ’04 meeting with Valuev—and was even up on the scorecards going into the fourth, when he was DQ’ed for low blows, which probably felt to Nobles more or less like straight punches. 

Monte Barrett fought valiantly before going out in the 11th.

Monte Barrett fought valiantly before going out in the 11th.

“I wasn’t afraid at all, but it gave me a reason to get out of boxing. And I said, ‘My head is right. Ain’t nothing wrong with me. I got money. So what’s the big deal?”

 

In 2007, Holyfield nearly lost his home to foreclosure. In 2008, he fell badly behind on child support payments and faced jail. He’s flirted with bankruptcy. The $600,000 to $750,000 that he makes for his next fight will barely cover his per annum for child support (estimated at a half a million). Best-case scenario: For dealing with Nikolay Valuev in Switzerland for anywhere up to 36 minutes, Holyfield is getting roughly 2% of what he got in 1997 in Las Vegas for dealing with Mike Tyson for two-plus rounds—and sacrificing a bit of his outer ear.

No way is Holyfield scared. And the consensus is that his head is still more or less right, that there isn’t anything wrong with him—for now. But in ’08, Holyfield don’t got money. That’s the bigger deal today, bigger even than Valuev. Holyfield is saying the right things—that the financial issues are behind him now, that he’d fight for free because he’s on a mission to unify the belts by the end of next year. But if that were really the case, the former WBC, WBA and IBF champion, the 46-year-old, former 35-million-dollar man wouldn’t be fighting Nikolay Valuev in Switzerland. Not for this kind of purse.
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