A lavish party was thrown last night in Beverly Hills, California for legendary boxing champion Evander Holyfield who incredibly has just turned 50 years old. Holyfield has been my number one sporting hero for as long as I can remember. The noble warrior who in my humble opinion can just as easily be called 'The Greatest' alongside Ali for reasons I'll explain.
As an athlete growing up and competing myself, he was the only sportsman of my era who I ever saw and believed was truly better than me. As a somewhat arrogant young man I viewed all other sportsmen, in whatever particular field they were in, as equals. I truly felt that if I had worked hard developing those particular skills, soccer, tennis, whatever, I could probably be competitive with most of them.
Holyfield though was beyond competitive. His mental strength and will to win was supernatural. This led him to win legitimate world heavyweight titles four times (Ali only managed three!) That's not to mention his undisputed and undefeated cruiserweight reign. He started out as a fighter little more than a middleweight, training alongside Mike Tyson in an early Olympic team. He later recruited Lee Haney, the greatest bodybuilder of his time and coincidentally also from Evander's hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, to build him up to be a bigger heavyweight for a rematch fight with Riddick Bowe. Holyfield was the rematch king, beating Riddick Bowe and Michael Moorer and Tyson in rematches.
His first fight with Bowe in 1991 is ranked as one of the best fights ever and the tenth round in particular is ranked as THE best in heavyweight history. Holyfield lost but showed the heart of a lion while doing so. No one gave him a chance in the rematch with Bowe, a fact I exploited greatly with the bookies (seven to one against thank you very much!) This result really should not have been much of a surprise as only a couple of years earlier Evander had beaten Mike Tyson's first conqueror Buster Douglas by knockout in a fight he was once again not meant to win. These great wins were outshone forever though when he captured his third belt with a shocking upset knockout of Mike Tyson in November 1996 - still the greatest sporting event I have ever personally witnessed. When first announced the fight was derided by many in the sport as the ultimate mismatch. Some of his many fans sent Holyfield 'Get Well Soon' cards before the fight had happened! Others begged him not to participate in what was surely to be a vicious and one sided beating. Millions of dollars were bet on Holyfield being stopped in the first round. Evander simply smiled and just continued to tell everyone that they should stop worrying about him being hurt and further more he would win the fight. To have such belief in yourself when all around you doubt is equalled only by Ali's confidence before facing the awesome George Foreman.
We all know what followed was a spectacular knockout of Iron Mike. This performance from a man of whom all of the 'experts' said didn't have true heavyweight punching power. Holyfield's return was always in doubt as originally he had been forced to retire after a loss to Michael Moorer after which he was taken to hospital and diagnosed with a hole in the heart. A man of great religious faith, Evander attended many church sermons in the months that followed and prayed to be healed. Miraculously, when tested again at one of the finest cardiac hospitals in the world the Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, the hole in his heart had 'disappeared'. Although the truth is there was probably a misdiagnosis in the first place. To Evander it was a sign from God for him to return.
After winning his third title from Tyson, then losing to Lennox Lewis he won a world title belt for an unprecedented fourth time against John Ruiz. Further and particularly unjust he was robbed of a fifth world title when he fought giant Champion Nikolai Valuev in a battle where everyone could see the superior skilled Holyfield had outworked and out punched the man-monster who went on to be dethroned legitimately by David Haye. By then in his late forties Evander still didn't want to retire. It was understandable as he still looked great - no George Foreman blubber for Holyfield in his middle age years as a fighter, he remains in the peak of visual physical condition.
So like Ali who beat Sonny Liston and George Foreman against the odds Holy was a born winner. His destruction of Tyson though, this time with bookmakers odds of 25/1 against him, for me eclipses Ali regaining the title for a third time from Leon Spinks whom, though much younger than Ali, could never be truly called a great. Holyfield's skills were sublime and deceptive. Perhaps because he did everything so well it was hard to tell how great he was. Mike Tyson later confided in me personally during my brief stint in training him at the tail end of his career that when he fought Holyfield for the first time he couldn't believe what a first class counter-puncher he was. Counter punching is the art of out punching a man by striking a faster blow just as he tries to hit you.
These then are the many reasons I love Evander as much as Ali - and why I don't want to see him end up in similar physical condition. People can blame Ali's condition on Parkinson's all they wish but I for one will never be convinced his debilitation isn't something to do with taking those final few hundred punches when he just couldn't do anymore the thing he truly loved to do. Last night everyone was expecting Holyfield to announce his retirement but instead he expressed a desire to fight the Klitschko Brothers, both current Heavyweight division rulers who are not only much younger but are at least six inches taller than Holy and outweigh him by more than 20 kilos!
To my mind, there has never been a sportsman with less to prove than Holyfield. To continue fighting now is madness and I only hope the medical authorities ruling over boxing finally force the old warrior to hang up his gloves