Evander Holyfield…Boxing great who ‘lost everything’ smiling again

Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield

Last time you read about Evander Holyfield, chances are he seemed in a bad way. Maybe he was still dreaming of one last shot.

Maybe he was selling his 109-room mansion, all those hard-earned belts and his bloodied gloves and robes.

Well, I’m pleased to relay that ‘The Real Deal’ has some new deals in the offing, which might pay dividends. And he seems happy again.

Holyfield, boxing’s only four-time world heavyweight champion, formally announced his retirement from the ring last year, at the age of 51. The $230m he earned over a 26-year career was gone, as were three wives.

But 11 kids remained, by six different women. They have cost him his fortune, but they also point the way to a brighter future.

One son, Elijah, is one of the best high school running backs in American football, about to make the transition to college football. Another, Evan, hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and make his name in the ring. Although, for the old man, hope is not enough.

At Evan’s gym in Atlanta, Holyfield Sr tells it like his mom told it, all those years ago. “My momma said ‘no excuses – you determine your own destiny, by what you choose to believe and what you choose to say.'”

So when Evan suggests that “maybe” he wants to go to the Olympics, “just like Dad did”, 31 years ago, Holyfield Sr gets preaching.

“People who suggest things might happen don’t become champions,” he says, as Evan twists with embarrassment. “People who become champions are the ones who say ‘This is what I’m gonna do.'” Asked how many times he’s had this lecture, Evan says: “A lot.”

Holyfield Sr grew up poor in the Atlanta suburb of Sugar Hill but his momma, Annie, showered him with wisdom. “She had sixth-grade education but that was good enough for me,” says Holyfield, who was the youngest of nine children.

“I didn’t have a father but I had the right momma. She could have quit at any time – but she was the real ‘Real Deal’. She used to say ‘Son, don’t be a coward – a coward dies a thousand times but a man dies once.’

“I grew up in a black neighbourhood and my brothers always told me ‘White boys can’t fight’. Then, one day, I had to fight a white kid called Cecil Collins. When I hit him, he hit me back. And when they announced Cecil as the winner, I cried, ran home to my momma and told her I quit.

“She told me ‘I ain’t raised a quitter, you got to go back.’ I did go back – and Cecil beat me again. I cried and threatened to quit – but my momma sent me back again.

“And eventually I beat him. I passed the test. When I went home, my momma told me one of life’s most important lessons – ‘Quit because things don’t go your way and you won’t reach your goal. So don’t quit.’ And I didn’t.”

Nobody ever accused Holyfield of being a quitter again, at least not between the ropes. As an amateur, he volunteered to spar with a 17-year-old Mike Tyson, when everyone else was demanding money for the privilege.

After winning a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics, he cleaned up the cruiserweight division. Then came the big boys in the heavyweights and the bigger money – Buster Douglas, Riddick Bowe and Tyson unleashed.

Last week was the 25th anniversary of Holyfield knocking out Douglas and winning the heavyweight world title for a first time. The date went largely unmarked, because Holyfield is that kind of fighter, his greatness destined always to be underplayed. Douglas got fat, Tyson went mad, that’s the way the story often goes.

This lack of recognition welded to his momma’s early lessons and a strong religious faith made Holyfield the pathologically stubborn man he is. Even now, he thinks he’ll get it all back and make it all better – the mansion, the belts, the pockmarked dignity.

“Losing everything was hard,” says Holyfield. “The only way I got through it was to think ‘God allowed me to have that house, he’ll allow me to have another one. The Bible says ‘the second half of your life is going to be better than the first half’. I made $230m in the first half, so I’ve still got reasons to live.”

Over at Elijah’s football practice, Holyfield Sr casts a critical eye over another one of those reasons. There’s plenty of money in football – which, incidentally, was Holyfield Sr’s first love – but the old man prefers a job done with passion and yearning, with riches as a bonus.

“It’s not about me being happy, it’s about him being happy,” says Holyfield. “It’s about getting my kids to understand that if this is what you love, if this is your passion, you will be successful.

“I’m proud of how Elijah carries himself, proud of his attitude. He comes from a good athletic background and people think he’s good – and it’s hard to be humble when you’re the best. I’m the ‘Old Deal’. He’s the ‘Real Deal’. In fact, you might say he’s the ‘New Deal’.”

It might not be about Holyfield being happy. But there’s far too much sadness in boxing, so it’s nice to know he is.

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