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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Evander Holyfield

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

Evander Holyfield may yet become the poster boy for boxing reform. A couple more fights -- each decreasingly competitive, increasingly dangerous -- will surely turn his remaining brain tissue to jelly. It's a horrible prospect, but not one we haven't seen before. Boxers battle on beyond their prime, exchanging their name recognition (not to mention their health) for a cynical promise of glory. In Holyfield's case, he is cajoled into action (In Moscow! Against Sultan Ibragimov!) by the prospect of a heavyweight title he hasn't held for a decade.

He's 45 years old, 6-6 in bouts since 1999 and no more a factor in a ridiculous heavyweight division than you or I. Getting crushed in October for a lame version of the title ought to reveal his dream as delusion. But he refuses to quit, to enjoy his incredible wealth (only Mike Tyson and Oscar de la Hoya have banked better than Holyfield) or his legacy (four-time champion, a Hall of Famer for sure). Campaigning to unify the heavyweight division, he remains available to fill in (as he did in Moscow) on any title card at any time -- the diminution of his importance or box-office notwithstanding.

There is nothing to gain here, certainly not a title, not even in this impoverished division. And definitely not four of them. It's a fantasy, and it's likely to be deadly or at least life threatening. He is not quite defenseless in the ring, but he's getting there (after a particularly non-competitive bout in 2004 the New York Athletic Commission revoked his license). As trainer Freddie Roach said, "He's got money, but what's that worth if you can't count it."

Now I don't want to be the one guy who condones this pursuit. I've seen four boxers die in the ring and I'd like to keep the count right there. Even in the best of circumstances -- fighters well matched for the right reasons -- boxing is an enterprise that invites a certain reconsideration. Is this really necessary? In this day and age? But we're in the worst of circumstances here. And it would be foolish to hasten Holyfield on to a decline we can see, if he can't quite.

Still -- can't anyone else recognize the wonder of this crazy determination? It's something to behold, really. Holyfield's always been an overachiever -- a blown-up light-heavyweight fighting the likes of Tyson, BusterDouglas and Lennox Lewis for a living. His effort has always been magnificent and his refusal to acknowledge defeat, while annoying at times, has been instructive to the rest of us. He was washed up in 1996, if you remember, when he was put in the ring with Tyson. You do remember what happened there?

His resolve is crazy, of course. But the very fierceness of it -- if it only wasn't going to end in his self-destruction -- is so out of proportion to normal ambition that it's impossible not to admire. And so, on the basis of a determination that is just this shy (so far) of a death wish, we nominate Holyfield our Sportsman of the Year. Good luck, Holy.

Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.

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