Bryan Armen Graham: At 48, Holyfield gears up for one last run at heavyweight title - Sports Illustrated

Holyfield: 'I just believe that I can'

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Evander Holyfield's resume includes a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics and victories over all-time greats like Mike Tyson (twice), Riddick Bowe, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. He is the only four-time heavyweight champion in history. A little more than a decade ago, he was one of the 10 most famous athletes on the planet.

So what's he doing fighting at a West Virginia casino Saturday night against someone named Sherman "The Tank" Williams?

Holyfield, 48, wants to end his career as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, keeping a promise he made to himself after losing the WBA, WBC and IBF belts to Bowe in November 1992. Most boxing insiders dismiss his quest as quixotic at best, but it's hard to blame him for blocking out the Cassandra cries. Fact is, if Holyfield paid attention to critics, his career would have never gotten off the ground -- let alone reached the stratospheric heights he occupied throughout most of the 1990s.

Consider all the smart people Holyfield has proven wrong throughout his panoramic 27-year pro career. They were sure he couldn't pack enough bulk on his cruiserweight's frame to contend at heavyweight. (Oops.) They were positive he was too small to win a title in a weight class dominated by Tyson. (Whoops.) They feared for his life when he finally met Iron Mike in 1996 as an 18-to-1 underdog. (Uh-huh.)

There's no off switch for the indomitable self-belief that's propelled Holyfield, a born-again Christian who for years has embroidered Philippians 4:13 on his trunks. "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me," reads the scripture. And that's exactly what makes so many veteran observers uneasy about watching him soldier on: the unshakable faith many believe will pull Holyfield into a dark place. Remember: the New York State Athletic Commission banned him from boxing due to "diminishing skills." That was seven years ago. spoke with Holyfield this week about Saturday's fight, the current state of the fight game and what separates a "boxer" from a "performer." You've become a well-regarded figure in American life, even beyond sports circles. But there are people out there who see a 48-year-old guy fighting and say he's only doing it because he needs the money. What would you say to them?

Evander Holyfield: I would tell them it's kind of sad. I love what I'm doing and I'm good at it. I hope they would take time to watch the fight, and they'd say, "Here's a man who's 48 years old: look how good he is." How good he is, not how he was. They can judge for themselves.

I hope that some of [those people] are younger and they can take some inspiration from this -- that if you take care of yourself, whatever you choose to do, you can do it a little longer than the people who chose not to. Bernard Hopkins just turned 46. People celebrate his ability to fight at such an advanced age, while many writers and fans have lobbied for you to quit. Do you see it as a double standard?

Holyfield: It is, but I don't want no one to start looking at him and start questioning him because they're questioning me. They've been calling me old since I was 30. When I lost against Riddick Bowe and I told them I was coming back, they said, '"Man, I thought you were smarter! You made all this money and you still gonna fight? I thought you were one of the smart ones! You're fighting someone four years younger! He's too young! And big!" And I came back and beat him [to regain the title in November 1993].

When I fought Tyson I was old too. So when I beat Tyson, they kind of let up on that for a little while until the fight with John Ruiz, when [they said] I just got old overnight. I was fighting a guy who had such an awkward style. He fought everybody that way. Nobody ever looked good with John Ruiz because he didn't know what he was doing, but he was a rough, tough guy.

My goal is to be undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. I don't have anything against the Klitschkos or David Haye. I want to fight for the title, and I don't mean no disrespect to nobody. I just believe that I can. When you look at David Haye -- another cruiserweight champion who moved up to heavyweight and won a title -- do you see any similarities?

Holyfield: The only difference between me and David Haye is I fought everybody that wanted a fight. When they gave me George Foreman [who was 42 when they met in 1991], I didn't want to fight him but I made $22 million. I fought Larry Holmes [in 1992]. I did not want to fight him, but Ray Mercer and him fought and I was supposed to fight the winner, and Larry Holmes happened to win. So I made $17 million fighting him. That's when they started talking about me dodging people. I said I can't help it that those guys had good names and they draw the money.

That's the same thing I'm trying to get the Klitschkos with. Ain't too many people out there got a good name like mine. I just have to be the guy who can bring that big payday. I ain't got nothing against that. If you can beat me you can beat me. Of the three current recognized heavyweight champions -- Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali Klitschko and Haye -- which would be the best matchup for you?

Holyfield: It's hard for me to say. The whole thing is I'll have to think hard against any one of them. With David Haye, because he's agile, he'll run into something. He'll be hopping all day. The Klistchkos, they stand there, they're looking for their range. I got to figure out, when I get close to them, how can I hit them when they're holding me. Then from a distance, how I can get them if their arms are longer than mine. I'll have to do a lot of thinking to figure out how to get there.

David Haye will fight you. You can always win against a guy who is fighting you back. But the Klitschkos now, they throw their two punches and they hold. And if the referees don't do their job you can get messed up, because they'll put you back on the outside where they can swing their two shots and they can grab you and hold you. Hopefully we'll find a referee who understands the inside of the boxing and the outside. What do you think has changed the most about boxing, particularly the heavyweight division, over the course of your career?

Holyfield: It's obvious the little guys are fighting harder. The big guys choose who they want to fight and they think about history: "how many times I defended my title." They try to break a record: "how long I was there." But if you look at the pedigree, who they fought, ain't nobody gonna give them credit for it because they fought a lot of people with no experience. The game is once you become champion, how much money did you make by fighting the best. The best of the best.

When you fight someone you're supposed to beat, they're not going to pay you a lot of money. But when the best fight the best all the time, you're gonna make some money. The art of the game is this: people love to see fighters fight for real. They don't want to just see you fighting somebody you know you can beat. They want to see what happens when you get caught a couple times. Your first pro fight was the "Night of Gold" at Madison Square Garden in November 1984. It was right on the heels of the Olympics where the U.S. team -- maybe the best Olympic boxing team of all time -- won something like eight gold medals.

Holyfield: Nine gold, one silver, one bronze. Right. And I'm sure you think the bronze was controversial. (Holyfield settled for a bronze medal due to a disqualification.)

Holyfield: Well, yeah. Should have been a gold but it wasn't. Six of the guys from that team made their pro debuts on the same card at a sold-out Garden. Compare that with today: Most hardcore boxing fans couldn't even name three guys on the U.S. team that fought in Beijing in 2008.

Holyfield: That's the biggest problem with boxing in the United States. They do not promote it like they used to, when it used to be Howard Cosell and they showed it on Wide World of Sports. Everybody knew all the fighters. Everybody was looking forward to the year when the Olympics came on. They don't show Olympic boxing on TV in prime time. They haven't done that since 1988. In 1992, they showed one: Oscar De La Hoya. In 1996, they didn't show it. In 2000, they didn't show it. In 2004, they didn't show it. In 2008, they did not even mention boxing at all. You would think the United States didn't have a boxing team in 2008.

TV does exactly what it's supposed to do: tele-vision. I remember seeing Sugar Ray Leonard and Howard Davis in 1976, but I was focused on Leon Spinks and Michael Spinks, because they lived in the projects and when [the TV networks] did interviews with them, they represented my family. They weren't articulate. They worked hard and that's it. But they were the first set of two brothers on the Olympic team and both won gold medals.

No one in my neighborhood could tell me I couldn't make the Olympic team. First they said you ain't smart enough, but once I saw the Spinks brothers on TV, I thought if the two of them made it, I know I could make it. That's what made me want to make the Olympic team and I made it in '84.

Today they're not showing it to the young people. They're not giving the story of how these young people come up in these rural areas and they choose to do something right. People today are saying, "Why do I want to watch people who are just fighters?" They don't realize that no matter what your skill level is you can choose to do something honest, and that's how I chose boxing. Is there anyone you wanted to fight but never got the opportunity?

Holyfield: I never had goals of fighting somebody just to fight him. If you were champion, I knew I wanted you. If you weren't the champion, if I didn't have to fight you, I didn't want to fight you. I always wanted to fight the champ.

When Tyson lost against Buster Douglas and I remember they were telling me in Japan, asking me if I felt bad and I told them no. I said my goal was to be heavyweight champ of the world. "Don't you know you would have made $15 million with Tyson?" I said it's money I never had.

People get mixed up. There's a lot of boxers who aren't performers. Tyson was a performer. I was a performer. You find that everybody who gets out there and they're good performers, they make a lot of money. You got some people who just box. [Floyd] Mayweather won't get a piece of what he wants. He's gonna fight whatever way it is that he can to get the win. If he was a performer -- like Sugar Ray Leonard or Marvin Hagler -- he'd come to fight. You've just got some people who come to fight, some people they could care less, they just want to win. They'll hold you; if it makes the fight a little ugly they could care less.

I'm a performer, and that means that I care about more than just myself. I want to win, but I want to look good too. I want to know my audience got a good show and they're pleased and that's what performers do. Would you consider the Klitschkos performers? They're filling soccer stadiums in Europe.

Holyfield: They are boxers. They dont take no chances. If you dont take no chances, then you're not a performer. Performers always take chances. You go see a singer, they'll hit the high note. They'll hit that note, they're not afraid, they're gonna exaggerate the fact and make me enjoy it, make me say, "Wow, I wish I could do that!" It's anybody who makes you feel chills when it's all over and makes you say, "Man, if i could do that ..." You were in Tokyo for that Douglas-Tyson fight, weren't you?

Holyfield: I sure was. Ringside. What do you remember about that?

Holyfield: I remember everybody talking about how many seconds until [Douglas] was gonna get knocked out. And I remember telling them, "Ya'll don't understand, Buster Douglas can fight." They said, "Tyson's gonna hit him and that gonna be it." I said, "Look, let me tell you something, I've seen him knock people down with jabs. The guy can hit." And you know what, he kept Tyson at bay with that jab. Pow! Pow! He did well. When it's all over, how do you want to be remembered?

Holyfield: A man who fought everybody who wanted to fight, that gave his all every time, and you had a choice to like it or not.