Now we know why Evander Holyfield trained like a Spartan warrior. Certainly it wasn't to snuff out fainthearted James (Buster) Douglas, the flabby heavyweight champion. No, that required only about seven minutes of patient fury for Holyfield, a task akin to casually depositing a 246-pound Hefty trash bag curbside before setting off in pursuit of activities more suited to his superb level of conditioning.
Hardly had Douglas been counted out in the third round of last Thursday night's fight at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, when Holyfield was off dancing, first in his dressing room, then at a victory party at Caesars Palace and later at Botany's, a disco, until nearly 3 a.m. Afterward, it was back to his room at the Mirage, but not to bed. Sleep for the new heavyweight champion of the world was still a few thousand miles, three cities and a football game away. After lifting the world. Atlas wanted to hold it in his hands for a few days.
Confident that he would defeat Douglas, Holyfield had signed to defend the title against George Foreman, the ageless blimp, for $20 million, in spite of rumblings by the alphabet powers of boxing that he first defend his title against former champ Mike Tyson. Shortly before the Holyfield-Douglas fight, all three of boxing's major sanctioning bodies, the WBC, the WBA and the IBF, had said they would honor Tyson promoter Don King's insistence that the winner next fight Tyson, who was knocked out by Douglas on Feb. 11 in Tokyo and is scheduled to meet Alex Stewart on Dec. 8. But in the hours after Holyfield's victory, the IBF retreated from that position, and the WBA soon followed suit. Now only the WBC, a staunch King ally, was out of sync with the rest of the world.
"Who cares what they [King and the WBC] do?" said Dan Duva, Holy-field's promoter. "Let them steal it [the title]. We're going to fight Tyson after Foreman anyway, and we'll get it back then."
November 5, 1990
At his home in Houston, between trips to the refrigerator, the 260-pound Foreman watched the fight via a special ESPN hookup. Afterward, he was patched in to Holyfield's dressing room. "Nobody can stop me," said the 42-year-old former champion to the new champ. "The world says, We're behind you, George. Fm the poor man, you're a rich man now. Fm going to whup you, rich man."
"George, you've had your day," Holyfield said pleasantly. "Don't you think your day is done?"
"I'm going to Baskin-Robbins and eat every flavor," replied Foreman. "When you start pushing and shoving me, you're going to be pushing a whole franchise. My foot weighs more than you."
"It's not the size of the man," said Holyfield. "It's the size of the heart."
Holyfield versus Douglas was supposed to be a battle of hearts. Holyfield's was a given; no one was sure what size pump lay hidden in the 30-year-old Douglas's fat chest. He had quit before, surrendering in the 10th round of a 1987 IBF title bout with Tony Tucker, a fight Douglas could have won.
As it turned out, Douglas had spent the months since he knocked out Tyson trying to outdo Foreman by stuffing himself on his grandmother's pinto beans and chicken necks and everything else that came within reach. "What makes you gain weight?" Douglas was asked before the fight. "Second and third helpings," he replied. Steve Wynn, the Mirage owner who paid Douglas more than $19 million to defend his title against Holyfield (who would earn some $8 million), was concerned enough about Douglas's girth to offer the champion private use of a hotel sauna. Wynn's concern turned to dismay when he discovered that Douglas called room service from the sauna on one occasion and ordered $98 worth of food.
Holyfield, who weighed in at 208 pounds, trained as though he were going to fight a reincarnation of Joe Louis. Contributing to his preparation were three trainers, George Benton, Ronnie Shields and Dan Duva's father, Lou; Houston fitness specialist Tim Hallmark; body builder Lee Haney, a six-time Mr. Olympia; Haney's assistant, Chase Jordan; and Marya Kennett, the owner of a ballet school in Goshen, N.Y., who was hired to stretch and yank Holyfield's chiseled physique into supple shape. A small, tidy woman dressed in black, Kennett worked Holyfield's muscles painfully limber with her thumb. "All my girls run when they see me coming with my thumb," she told delighted audiences.
As a fitness test on Oct. 13 in Reno, where Holyfield trained before moving his camp to Las Vegas, the 28-year-old Holyfield was put through a grueling 12-round session against three sparring partners. Holyfield invited to the workout the members of the church that he attended while in Reno. A representative from CompuBox, the company that charts punches, was brought in and reported that Holyfield averaged 60 punches a round through 11 rounds. In the 12th, Holyfield threw 70, with the last, a hook, knocking out Phil Brown. As Brown fell, a dozen kids from the church leaped to their feet and sang the refrain "I'm not weary yet." Earlier Brown had said, "I'm in the best shape of my life. After the first day in there against him, I knew I had to start running and exercising—or else die." Another sparring partner, Eddie Richardson, had been sent home after twice being knocked out by Holyfield in earlier sessions.
Aided by a detailed CompuBox scouting report, Benton and Duva formulated their fight strategy. CompuBox figures showed that Douglas fought well only when his opponent was largely idle. Against Tucker, who threw 48 punches a round, 26 of them jabs, Douglas landed only 27% of his punches. However, against Tyson, who averaged only 23 punches—and just eight jabs—a round, Douglas connected 52% of the time. "[Douglas] only punches when nothing is coming at him," Benton told Holyfield. "He has a tremendous jab. And the way you beat a jabber is by jabbing. Evander, I want that left hand of yours growing out of his face."
The fight plan was divided into three four-round parts: four rounds of jabbing, followed by four rounds of all-out assault. "And Part 3?" someone asked Lou Duva. "There ain't gonna be no need for Part 3," said Duva with a growl.
For insurance, on the Sunday before the fight Lou Duva attended Mass at the Guardian Angel Cathedral just off the Las Vegas strip. When it was over, he put a $5 bill in the offering box and lit a votive candle. Just as he was leaving, he thought he spotted someone from the Douglas camp also lighting a candle. Duva waited for the man to leave. Then he went over and blew out the fellow's candle.
As it turned out, Part 2 of the strategy was unnecessary as well. For two rounds Holyfield swarmed all over Douglas. In those six minutes, Holyfield connected on a remarkable 66 of his 100 punches. Meanwhile, Douglas, jiggling in retreat, landed but 20 of 69, and none were thrown with ugly intentions.
Then it was over. The punch that had shattered Tyson in Tokyo was a right uppercut, and Holyfield had been drilled to turn that weapon into a trap. In the first two rounds, Douglas threw three upper-cuts, always in tight quarters, where an uppercut is most effective.
In Round 3, though, Douglas made a fatal mistake: He threw an uppercut from a distance. It was Buster's last stand. Feinting twice with his jab, Holyfield saw what he had been waiting for when Douglas dipped his right shoulder. Douglas might as well have held up a sign that read UPPERCUT ON THE WAY. Holyfield took a small hop to his right, a patented Benton move, planted his right foot and watched patiently as the uppercut sailed upward a good 18 inches from Holyfield's slightly turned head. The rest of Douglas followed the wayward punch, and Holyfield met him with a beautifully leveraged right cross to the jaw.
As Douglas crumbled, his left arm flew out and hooked Holyfield's neck; the two men's foreheads cracked together. Douglas landed hard on his left side. He showed no inclination to rise. Three times he wiped his face with his gloves, each time checking his mittens for signs of blood. He was still searching for wounds when referee Mills Lane counted him out.
Lane had picked up the count at two. By four he expected Douglas to start getting up, but by seven, Lane knew his night's work was only three ticks away from being complete. "I don't know if he could have got up, but he sure never tried," said Lane. "I looked into his eyes, and his eyes looked good to me."
Eddie Futch, at 79 one of the most respected trainers in the country, was appalled as he watched Douglas spread out on the Mirage mat. Futch's career goes back to the days of Louis, a close friend with whom he sparred as a welterweight to sharpen Louis's speed. "When he could catch me," Futch has said, "then Joe knew he was ready." Now Futch said, "I thought Buster Douglas was disgraceful tonight."
Choosing his words carefully, almost painfully, because he is a kind man, Futch went on: "He allowed himself to get into such poor condition, he had nothing. His judgment of distance, his timing—he had no snap. He landed just one good punch in three rounds. The things he did—rubbing his face and looking at his gloves to see if there was blood—I'm sure he was perfectly aware of what was going on. In my opinion, he could have got up in time. But he chose not to do so, so maybe he had his own reasons."
Equally damning was Wynn's suggestion that in the future all fights should be winner-take-all to ensure an honest effort. In Douglas, Wynn thought he had an American folk hero, to whom he had promised $31 million to fight Tyson in a rematch. What he got was the Pillsbury Doughboy, who had gotten lucky against a gunfighter who, for one night, forgot to load his weapons.
Financially, if not artistically, the fight fared well. Of the Mirage's 16,128 seats, priced to generate $10.5 million, only 500 were unoccupied. The final tally won't be in for at least a month, but the home pay-per-view orders—at an average of $35 per home—were heading toward one million in the days leading up to the fight. Closed-circuit telecasts will net about $1.5 million. Showtime, which paid $2.1 million for the delayed broadcast, will air the fight twice this week.
"I don't want to talk about any plusses now," says Wynn, who spent $40 million promoting the bout and who took Douglas's showing as a personal affront. "I was very disappointed by the effort of the champion. In the end, whether it is a light or a hotel, the most important thing is keeping a promise, and when it comes down to James Douglas's performance, I don't believe the fight kept the promise."
Still buoyed by his easy win, Holyfield returned to his hotel room from Botany's and watched television until morning. Without sleeping, he flew to Los Angeles at 2 p.m. on Friday in Wynn's personal jet. His first stop was Paramount studios for an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. A staffer named Velda Fennell took the champion in hand and led him to a room where a makeup artist dabbed at him with assorted powders for five minutes. En route back to the studio, Fennell asked him, "Do you need any hair?"
"I beg your pardon?" said a startled Holyfield.
"Oh, that's industry chat," she said. "I mean, Do you need anything done with your hair?"
Holyfield declined with a laugh. Nearby, Anthony Williams, a friend of Holy-field's from Atlanta, allowed that the champ's reaction probably had to do with his being self-conscious about an incipient bald spot at the top of his head.
After the taping, Holyfield was beset by autograph seekers. Deeply religious, he signed his name and wrote Philippians 4:13 ("I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me"). Then Holyfield danced out of the studio to the music being played on the set.
That evening, at Wynn's request, Holy-field attended the black-tie Carousel of Hope banquet and charity auction at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Later the champion would say, "There were so many people there, people who own things. The women all had these huge diamonds and things like that. People talk about how drug dealers wear flashy gold. Well, it isn't any different from this. Steve Wynn kept pointing people out to me, telling me what they do and how much they are worth. I don't really care what they are worth. I care what they do. If you tell me this man makes Grumman planes, well I know he's worth a lot. That's all I really need to know."
After leaving the Beverly Hilton, Holyfield and Williams—the latter a refreshing entourage of one—took the red-eye to Chicago, where they would catch a 6:50 a.m. flight to Birmingham. Holyfield had turned down a request to appear on Saturday Night Live so he could watch his brother, Michael Coley, a 6'1", 190-pound corner-back for Alabama A&M, play against Alabama State on Saturday afternoon.
At O'Hare Airport the boarding call for the sick and elderly and those traveling with small children was announced for United flight 564 to Birmingham. Holy-field limped onto the plane. He had banged his left knee getting into a limo at the Beverly Hilton, and it was starting to hurt. "I need the time," he told the smiling agent at the door.
The champion ate a cheese omelette with sliced ham for breakfast, after which a flight attendant brought him a Bible. Holyfield and Williams read from it, quizzing each other on verses. Across the aisle an older man traveling with his wife listened. Leaning over, he said to Holy-field, "With the Lord on your side, no wonder you're the champ."
Arriving at the Birmingham Airport at 8:35 a.m., Holyfield ordered a limo—"Everything but seats. We want beds," he said—but was told he would have to wait at least 45 minutes. Overhearing this, a young man named Michael Smith, an attendant for Avis, offered to drive the champion to a Denny's Restaurant for breakfast. Holyfield agreed, and he and Williams set off in a rental Buick. "What do you drive? A Mercedes?" Smith asked.
"A Buick," replied Holyfield.
Smith looked both pleased and surprised. "What kind?" he asked.
"Any kind I want," said Holyfield, who owns a Buick dealership in Atlanta.
Smith considered that for a moment. Then he asked, "How's it feel to be a star?"
"Ain't no stars except up in the sky," said Holyfield. "I ain't no star."
Smith slowed for a turn, and stole a glance at Holyfield. "Can I ask you something?" he said. "When you get in the ring, are you ever scared?"
"You scared to go to work?"
Smith made an observation: "You don't talk much, do you?"
"Only when I am mad," said Holy-field.
At Denny's, Holyfield came under siege. A waitress told the champion that he had a telephone call. Puzzled, Holyfield went to the phone. A man in Boston was calling to see if his brother, a Denny's employee, was as big a liar as he suspected. "He phoned to say you were there," said the caller, "and I was just checking."
Smith drove Holyfield and Williams back to the airport. He had one more question: "How do you feel when you knock a man down?"
"How do I feel?" said Holyfield. "I feel good."
The limousine was now ready, and Holyfield had the driver take him to the Riverchase Galleria mall. Holyfield wandered into a Footlocker store, where he was asked to sign a basketball backboard above the counter while perched atop a shaky aluminum ladder. Returning to earth, he sighed and signed more autographs. His new status was taking its toll.
At Macy's, Holyfield bought a pair of black slacks, a bronze-colored shirt and a sweater to replace his travel-worn suit. After changing, Holyfield took the limo to Legion Field, Birmingham's historic football arena. "Uh-oh," said the champion, "how do we get in? I don't have passes or tickets or anything."
"Tickets? You're the man" said Williams. "You don't need tickets."
Sure enough, all barricades were removed. Holyfield visited his brother in the locker room, where Alabama A&M coach George Pugh used him for impromptu inspiration. "He won because he had more desire," Pugh told his players. "He had a plan. More determination. His fight was no different than the fight we have here. I don't know what he will say, but I want him to speak to you."
"I won my fight even though I was the smaller man," Holyfield began. "It's not the size; it's the size of the heart. I'm a little guy, but I have a big heart and big determination. I work hard. I pray hard. I believe in Christ."
Holyfield had intended to put in a brief appearance at the game before flying to Houston, where he has an apartment. He wanted to be there in time to go to his church on Sunday morning. But standing on the sideline, he got caught up in the action. With a minute to play and A&M leading 20-17, he left (which means he didn't see Alabama State score with 27 seconds remaining to win 24-20). He had posed for pictures with the A&M cheerleaders, Miss Black U.S.A. and anyone else with a camera. Three cops blazed a path through the crowd to the limo. When a photographer asked Holyfield for his address so that he could mail the champ some pictures he had taken of him, an exhausted Holyfield said that he could not remember.
At the airport Holyfield spent 15 minutes trying to find a plane that would get him to Houston without taking him east first, through Atlanta. "Man, I don't want to go backward to go forward," he said. At every counter he was asked for his autograph. Now, his nearly illegible scrawl read, "Holyfield, Phil. 4:13." Williams followed slowly, asleep on his feet.
For the first time since entering the ring against Douglas almost 48 hours earlier, Holyfield looked irritated. Atlas had finally run out of steam. For the moment, the world was too heavy. With a resigned sigh, he found a plane that would take him to Houston via Nashville. Once on board, he fell asleep before it left the ground. Atlas rested.