For Evander Holyfield life doesn't become interesting until his
work is on top of him. There may even be a theory of relativity
at play here: Holyfield feels an increasing density of meaning
as time runs short. Just look at his career. The closer he gets
to a bout, the more schemes he hatches, the more decisions he
makes. Day by day, as he prepares to enter the ring with a
Riddick Bowe or a Mike Tyson, the growing pressure compacts his
life, hardens his concentration, and things get done.
In recent years, during these times of heightened response he
has tended to propose to women. Friends mark his big fights by
his engagement announcements, which are almost as good advance
notice as the fight posters. The pattern is comical but perhaps
not so odd. Here we have the warrior's sudden need to organize
his life before battle, to establish a legacy or at least a
progeny before his 36 minutes of mortal combat.
The way Holyfield sees his behavior, though, it's not quite as
complicated as that. He says he's naturally purposeful during
these weeks and days before a fight, and the fact that he
proposes marriage at these critical junctures is only because
his attention has finally been engaged. "I make all my big
decisions when it comes down to a fight," he says. For
Holyfield, life is what happens when you're getting ready for 12
rounds with George Foreman.
Before his third fight with Bowe, in November 1995, Holyfield
arrived in Las Vegas with the usual news: He was about to be
married. He told friends that he had cried when he'd thought
about moving into his then new eight-bedroom, 5,200-square-foot
house in Atlanta alone and that he planned to marry a
24-year-old student at Clayton State College in Morrow, Ga.,
probably before the year was out.
June 29, 1997
That never happened. As surely as a fight inspires Holyfield to
propose matrimony, just as surely does its aftermath discourage
him from that course. In 1991, on the heels of a six-year
marriage, he decided he'd never wed again until he retired. By
his own count, between '92 and '95 he offered three women a
prefight ring--the same ring ("I spent too much money on it for
them to keep it," he says)--only to think better of his
proposals after the bout. Nobody gets into a ring more often
than Holyfield, except his various fiancees.
Then, before his bout with Tyson last November, when he had been
inserted into the lineup as so much cannon fodder for the
world's viewing enjoyment, the 34-year-old Holyfield showed up
in Las Vegas with the news that he had not only popped the
question this time but had also actually tied the knot for the
second time. He would have a stepmother for his six children
(Evander Jr., 13; Asheley, 11; and Ewin, 7, whom he had with his
former wife, Paulette; Emony, 7; Ebony, 3; and Eden, 1, who are
from relationships with three other women) and a companion for
himself in his new 54,000-square-foot mansion. (The original
5,200-square-foot place turned out to be a starter house.)
He had married a 34-year-old internist from Chicago, he
explained, with a rather apt specialty in pain management. He
had met the good doc, Janice Itson, at a revival meeting and had
wooed her, sort of, for two years over the phone until he
finally proposed on a Wednesday four weeks before the fight and
married her on the following Friday. They celebrated their
wedding in a Shoney's that night, honeymoon to come.
Married to the now pregnant Janice for eight months, Evander
isn't likely to make further matrimonial news before Saturday's
rematch with Tyson in Las Vegas. A three-time heavyweight
champion after his spectacular TKO upset of Tyson last fall,
Holyfield will be risking his World Boxing Association crown but
not his kingdom. He says he's happily married, his family and
business successfully consolidated under one (very big) roof,
and although he hasn't retired from the ring, as his friends and
former handlers urged him to do long ago, he has at least
retired the ring.
His is not only a happy story but an instructional one as well.
Like his career, his marriage to Janice is unconventional and
full of surprises. Actually, the marriage is so much like his
career that by studying it you can begin to understand just how
this overblown cruiserweight has become so suffused with
heavyweight achievement. Both are a happy combination of
inspiration, accident, hard work, spirituality and
Holyfield has no fear of failure or injury. Indeed, bravado is
his calling card. That he will have earned $160 million over his
career is often attributed to the luck of matchmaking, his
pairing in big-money bouts, with Foreman or Bowe or Buster
Douglas, that all seemed to have had more to do with his
opponents than with him. But, in truth, the price he
commands--$35 million for the Tyson rematch--is all about his
willingness to deliver the goods, or to receive them. He is so
reliably fearless that promoters can always guarantee spectacle.
That's why he was signed to fight Tyson last November. Though
widely considered to be washed up, Holyfield would be so game in
his certain defeat that Tyson's profile might be lifted.
This courage has been hard-won. Holyfield is a little amazed by
it, considering that he used to be paralyzed by fear, in a
constant fatigue, worn down by always being afraid. From age
eight, when he began boxing, until he was 17, he knew nothing
but the constant anxiety of the bullied. "I was scared at
everything I did, but especially boxing," he says. "I don't know
how I ever got started, but I was scared. I don't know why I
stayed. But I won a lot of fights, never got hurt, and as much
torment as I was living in, I just assumed I would quit before I
got to, say, 18. From watching the older kids box, I knew there
came a time when you could get hurt, your nose would be bloody,
your eye cut. I'd quit before that happened to me."
But at 17, before his checkout date, he suddenly found himself
looking at a left hook from nowhere. Holyfield, then a slim 147
pounds of quivering nerves, was knocked unconscious, more or
less, but he rose from the deck, charged his opponent, spit out
his mouthpiece and bit him in the neck. It was quite a little
The bout came back to him in a dream that night, after his head
had cleared. He had been knocked down, yes, but had gotten up
and fought, after a fashion. Amazingly, he remembered nothing
more from the experience than a numbness; it hadn't hurt at all.
"I was never afraid again," he says.
This was a practical epiphany, and it served him well against
Tyson last year, when Holyfield's refusal to knuckle under
frustrated Tyson in the early rounds and surely led to Tyson's
being knocked out. "All of a sudden, because I'm not
intimidated, he has to think," Holyfield explains. "When he has
to think, he has a little more pressure than he used to."
Courage is sometimes taken for granted in boxing, and fighters
who fail to exhibit it at important times--say, Frank Bruno, who
crossed himself over and over as he entered the ring to take his
beating from Tyson, or Bruce Seldon, who seemed to faint before
Tyson had a chance to turn out the lights for him--are decried
as isolated failures, even though they are behaving quite
sensibly in the face of danger. Holyfield's courage has long
been a given, whether he was standing in against Dwight Muhammad
Qawi during a 15-round victory in 1986 that was so grueling
Holyfield went to the hospital afterward, or against Bowe, who
extracted greatness from Holyfield in their three brutal fights.
Real courage, though, comes into play when Holyfield takes on
love time after time, pretty sure there will be a left hook
coming from nowhere. "I definitely take broken relationships
like a divorce," he says. "They hurt. When you choose a woman,
you hope it's for a lifetime, because every time you have to
give one up, it's like a tragedy. You have to understand, my
ultimate thing is to grow with a family. I couldn't see dating
somebody without the idea of marrying her. I hate to get hooked
on a woman and have to give her up."
But it seemed he was doomed to failure. He grew up fatherless,
in a house dominated by women, and later found that he liked his
marriage prospects in the same mold as his mother and four
sisters. "Feisty, aggressive," he says. "Women who'd tell me
exactly how they feel, right on the spot." But the growing
evidence was that independent and high-spirited women were the
wrong type for a man whose celebrity often came first. Still, it
was evidence he ignored. He kept getting off the deck, charging
forward, headed for despair every time.
His inclination for women like his mother is mostly why at first
he didn't consider Janice for a mate. Though obviously a woman
of achievement in her professional life--she's a doctor, after
all--she was exceedingly mild-mannered, almost subservient in
her dealings with Evander. For a long time after their meeting
at that revival he never thought of her as anything more than a
phone friend, someone with whom he could discuss the Bible.
Holyfield's surprise loss to Michael Moorer some weeks before
that revival meeting and the discovery three days after the
fight that he'd been boxing with a heart defect had sent him
into a spiritual sprawl. In those days he was more on the
lookout for a miracle than a bride. With a laying-on-of-hands
six weeks after the uncovering of the heart defect,
televangelist Benny Hinn had, in Holyfield's mind, cured him.
(Doctors at the Mayo Clinic later found that the defect had
never existed, thus clearing the way for Holyfield's comeback
against Ray Mercer in May 1995.) But when Hinn announced at the
Philadelphia meeting that Holyfield's future wife was in the
house, Holyfield was skeptical.
Several weeks later, at a Hinn revival in California, Holyfield
ran into Itson. Some of Hinn's assistants at this meeting tried
to fix them up, but Holyfield protested, saying he was looking
for a wife, not a doctor.
Still, he took her number. When he returned to Atlanta, he
dialed her up in Chicago, where she practiced in an HMO, and
they had a 10-hour talk. Holyfield, who is seldom overmatched in
conversation, was surprised that he was held to just 10 minutes
of it on his end. This was an unusual woman, he had to admit.
When it came to discussing the Bible, not many people had kept
up with Holyfield, and here she was reciting scripture to him.
He was impressed.
But he was not smitten. He asked Itson, who had never been
married, to visit him in Atlanta, and there was lots of
conversation but no sparks. Still, Holyfield, sensing that Itson
might be good for him, invited her to Jerusalem on a Hinn-led
tour in November 1994, figuring that if he and Itson couldn't be
inspired toward love in the Holy Land, there was no hope. There
wasn't. He was disappointed and told her they'd have to be just
For two years, as his comeback proceeded by fits and starts,
they remained just that, long-distance friends, talking the
nights away about their faith, their families, their hopes.
Except for the fact that he had no desire for her, she was the
perfect mate. Then, as his date with Tyson drew near, he had a
brainstorm. While he trained in Houston, she could come to
Atlanta and watch his children. It was ideal from his point of
view. He trusted her entirely with his kids. Yet, there being no
romantic interest, he could also trust himself.
Itson agreed--very reluctantly. Holyfield put an enormous guilt
trip on her, telling her this was his biggest fight, that she
was supposed to be his best friend. "He sounded like he was
going to cry," she says. She agreed to take a short leave from
work and come down and bail her "best friend" out. But she
regarded this as, she says, "arm-twisting" of the worst sort and
didn't intend to stay any longer than she had to. "I mean, I
came down with just two suitcases," she says.
On occasional visits back to Atlanta, Holyfield confirmed his
assessment that in a lot of ways Itson would be an ideal mate.
"She knew things I didn't know, like business," he says. "She
could give my kids things I couldn't, like education." It was
just too bad, he thought, "she wasn't my type." Janice remembers
him saying the strangest things, "like, we'd always be together,
even if I got married to somebody else. He kept saying I'd
always be a part of his life."
Everybody knew what was going on except Holyfield. The woman he
was dating at the time wondered why he kept talking about his
babysitter. His trainer, his friends all noticed he kept talking
about Itson, not Tyson. "They all teased him," Janice says,
"telling him he was in love."
Evidently, he was. On one trip back to Atlanta, he noticed she
was kind of pretty. How hadn't he seen that before? This
development plagued and confused him during his training in
Houston. Then one day, during an early morning workout,
Holyfield had a visitation of sorts. Apparently, from the
heavenly perspective, enough was enough. He called Itson on a
Wednesday evening, exactly one month before the fight, and said
that God had "dropped it to" him that he should marry her. The
thing was, they would have to be married that Friday because of
his busy schedule. Otherwise, he told her, in the kind of sweet
talk she found impossible to deflect, she "could forget it."
Itson believed there was a spiritual imperative at work here,
because she certainly didn't see any romance in Holyfield's
approach. Holyfield returned to Atlanta on Thursday night,
didn't say much about the wedding and then suddenly whisked
Itson off to a hospital emergency room at midnight for a blood
Blood test or not, Itson remained uncertain. She was too wary to
tell anybody but her sister and best friend about her impending
marriage. As Friday drew to a close and nothing had been said
about the wedding, she was thinking, Good thing. She and
Holyfield were in a church meeting together at four o'clock,
when he asked, "When does this marriage office close?"
It closed at 4:30. They rushed over, the ever suave Holyfield
produced a well-circulated five-carat ring, and they were
married. Holyfield was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, an outfit
that was perhaps better suited to the wedding meal at Shoney's
than to the ceremony itself. Well, the former Janice Itson
thought in accepting this strange turn of events, God does
foolish things just so he can confound the wise.
For Evander, the effect of this union was immediate. Janice, who
had never seen a boxing match, provided more winning inspiration
in a month than any seasoned fight man could have. The truth is,
in the weeks before his fight against Tyson, Holyfield thought
the 25-to-1 odds against his winning were actually low. It
wasn't his loss to Bowe, when he appeared strangely weak at the
end, that discouraged Holyfield. Neither was it his showing in a
win on May 10, 1996, over Bobby Czyz, a performance so
uninspired that Don King was finally persuaded to match Tyson
against Holyfield. It was worse than that. His sparring partners
were getting off on him, his timing was bad--he was a disaster
waiting to happen. He told Janice his misgivings--over the phone
at 5:30 in the morning a few weeks before the bout--and she
responded with Be Magnified, a hymn appropriate to a man so in
doubt of himself. She sang it from Atlanta. Then she demanded
that he get his songbook and sing along. He did, and he took
from the verse this lesson: His problems weren't so large after
The next day he bloodied a sparring partner, and the camp's
theme song was thereafter Be Magnified. "Everybody was singing
it," Janice says.
This was not something that, say, Angelo Dundee had ever thought
to do with his fighters. Nor did he ever dance with them in the
tense minutes before a big bout. But Janice, alone with her man
in their Las Vegas hotel room the night of the Tyson fight,
sensed his nervousness. Evander was indeed wondering just how
much work this bout was going to be, how much pain he would have
to absorb. He wondered if he'd be embarrassed. "Lord, you look
nervous," she told him. "Dance with me." He was startled. Did
she understand what he was about to do, the magnitude of the
event? She put the gospel song Mighty Man of War on the CD
player, and they danced. "Boy," says Janice, not sure which
courage was the greater, to marry or to fight, "is he an
There were issues surrounding that fight, of course, which
aren't showcased in marriage. Holyfield's instinct to deflate
bullies, for one. There were no parallels in his courtship to
help explain that. Really, nothing explained it, except perhaps
the notion that his handling of Tyson was payback for all those
days he'd felt persecuted.
"It's just his mental makeup," says Emanuel Steward, who trained
Holyfield for his November 1993 victory over Bowe but who parted
ways with him over money afterward. "He's got a thing with
bullies, and I saw it in his amateur days."
During the long training and selection process for the 1984 U.S.
Olympic boxing team, Holyfield and others were beset by Ricky
Womack, "a tough, tough guy," according to Steward. "Everybody
was scared of Womack, a dangerous man, one of the most vicious
guys ever. Ricky was a bully who walked the walk." Womack had
sized up Holyfield as his principal competition for the Olympic
slot in the 178-pound division and set about terrorizing him.
Once, just before a fight with Holyfield, Womack walked over to
Holyfield and stomped on his foot. Holyfield was somehow
galvanized by this, and he eventually beat Womack in the
box-offs and went to the Los Angeles Games, where he received
the bronze medal. "Same with Tyson," Steward says. "Evander's
just always had an obsession with exposing bullies. Bullies have
always excited him."
But how excited will Holyfield be this time, now that Tyson has
been exposed? Steward expects Holyfield's competitive instincts
to get him through a rematch.
Holyfield has the need, which is good for boxers but irritating
for friends, to be the best. "Take bowling," says promoter Dino
Duva, of his former client's principal training camp diversion.
"He thinks he's the greatest, but he's only O.K. Yet he plays
you until he beats you."
Watching Holyfield show up for training at the House of Pain, a
gym in a grim section of Houston, at 6 a.m. every day, is to
understand the singularity of his purpose. He has no manager and
a minimum number of handlers--only five or so. He has many more
former employees, like Steward, than longtime associates.
He has handed off supervision of his business interests to
Janice, who says she discovered a lot of slow leaks and
inefficiencies. She fired nearly everybody on Evander's
six-member staff before reopening his management company this
year. Though she says she misses medicine and intends to
practice again, she clearly has an intense interest in running
Warrior Properties/Holyfield Management Company.
She has also become the driving force behind the Holyfield
Foundation, an organization founded by Evander three years ago
to enhance the education of disadvantaged children, and has been
instrumental in bringing out a line of Holyfield sportswear.
Though Evander is involved--picking out the colors, the
labels--Janice conducts the day-to-day business.
That Evander would delegate his business to Janice is a serious
swerve for him. Money is a powerful force in his life, almost as
profound as his drive to be the best. Actually money has been a
source of inner conflict. Ever since he pumped gas at
DeKalb-Peachtree Airport for minimum wage when he was a
teenager, Holyfield has been obsessed with financial security on
the one hand and an urge to spend his money on the other. "It's
worse to have something and lose it," he says, "than to never
have it." Then again, it's kind of nice to build a $15 million
house with 17 bathrooms, three kitchens, a bowling alley, an
Olympic-sized swimming pool, two five-car garages and a 135-seat
Not even Holyfield knows what to make of himself. He says he's a
penny-pincher, and acquaintances who see him at, say, an Atlanta
Falcons game are never surprised to watch him make his way to
the press box at halftime for the free hot dogs. Then again, he
doesn't stint on luxury automobiles. While he might refuse the
services of a cutman to save money, he doesn't seem to mind the
$1.2 million a year he'll have to pay to keep his house going.
But this kind of confusion--a need for security mixed with
tremendous pride and awesome earning power--is being eased in
his new partnership with Janice. She is trying to redefine his
purpose in life. She's helping him articulate his financial
mission. His house, which was commissioned as a kind of trophy,
will be transformed into a communitywide motivational tool.
Evander was recently showing the property to a hometown reporter
and announced that he was going to open it for tours to poor
children in hopes of inspiring them. "I'm not showing the house
to another rich person," he said.
If this is Janice's influence, then miracles probably are at
work. Evander's fierceness and pride may have been reformed into
a new self-satisfaction, one that won't need to be reinforced
every six months in a ring. It's a pleasant idea, the warrior at
last at peace with himself and everyone around him, his powers
delegated, his wealth distributed. Happily married. Yet you
don't want to get carried away with it. There's little time
until the fight; he's emerging from his suspended animation,
ready to make decisions, hatch schemes, dance. He's just now, as
you read this, becoming Holyfield.