Last we looked, Evander Holyfield was still insisting on his right
to fight for the undisputed heavyweight title. This is, as is
most of boxing when you think about it, against all logic. Forget
his age, which is beyond simply "advanced" at 41. Focus on this:
The once splendid warrior can no longer defeat anybody who's not
a heavyweight champion. He lost to James Toney in October,
capping an eight-fight streak over four years during which he won
just twice. Included were losses to Chris Byrd and John Ruiz,
never mind Lennox Lewis.
Holyfield has become, unbeknownst to himself, an opponent.
This is, almost always, how it ends. Unlike every other sport,
boxing does not celebrate transition, offer farewell tours or
otherwise pension off its greats. Remember when Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar did his victory lap with the Los Angeles Lakers and
every road trip was Christmas? Motorcycles, rocking chairs--teams
outdid each other in successive appreciation. Well, that doesn't
happen in boxing. Rather, instead of an artificial send-off,
there is the singular indignity of the fighter's trainer throwing
in a towel.
Holyfield suffered that exact discouragement in the Toney fight,
when his trainer, Don Turner, stepped up to stop it. But
Holyfield does not recognize that move as a call for retirement.
He remains determined to regain all the belts that he has held
intermittently during his 19-year career and establish once and
for all that heart matters beyond all else.
December 29, 2003
Because his heart matters so much (we have watched him, washed
up, bounce back again and again), we have been generous in that
grace period, the time during which futility is grimly suffered.
But it has now become impossible to imagine his providing any
more miracles--no more upsets of Mike Tyson for one example--and
the pursuit of old glories is pointless at best, tragic at worst.
A fighter could, presumably, quit at the top, husband his fortune
and fame, and enjoy a long and comfortable retirement. Few do,
because such a fighter would need to suddenly ignore a
competitive and combative urge that is disproportionately large,
even for a sportsman, and that's just not possible. Holyfield,
who has more fortune and fame than all but a few athletes in
modern history, may be addicted to ambition. That's how he got
where he is, and that's why he's going where he's going.
And so we are reluctant to count him out--though we know in good
conscience we must--because the example of his striving has been
so instructive over the years. It was Holyfield's foolish pride
(he's a blown-up cruiserweight, for God's sake) that got him his
fame and fortune in the first place. The lesson being, no pride
is entirely foolish. More of us could probably take that to
In the year to come there will be, no doubt, an announcement of
his next fight. The marquee value of his name assures the wincing
patience we'll permit for his assault on the undisputed
championship. Is it silly? Is it tragic? Oh, sure! It ought to be
illegal. But there is also something about watching a man conduct
his life without the smallest compromise, fighting to the very
end, not satisfied for a minute with motorcycles, rocking chairs,
a pension. There must be something there we could take to heart