Evander Holyfield is a three-time world heavyweight champion who consistently beat heavier opponents through determination and faith in himself. But for many, he will always be the man who got his ear bitten off by Mike Tyson . That event actually was a perfect illustration of the differences between Holyfield's calm, professional style and that of some other boxers: thuggish, menacing, angry, and violent beyond reason. In contrast Holyfield, a devout Christian, has always attributed his success in the ring to his faith in God, and while he has not always led an entirely exemplary personal life, he has steadfastly maintained an image of decency and self-control in the ring. He has also displayed considerable courage in the face of opponents who were often bigger and seemingly tougher than he.
"You Finish It Out"
Evander Holyfield was born in Atmore, Alabama, on October 19, 1962, the youngest in a family of eight headed by his mother Annie. When Evander was 5, Annie moved the family to Atlanta, Georgia, where Evander grew up. Nicknamed "Chubby" as a child, Evander was remembered as a rather quiet and unaggressive boy, who tended to avoid fights. But at the age of 8 he started taking boxing lessons at the nearby Warren Memorial Boys Club from Carter Morgan, the Center's boxing coach. According to Holyfield's brother, Bernard, "What initially lured Evander into the ring was the attention he received from Carter Morgan. In a way, that crusty, freckle-faced coach was the father figure Chubby had always wanted." Before long he was participating in pee wee boxing tournaments in Atlanta, where he was undefeated for two years.
But while he enjoyed boxing, Holyfield's first love was football. He did quite well as a linebacker for the Warren Boys Club team, and dreamed of making the football team in high school. He did make the team as a sophomore at Fulton High School, but the results were frustrating for Holyfield. At five-foot-four inches and 115 pounds, Holyfield was just too small, and game after game he found himself warming the bench. It got so bad that he decided to quit before the end of the season, and told his mother of his decision. She ended the conversation with a simple declaration: "You finish it out."
Indeed, to this day, Holyfield attributes much of his later success to his mother's determination to foster this kind of character in her children. She instilled in him a strong work ethic, a refusal to quit in the face of adversity, and a deep Christian faith that has often carried him through difficult times. Even now, when he signs autographs, he often includes a citation for a Biblical verse. He also gives generously to churches in Atlanta and elsewhere.
The Rise of a Boxer
With football proving a disappointment, despite his best efforts, Holyfield returned to boxing, which had the advantage of different weight divisions. He began training seriously with Coach Morgan, who pushed the youth to test his limits, and transcend them. At times, the coach seemed to be driving Holyfield too hard, but Morgan expressed such faith in his potential that Holyfield struggled to be worthy of that faith. Then came a major setback. When Holyfield was 16, Morgan died following a long illness. Again he contemplated quitting, feeling that without Morgan pushing him there was no reason to go on. "Then," recalled his brother Bernard, in Holyfield: The Humble Warrior, co-written with Evander, "with a jolt of clarity, Evander realized that their last few training sessions together must have been harder on the ailing coach than on himself. With the clear judgement of hindsight, Evander recognized that the old man's relentless goading had not been based on loss of patience but rather on loss of time." Suddenly it seemed that quitting would be an insult to Morgan's memory. Holyfield returned to the gym to train with Morgan's son, Ted.
Holyfield's next big inspiration occurred when the Olympic Trials came to Atlanta in 1980. Watching the competition closely, he began to see himself as a gold medal contender. It was a question of training and experience, and he knew how and where to get both. After graduating from high school, he worked two jobs, as a lifeguard and as a plane fueler. But mostly he trained, getting up at four in the morning to jog before work and training at the gym after work. He almost never missed a workout, and rested only on Sundays.
|1962||Born October 19 in Atmore, Alabama.|
|1967||Family moves to Atlanta, Georgia|
|1970||Begins boxing lessons at Warren Memorial Boys Club, trains with Carter Morgan|
|1978||Death of Carter Morgan, trainer and mentor|
|1980||Begins amateur boxing|
|1984||Birth of Evander's first son, Evander Jr., with fiancée Paulette Bowen|
|1984||Participates on Olympic Boxing Team, gets to finals|
|1984||Begins professional boxing, as a cruiserweight|
|1985||Marries Paulette Bowen, May 17|
|1988||Becomes undisputed World Cruiserweight Champion|
|1989||Begins boxing as heavyweight, undertakes "Project Omega" to bulk up|
|1990||Becomes undisputed World Heavyweight Champion|
|1990||Paulette files for divorce|
|1992||Loses heavyweight title to Riddick Bowe, October|
|1993||Regains WBA and IBF heavyweight title from Bowe, November 6|
|1994||Loses heavyweight title, to Michael Moorer|
|1996||Mother, Annie, dies after car accident|
|1996||Marries Dr. Janice Itson, October 3|
|1996||Defeats Mike Tyson, November 9|
|1997||In third round of rematch, Mike Tyson bites off part of Holyfield's ear|
|1997||November, retakes IBF heavyweight title, from Michael Moorer|
|1998||Settles paternity suit filed by Tamie Dewan Evans, who claims Holyfield is the father of her daughter; court records sealed|
|1999||March, controversial "draw" in fight with Lennox Lewis lets him keep title|
|1999||April, Janice files for divorce|
|1999||November, loses title to Lennox Lewis in rematch|
|2000||Divorce from Janice finalized, July 10|
|2000||Wins WBA title from John Ruiz|
A Plethora of Titles
One of the more confusing aspects of boxing is the presence of three major organizations, each of which has a champion in 16 different weight classes (including the junior weight classes). These organizations are the World Boxing Association (WBA), the World Boxing Council (WBC), and the International Boxing Federation (IBF), and at any one time there may be a different champion in each organization. At other times, one man may hold the title in two of these, or the title might be vacant. To be undisputed champion in a weight class means that a fighter holds the title in all three organizations.
He also fought in the Golden Gloves amateur competitions. Between 1980 and 1984 he racked up an impressive record of 160 wins against 14 losses, with 75 knockout wins. He also won the national Golden Gloves amateur title in 1982 and the National Sports Festival boxing title in 1983. And in 1984, he qualified for the Olympic boxing team. Unfortunately, the 1984 Olympics proved somewhat disappointing. After knocking out three opponents, he was disqualified in the championship match after allegedly hitting an opponent a second after the referee had ordered the fighters to separate. This call remains highly controversial, and to this day, Holyfield says, people still ask him, "What
happened at the Olympics?" Holyfield did get a bronze medal, but after the controversial decision, it seemed more like a badge of shame.
After the Olympics, Holyfield decided to turn pro, as a cruiserweight (maximum 190 pounds). Shortly after turning pro, Holyfield married Paulette Bowen, who had already borne their first child, Evander Jr., and was pregnant with their second. On July 20, 1986, he became the first in his Olympic class to win a championship, after defeating Dwight Muhammad Qawi after a grueling fifteen rounds. This gave him the cruiserweight titles for the World Boxing Federation and the International Boxing Federation, but it would be another two years before he became undisputed champ by defeating Carlos DeLeon, the World Boxing Council's title holder. The win was sweet, but Holyfield soon realized that he'd have to enter the heavyweight division if he wanted to break into the big money and earn the fame of a "real" champ.
With the support of his trainers, a father-son team named Lou and Dan Duva, he announced that he would be fighting as a heavyweight, starting in 1989. Sportswriters were almost unanimous in declaring their disapproval. Holyfield, who usually weighed less than 215 pounds, would be going up against fighters weighing over 230 pounds. Holyfield was determined to overcome the doubters, and he underwent a new training regime dubbed "Project Omega." For over a year, he ran, swam, lifted weights, and did aerobic exercises under a staff of trainers that included an orthopedic surgeon, an Olympic triathlete, and even a ballet instructor. With their help, he improved his strength, endurance, speed, and agility. The all-around training helped him reach the finals in television's Superstars, in which he competed against athletes from a multitude of different sports.
But the real test came in the ring, where Holyfield passed with flying colors. He beat his first six opponents as a heavyweight, opponents who were heavier and, they thought, stronger than he was. He began moving steadily up the ranks and, after he defeated Michael Dukes in March of 1989, he began to be seen as a potential challenger to heavyweight champ "Iron Mike" Tyson. In the midst of negotiations to have the two meet, the incredible happened. In a major upset, Tyson lost his title to James "Buster" Douglas. So Douglas agreed to fight Holyfield.
World Heavyweight Champion
On October 25, 1990, champion and challenger met. Douglas had almost 40 pounds on Holyfield, but it was 40 pounds of flab. And Holyfield was in top shape. Not that he was without problems. A car dealership he had been involved with failed a little before the fight, embarrassing him, and closer to home, his wife Paulette filed for divorce just weeks before the big match. Holyfield's devoutness didn't always translate into strict fidelity to his marriage vows, and when women began throwing themselves at the rising boxing star, he sometimes gave in. Despite all this, Holyfield was primed and ready the night of the fight. In the third round, he felled Douglas with a right-hand punch, and Douglas made little effort to get back up. Holyfield became the undisputed world heavyweight champion. As Douglas Lyons summed it up in Sports Illustrated, "It took Evander Holyfield just seven minutes to win boxing's biggest crown." Many critics declared that Douglas had simply lacked heart. Holyfield was more generous in his autobiography: "Who can really judge the heart, or the lack thereof, of another man except God? It appeared to me that Douglas lacked a sense of consciousness."
In Holyfield, the world clearly had a different kind of champion. "A drop of golden sun to Mike Tyson's dark side of the moon, Holyfield is a fervently religious, gospel-singing man who seems to take no visceral pleasure in dismantling his opponents and never stoops to dissing them beforehand," wrote William Plummer in People Weekly, summing up the champ's appeal. But he still had to prove himself. The cry for a Tyson-Holyfield match went up almost immediately, but Holyfield settled on an easier fight with a 42-year-old George Foreman . Actually, Foreman had won 24 straight fights to get there, and this match proved considerably harder than expected. After twelve grueling rounds, Holyfield won a unanimous decision, but without the expected knockout.
That summer, negotiations began for the expected match with Tyson, but Tyson's rape charge, and subsequent conviction, put an end to them. Instead, he fought Bert Cooper in November 1991, before a hometown audience in Atlanta. Perhaps feeling cocky in his home-town, Holyfield got a little sloppy and Cooper knocked him down in the third round, the first such blow he'd suffered in his professional career. He came back to knock out Cooper in the seventh round, but observers noted the fall more than the victory. The following year, he went up against another aging former champ, Larry Holmes, and again he won by a decision after twelve rounds instead of the expected knockout. Critics grumbled that the champ was looking less and less impressive.
On November 13, 1992, Holyfield found himself in a much harder match, against Riddick Bowe, a younger, heavier man who was as hungry for the title as he himself had been. The fight had been promoted as "Friday the 13th: Anything Can Happen." In fact, it was another grueling 12 rounder, but this time the decision went against Holyfield. Ironically, Holyfield earned back some respect in this losing match by proving he could go the distance against a more powerful opponent. Even Bowe told Holyfield, "You were always a class act."
The Hard Road Back
After the fight, Holyfield announced that he was retiring from boxing, but by January 1993 he'd changed his mind. In Holyfield: The Humble Warrior, his brother Bernard attributes this to a growing anger that the bout with Bowe had been much closer than the judges seemed to think and an anger at Bowe for "talking noise" about Evander's supposed deficiencies. Others thought it might be simple restlessness. Under a new trainer, Emanuel Steward, Holyfield threw himself into another grueling regimen, at the same time developing a more subtle kind of boxing than his previous style. On June 26, 1993, Holyfield was back in the ring, dispatching Alex Stewart in a unanimous decision after 12 rounds. Unimpressed, Rock Newman, Bowe's manager, told Sports Illustrated, "Holyfield won and eliminated himself. He's got no chance for a title fight now."
But despite Newman's comments, Holyfield had earned his rematch with Bowe, which took place on November 6, 1993. Holyfield weighed in at 217 pounds, Bowe at 250. Clearly this would not be an easy fight, and a stunt by a publicity seeker didn't make it easier. In the middle of the match, someone parachuted into the ring, causing 20 minutes of confusion before the fight resumed. Perhaps because his pregnant wife had fainted during the interruption, Bowe seemed more distracted in the second half of the fight, and Holyfield won on a 2-1 decision. Holyfield had performed a rare act in boxing, taking his title back from the man who'd taken it from him. Only Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali could say they had done the same.
But he did not hold the title for long. On May 6, 1994, he lost another 12-round decision, this time to Michael Moorer. Again, Holyfield announced his retirement, this time attributing it to a heart condition and his doctors' advice. He did leave the door open for a return in case his heart improved, and subsequent tests at Emory Clinic in Atlanta and the Mayo Clinic revealed that his symptoms had probably been due to dehydration and that his heart was fine. Holyfield himself attributed his "miraculous cure" to faith healer Benny Hinn.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1982||Golden Gloves national title|
|1984||Bronze medal, Olympics, boxing|
|1986||WBA Cruiserweight champion (Defeats Dwight Qawi)|
|1987||IBF Cruiserweight champion (Defeats Rickey Parkey)|
|1988||Undisputed World Cruiserweight Champion (Defeats Carlos DeLeon)|
|1990||Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion (Defeats Buster Douglas)|
|1993||Retakes IBF/WBA Heavyweight titles (Defeats Riddick Bowe) (One of three heavyweight champions to regain title from the man who beat him)|
|2000||Retakes WBA Heavyweight title (Defeats John Ruiz)|
In May 1995, he was back in a professional boxing match, when he beat Ray Mercer in a unanimous decision after a brutal fight. In November 1995, the last Bowe-Holyfield match took place in Las Vegas. This time, the younger ex-champ proved too much for the older one. In the 8th round Bowe sent Holyfield to the mat with a right hand and two chopping rights. Their long rivalry was over.
Going Up Against Iron Mike
But for Holyfield a new rivalry was beginning, one that would lead to one of the most bizarre incidents in boxing history. In November 1996, Evander Holyfield went up against Mike Tyson, fresh out of prison, for the World Boxing Association championship. The fight was highly controversial, and many felt that ex-con Tyson should be banned from boxing altogether. Others felt that Holyfield was risking serious injury going up against the man they still called Iron Mike. But Holyfield was confident, announcing calmly, "I will beat Mike Tyson. There is no way I cannot, if I trust in God." His faith was justified, and throughout their match Holyfield withstood the punishment of Mike Tyson's punch. And he gave as good as he got. He managed to knock Tyson senseless in the second round, and again in the sixth round. In the eleventh round, Tyson collapsed against the ropes. Holyfield had again entered exclusive company. Alone with Muhammad Ali, he had become a three-time heavyweight champion.
But the surprise of that upset was nothing compared to the pandemonium of the Tyson-Holyfield rematch in June 1997. Once again, Holyfield showed a determination to take the fight to Tyson, enraging the already frustrated ex-champ. In the third round, Tyson spit out his mouthpiece and bit down on Holyfield's right ear, drawing blood. Incredibly, the referee deducted two points and let the fight continue. Before the round was up, Tyson had latched onto Holyfield's left ear, this time biting off a piece. "There is no way to reconcile what was happening with human behavior, or even boxing," wrote Sports Illustrated reporter Richard Hoffer. This time, the referee finally called off the match and disqualified Tyson. Holyfield was actually quite calm in the hospital while getting his ear sewn up, telling reporters stoically: "It was told to me by the prophets that the fight was going to be short, but that there'd be some distractions."
Evander Holyfield continues to box, and has even said he'd be willing to box Tyson again, "if time permits." In fact, Holyfield has been fairly busy. In November 1997, he stopped Michael Moorer in the eighth round, taking the IBF heavyweight championship and avenging his '94 title loss. In September 1998, he defeated Vaughn Bean in a lackluster 12-round decision. Then in March of 1999 he fought World Boxing Council champ Lennox Lewis in an attempt to consolidate his titles. The fight ended in a controversial draw that many observers thought should have gone to Lewis. Even Muhammad Ali weighed in with a protest against the decision. In an unusual show of unity, all three world boxing organizations ordered a rematch within six months. Eight months later, on November 13, 1999, Holyfield lost his title in a unanimous decision for Lewis.
On August 12, 2000, Holyfield took the World Boxing Association title from John Ruiz, becoming the first heavyweight champion to win the title four times. Seven months later he lost it back to Ruiz. Holyfield calmly accepted the unanimous decision, saying, "I was four-time champion and now I'm going to have to become a five time champion." On December 15, 2001, in another controversial decision, judges declared a draw in his rematch with John Ruiz, although Holyfield had appeared to dominate the fight. Ruiz retained his title. A year later, he lost a unanimous decision to Chris Byrd as they were vying for the vacant IBF heavyweight title.
Holyfield continues to box, claiming that he made a promise to himself to regain the title of undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Every year the goal looks more elusive, but Holyfield has come back before, and surprised the critics. Outside the ring, his personal life has seen its share of upheavals. In 1999, his second wife, Janice, filed for divorce, an event that turned ugly when Evander asked for a paternity test for their child and Janice's lawyers deposed Evander's minister on suspicion that he had been given millions of dollars improperly. Evander Holyfield admits to fathering a number of children out of wedlock, but claims that he is financially supporting them.
Regardless, the man who could forgive Mike Tyson for taking a bite out of him remains a symbol of grace in the ring, a boxer who has proved you don't have to be a killer to be a winner. "I don't believe you have to be mean to be successful," he once declared. "In boxing, two athletes compete against one another. When it's over, you hug." Throughout his long career, Holyfield has tried to live up to that image.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY HOLYFIELD:
(With Bernard Holyfield) Holyfield: The Humble Warrior, Atlanta: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
Holyfield, Evander and Bernard Holyfield. Holyfield: The Humble Warrior. Atlanta: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
Suster, Gerald. Champions of the Ring. London: Robson Books, 1994.
"Boxing: Holy eyes high fives." Europe Intelligence Wire (October 20, 2002).
"Boxing: The king, the rock, and the white buffalo." Africa News Service (May 24, 2001).
"Boxing: Veterans in search of more ring glory." Africa News Service (March 1, 2001).
Daly, Dan. "Holyfield's ticket has looked punched before." The Washington Times (August 15, 2000): 1.
"Evander Holyfield loses WBA title, but says he won't quit boxing." Jet (March 19, 2001): 51.
"Foolish heart." Sports Illustrated (June 17, 1996): 31.
Hoffer, Richard. "Now it gets serious: after beating Seamus McDonough, Evander Holyfield may finally get his shot." Sports Illustrated (June 11, 1990): 34.
Hoffer, Richard. "Heart and soul." Sports Illustrated (May 29, 1995): 36.
Hoffer, Richard. "Feeding frenzy." Sports Illustrated (July 7, 1997): 32.
Hoffer, Richard. "This one didn't faint." Sports Illustrated (December 30, 1996): 90.
Hoffer, Richard. "Grisly requiem." Sports Illustrated (December 29, 1997): 88.
Hoffer, Richard. "Grand larceny." Sports Illustrated (March 22, 1999): 60.
"Holyfield forgives Tyson for biting his ears." Jet (January 26, 1998): 48.
"Holyfield hanging on for wrong reasons." The Washington Times (December 14, 2002): C01.
Loverro, Thom. "Indebted Holyfield still keeps the faith." The Washington Times (November 7, 1997): 1.
Loverro, Thom. "Keeping the faith: Holyfield refuses to believe his time as a heavyweight champion is up." The Washington Times (November 12, 1999): 1.
Loverro, Thom. "Is boxing on the ropes?" Insight on the News (January 24, 2000): 32.
Lyons, Douglas. "Evander Holyfield: Coping with sudden success." Ebony (January 1991): 48.
"Muhammad Ali calls Holyfield-Lewis fight decision 'a fix.'" Jet (April 12, 1999): 48.
Pearlman, Jeff. "Ragged night in Georgia." Sports Illustrated (September 28, 1998): 81.
Plummer, William. "Tough guys do dance." People Weekly (November 16, 1992): 69.
Putnam, Pat. "One angry man." Sports Illustrated (November 13, 1989): 38.
Putnam, Pat. "No joke: Evander Holyfield discovered that George Foreman was to be taken seriously." Sports Illustrated (April 29, 1991): 22.
Putnam, Pat. "Sluggards." Sports Illustrated (July 5, 1993): 18.
"To ear is human." The Washington Times (October 21, 1998): 16.
"Tyson and Holyfield should be banned." The Washington Times (July 6, 1997): 3.
Wulf, Steve. "The bible thumper." Time (November 25, 1996): 119.
Sketch by Robert Winters
Winters, Robert. "Holyfield, Evander." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (May 31, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900254.html
Winters, Robert. "Holyfield, Evander." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Retrieved May 31, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900254.html
Holyfield, Evander 1962–
Evander Holyfield 1962–
Evander Holyfield is the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a determined competitor who has ascended to boxing’s heights against far larger and heavier opponents. Holyfield made history in 1993 by accomplishing a rare feat—he won back a championship belt from the man who defeated him for the title in 1992. Holyfield has overcome obstacles of every sort, both mental and physical, to regain his hold on the championship crown and the respect of boxing’s demanding audience. Reflecting on his accomplishment after his November 1993 defeat of then-champion Riddick Bowe, Holyfield told Sports Illustrated: “I didn’t come back to win the title so much as to redeem myself. I didn’t come back to win or to get the belt but to prove that one setback didn’t make me a bum.”
Redemption has been sweet for Holyfield. As a younger man he was not naturally a heavyweight and so had to undergo rigorous training to compete at that level. For more than a decade the fighter has worked long and hard with a veritable army of trainers, conditioning experts, and strategists to remain a potent force in the heavyweight division. Superbly conditioned throughout his career, Holyfield has become boxing’s most lethal practitioner by adhering to a punishing schedule that has taken its toll on his personal life and has at times seemed hardly worth the effort. Only after losing the title—and subsequently retiring briefly—did the champion boxer realize how much his career meant to him. He has returned to the ring stronger and more determined than ever. Holyfield told Sports Illustrated that when he analyzed his years as a boxer, he realized he had been “trying to be good to please others.” He added: “That’s when I knew I would come back, but this time to please myself.”
Holyfield, the youngest of eight children in a one-parent family, was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. The fighter credits his mother, Annie, with much of his success—she instilled a strong work ethic in him and provided him with Christian values. Holyfield’s deep Christian faith kept him out of trouble as a youth and has sustained him through his career. Often when he signs autographs he adds a citation for a Bible verse, and he regularly supports favorite churches in his hometown and other cities.
Nicknamed “Chubby” as a child, Holyfield was known in his neighborhood as a “good kid” who would shy away from fights and who would generally back down when bullied. He performed odd jobs for pocket change and spent his spare time at the Warren Memorial Boys Club in Atlanta. There, at
Born October 19, 1962, in Atlanta, GA (one source says Atmore, AL); son of Annie Holyfield; married Paulette Bowens (divorced, 1991); children: Evander Jr., Ashley, Ebonne, Ewin, Education: High school graduate.
Boxer, 1971—. As amateur, won bronze medal at light-heavyweight in 1984 Summer Olympics. Turned professional, November 1984. Won World Boxing Association cruiserweight title, 1986; won International Boxing Federation cruiserweight title, 1987; won World Boxing Council cruiserweight title, 1988. Moved to heavyweight division, 1989, and became undisputed heavyweight champion, 1990-92; retired briefly after losing decision to Riddick Bowe, 1992; became WBA/IBF heavyweight champion in a rematch with Bowe, 1993.
Addresses: Office—ROLL-WIT-IT Entertainment, 39510 Paseo Padre Pky., Suite 250, Fremont, CA 94538.
the tender age of eight, he began to experiment with boxing techniques under the tutelage of Carter Morgan, the center’s boxing coach. “To tell you the truth, the only reason I got interested in boxing was the speed bag,” Holyfield told the Boston Globe. “The speed bag made a lot of noise and I wanted to learn how to hit it. They had to stand me up on a chair at the Boys Club to reach it. It took about two months to get it down.” Soon the youngster was participating in pee wee boxing tournaments in Atlanta. “I always went out in the ring feeling I was the best,” he said. “The only reason you fight is to prove it. As a kid, I loved to say, ‘I’m a boxer.’ But to tell you the truth, when the fights started I’d think, ‘How’d I get myself into this?’”
Football was Holyfield’s first love. He excelled as a linebacker on the Warren Boys Club team and hoped to have a stellar career at Fulton High School as well. He made the team as a sophomore, but at five-foot-four inches and 115 pounds he was hardly an imposing athlete. All season he warmed the bench, distraught because he was overlooked time after time. Boston Globe reporter Ron Borges wrote: “So little Evander Holyfield … sat on the bench. Game after humiliating game. He wanted to quit. Once he even suggested it to his mother, Annie, who had raised eight Holyfields with no intention of any of them quitting when troubled waters rose. She told him four simple words that ended their conversation: ‘You finish it out.’”
Dutifully, Holyfield rode out the season, and when he was finally called into play during a regional championship game he absolutely excelled at cornerback. The team lost the game, but the coaches had only praise for young Holyfield. Unfortunately for them, it was too little too late. Holyfield did not return to football, ever. “It kind of hurt my feelings when the coach said I was too small,” he told the Boston Globe. “So I just gave up on football and told myself, ‘Evander, stick to boxing.’ Football was important, but once I saw I wouldn’t get a fair chance, I went back to what I did best.” With its various weight divisions, boxing offered ample opportunity even for a youngster as diminutive as Holyfield.
Any doubts Holyfield might have had about being a boxer were laid to rest when the 1980 Olympic Trials were held in Atlanta. Borges noted that while watching those matches the young hopeful “saw…that he could fight with all the others standing between him and a gold medal.” After graduating from high school, Holyfield worked for minimum wage fueling planes at the De Kalb-Peachtree Airport, but his thoughts centered exclusively on his chosen sport. He trained in his off-hours, often rising at four in the morning to jog before catching a six o’clock bus to work. Then as now he was almost obsessive about his training, rarely missing a workout and resting only on Sundays. Between 1980 and 1984 he compiled an impressive amateur record of 160-14, winning a Golden Gloves title and qualifying for the 1984 Olympic team. In what must have been a major accomplishment for the athlete, he managed to win an Olympic berth in the light-heavyweight division—testament to the fact that he was still growing and could possibly become a heavyweight someday.
The 1984 Olympics proved Holyfield’s first major disappointment. He knocked out his first three opponents to advance to the championship round against a New Zealander named Kevin Barry. During the fight, Holyfield landed a punch just a split second after the referee had ordered the fighters to break. He was disqualified for hitting late—a call that many observers still dispute. Holyfield was ultimately awarded the bronze medal, but he wore it not as an honor, but almost as a badge of shame. “I still use it as a motivating thing,” he told the Boston Globe. “People aren’t going to let me forget it anyway. No matter how many fights I win, they’ll always ask about what happened at the Olympics.”
Shortly after the Olympic Games ended, Holyfield turned professional in the cruiserweight (190 pound) division. He became the first fighter of his Olympic class to win a championship when he unseated Dwight Muhammad Qawi in a grueling fifteen round decision on July 20, 1986. That win brought him the cruiserweight titles of the World Boxing Association and the International Boxing Federation. Less than two years later he became undisputed cruiserweight champion by unseating the World Boxing Council’s top contender, Carlos DeLeon. Holyfield realized, however, that the big money and the stardom could only be found in the heavyweight division. With the support of his trainers—father and son team Lou and Dan Duva—he announced his intention to fight as a heavyweight beginning in 1989.
The decision was met with a chorus of disapproval. Many observers doubted that Holyfield, who rarely weighed more than a comfortable 212 pounds, could ever withstand the punishment meted out by opponents who entered the ring at 230 or more. Undaunted by the dire predictions, Holyfield and a massive team of trainers embarked on “Project Omega,” a total-concept conditioning program. For more than a year Holyfield worked with an orthopedic surgeon, a former Olympic triathlete and swimmer, and even a former ballet dancer. He perfected his agility, his endurance, and his speed, but his most impressive gains were in the bench press and weightlifting departments. Month after month he endured three workouts a day, six days a week—workouts that included running, swimming, sparring, weight lifting, and aerobic exercise. Philadelphia Inquirer contributor Robert Seltzer concluded that Holyfield’s punishing regimen gave him “the most impressive physique in the heavyweight division.”
The doubters were soon stilled as Holyfield crushed his first six opponents, all of them heavier and supposedly stronger than “little Evander.” Soon his trainers’ assertions were proved true—what Holyfield lacked in weight and stature he more than made up for in heart and desire. Holyfield himself told the Boston Globe: “You can’t just fight for money because if you do, after the first round you can think you don’t need to take all the punishment. You’ve got the money now. You fight for the belt plus the pride.” He added: “If I was doing this in my backyard, I’d still want to win with nobody watching just because I don’t want him to have the bragging rights over me.”
By late 1989 Holyfield was being touted as the only legitimate threat to the reign of Mike Tyson, then the undisputed heavyweight champion. Negotiations were under way for a Tyson-Holyfield bout when “Iron Mike” was defeated in a staggering 1990 upset by James “Buster” Douglas. Since Holyfield was the number-one ranked contender in the division, Douglas agreed to fight him rather than take a rematch with Tyson. A Holyfield-Douglas showdown was set for October of 1990.
The outcome of that fight was almost a foregone conclusion. Douglas, pudgy and unmotivated, hardly mounted any opposition at all to the superbly conditioned, hungry Holyfield. When Holyfield knocked Douglas down during the third round, the fight was over. A new undisputed heavyweight champion was crowned, one who preached values like Christian virtue, hard work, and determination. Asked what it felt like to be a star, champion Evander Holyfield replied: “Ain’t no stars except up in the sky.”
Holyfield’s reign as undisputed heavyweight champion was studded with controversy. While promoters and fans clamored for a showdown with Tyson, he opted for a relatively easy appearance against former champion George Foreman. Despite Foreman’s colorful patter before the showdown, the match proved uneventful. Holyfield won a unanimous decision in the April 1991 fight but failed to knock out the flabby and aging Foreman. That same summer, Holyfield agreed to meet Tyson, but the planned fight was cancelled after Tyson was accused—and subsequently convicted—on rape charges. Instead of Tyson, Holyfield met another aging challenger, Larry Holmes. Again the match ended with a unanimous decision for Holyfield, but again he was criticized for failing to knock Holmes out. Observers began to suggest that Holyfield lacked punching power.
“They said I couldn’t knock anybody out,” Holyfield told Sports Illustrated. “It was getting to me. I was confused. I wanted to settle down and live the good life, but I wanted the respect. I was being pulled in two different directions. Then I fought Bowe and I forgot about winning; all I thought about was that I had to knock him out. Winning wasn’t the thing; knocking him out was.”
Riddick Bowe offered Holyfield his first substantial competition. Larger and younger than Holyfield, Bowe was undefeated as a heavyweight and was highly motivated by a life of poverty and privation. The two men met on November 13, 1992 in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Bowe emerged the victor in a brutal slugfest. After the match, Holyfield announced his retirement. He returned home to Atlanta to spend time with his children.
Philadelphia Inquirer reponer Robert Seltzer wrote: “When Bowe captured the title [in 1992], Holyfield felt relief-relief that his crown, and the burden that went with it, was gone. He was Evander Holyfield, private citizen. He did not belong to the world anymore.” Then a curious thing happened. Holyfield began to miss boxing. He felt that he shouldn’t retire after a defeat that might have been caused by lapses in strategy. Early in 1993 he returned to the arena with a new manager—rapper Hammer—and a new trainer, Detroit-based Emanuel Steward. Once again Holyfield threw himself into a training schedule that combined endurance conditioning with strength enhancement. With Steward’s help he formulated a game plan that would include less brawling and more subtle boxing. According to Sports Illustrated contributor Tom Junod, Steward appealed to Holyfield’s near-obsession with a need for atonement by turning “boxing itself into a form of prayer and his training camp into a form of worship.” After a lackluster match against Alex Stewart, Holyfield earned another chance to meet Riddick Bowe in Las Vegas.
The Bowe-Holyfield rematch took place on November 6, 1993. Bowe weighed almost 250 pounds; Holyfield a scant 217. The twelve-round match was full of excitement, some planned and some unplanned. At midpoint in the fight, a publicity-seeker parachuted into the ring, sparking a melee and a 20-minute delay. When the fight resumed, Bowe seemed to have lost some of his spark. Holyfield won in a decision that returned to him the belts of the International Boxing Federation and the World Boxing Association. In order to become undisputed heavyweight champion once more he must meet World Boxing Council champion Lennox Lewis.
The 1993 victory against Bowe placed Holyfield in the company of Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali—the only heavyweight champions to regain their titles from opponents who had previously defeated them for the crown. In his Sporting News analysis of the match, Dave Kindred concluded: “This time the good small man found a way to beat the good big man. Holyfield won the hard way.”
Holyfield has always credited his success to two factors—his religious faith and the inspiration provided by his mother. “When I lost at anything, I was always able to go back and learn from those losses and then concentrate on the next fight,” he told the Boston Globe. “I made the 1984 Olympic team not because I didn’t lose any fights but because I was able to keep focused and I had a strong lady in my life, my mother. She taught me you have to live for today. Tomorrow is not always promising and not always promised. It’s an attitude that comes from a lot of pride and a lot of faith.”
Secure in his faith and proud of his accomplishments, Holyfield is a far cry from the nasty, snarling stereotype most boxers readily accept. “I don’t believe that you have to be mean to be successful in the ring,” the champion told the Philadelphia Daily News. “I don’t understand why some boxers are motivated by hate. The way I see it, it’s possible to be a good person and a good boxer at the same time, as long as you’re able to master the technical skills that enable you to do your job well. And that’s all boxing is, when you get right down to it. A job.” He concluded: “Fighting is to the death, kill or be killed. In boxing, two athletes compete against one another. When it’s over, you hug.”
Associated Press reports, November 6, 1993; November 7, 1993.
Boston Globe, December 9, 1988; October 24, 1990.
People, November 16, 1992.
Philadelphia Daily News, July 27, 1989.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1990; November 5, 1993; November 6, 1993.
Sporting News, November 2, 1992; November 15, 1993.
Sports Illustrated, April 18, 1988; July 24, 1989; November 5, 1990; November 15, 1993, pp. 22-27; November 22, 1993, pp. 48-51.
Upscale, February 1994, pp. 30-34.
Washington Post, October 23, 1990.
Kram, Mark. "Holyfield, Evander 1962–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1994. Encyclopedia.com. (May 31, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870800040.html
Kram, Mark. "Holyfield, Evander 1962–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1994. Retrieved May 31, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870800040.html
Evander Holyfield, 1962–, American boxer, b. Atmore, Ala. Favored to win the 1984 Olympic heavyweight title, but victim of a controversial disqualification, he turned professional and became cruiserweight world champion in 1988. In 1990 he defeated Buster Douglas to win the world heavyweight title. Losing it to Riddick Bowe in 1993, he beat Bowe in 1993, only to lose the title to Michael Moorer in 1994. After retiring briefly, he defeated Mike Tyson in 1995 to regain the title, then kept it following a notorious 1997 rematch in which Tyson was disqualified for biting off part of Holyfield's ear. He fought Lennox Lewis to a draw in a controversial decision in 1999, then lost a rematch later the same year. After Lewis lost his World Boxing Association (WBA) title in a court decision, Holyfield regained (2000) that title in a fight with contender John Ruiz. The next year, however, Ruiz defeated him in a rematch and retained the title in a controversial draw. Holyfield subsequently mounted several unsuccessful comeback attempts, but in 2010 he knocked out Francois Botha to win the less prestigious World Boxing Foundation (WBF) heavyweight title.
"Holyfield, Evander." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (May 31, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-HolyfieldE.html
"Holyfield, Evander." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved May 31, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-HolyfieldE.html