The Believer - Features - Atlanta Magazine

The Believer

Why Evander Holyfield can't afford to stop fighting

Evander Holyfield yawned once, twice, three times. Even a young boxer’s eyes look perpetually tired—the damage quickly accumulates around them—but at the Westin on Peachtree, at a cacophonous professional boxing event called the Big Rock Out, the forty-eight-year-old Holyfield slouched in his chair, eyelids drooping. He waited until after accepting a career award called the Ring of Honor—the reason he was there—to leave. The penultimate fight was in its sixth round when, at 10:38 p.m., accompanied by Mike Weaver, his nephew and confidante, Holyfield quietly departed. He paused to pose for a few pictures on the way out. A man selling T-shirts noticed this small act and said to another man, “That’s the mark of a true champion.”

Holyfield, February 2011
Photo by David Walter Banks

As he left the event in carefully scuffed designer jeans, shiny black loafers, and a pressed shirt, Holyfield also had on the black leather jacket he’d been presented for a lifetime of achievement: the wins over Buster Douglas, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Riddick Bowe, John Ruiz, and Mike Tyson (twice). The back was left blank, the emcee had explained, so that “Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World” could be added when he earned that title again. He’d also received a decorative plate, but as he boarded an elevator, it was gone, left behind somewhere. A man his age jumped when he saw who had entered: “Holy . . . Whoa! It’s you! I’ve been watching you fight my whole life.” Holyfield smiled a tired smile, looking a little sheepish, saying nothing. He’d promised a record fifth world heavyweight title to the crowd that night. He was out of words.

He’d gone most of the evening without touching the bottled water placed at his table and had avoided the Tecate beer and Muscle Milk entirely: He rarely drinks alcohol, and besides, the less he had to leave his seat, the better. But as he got off the elevator, Holyfield looked for a bathroom. He and Weaver wandered around aimlessly until a Westin employee pointed them to it. Though he can instinctively land a left hook—his best punch—on a ducking chin, Holyfield has a terrible sense of direction. He doesn’t study himself in the bathroom mirror, either. He knows what he looks like: no hair or wrinkles, just his signature mustache, curving around the corners of his smile-prone mouth not unlike a cowboy’s. He also knows he’s shorter and more slender than you think: six foot two, 215 pounds. Unlike less disciplined boxers—which are most of them—he stays at his fighting weight, even though his diet is terrible.

As Holyfield left the Westin on that night last August, it had been nearly five months since his last fight, almost two years since the one before that. He fought a World Boxing Association title fight in December of 2008 for $600,000 (one of the smallest purses of his career), narrowly losing to Russian seven-footer Nikolai Valuev. In April of 2010, he beat pudgy, graying South African Francois Botha to win the World Boxing Federation heavyweight title, an admittedly trivial one but the first he’s possessed since 2000. He did it in front of just 3,127 people in Las Vegas, earning $700,000. Assuming no one backs out, he will defend this belt on March 5 at a concert hall in Copenhagen, against a forty-five-year-old former Olympic medalist from Denmark named Brian Nielsen, who has a career record of 64–2 but hasn’t fought in nine years. Known as the Danish Pastry, Nielsen also has a bum knee. Holyfield will earn around $500,000, an apparent new low.

Still, as Holyfield left the building where his mother had worked as a cook decades ago, back when it housed the Henry Grady Hotel’s cafeteria, he at least had a belt. He wore it in his mind, even if there was no entourage, no harem, no fanfare. Just a reliable nephew who knew where they’d parked. He was sleepy and would be rising at 4 a.m. for confession, same as every morning. Then he would train.

Nobody on the sidewalk noticed as Evander Holyfield, wearing the jacket with the missing words, disappeared into the humid Georgia night.

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