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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.”
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.
Holyfield’s mother taught her nine children to believe in Jesus Christ and did so with an unflinching hand. She whupped their faith alive. His mother and grandmother are long dead now, but Holyfield hasn’t forgotten the lesson of his youth, their lesson: to believe. His life is a testament to belief, in all its inspiring and perplexing forms, and he’s surrounded by evidence of the Christian kind: He keeps five Bibles on his desk, one of which remains open to Proverbs. His website offers a verse a day. He’s tithed the equivalent of several fortunes to his church. A pair of his boxing trunks reads “Phil. 4:13” (“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me”). He confesses every morning, sitting beside his bed, long before the sun has risen over his 235-acre estate on Evander Holyfield Highway, nineteen miles south of Downtown Atlanta. His confession takes as long as it takes. Then he reads the Bible for two to three hours.
God’s Word is not concise. Neither is Holyfield.
After his first fight against Mike Tyson, in 1996, with both ears and his third World Boxing Association title intact, Holyfield cited the fistic influence of God, the Lord, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit seventeen times in his three-minute post-bout interview. Sweat pouring down his face, disappearing into sunken eyes, he spoke feverishly: “I give glory to God. And I want for everybody to know that you can’t choose against God. You can choose against me anytime, but when God involved, Jesus alive, and he the credit for it.” Here was an agent of Christ who’d fought an agent of the devil—Don King, of course—and beaten 7.5 to 1 odds.
The ringside interviewer, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, sought terra firma: “Let’s get on to boxing. How did you fight such a brilliant fight?” Holyfield, peering through Vaseline-covered eyes at something indiscernible, responded, “I’m led by the spirit of God, and, like I told everybody, whatever the spirit leads me to do, that’s what I would do. And it wasn’t nothing so much that I did, and everybody knew that I would wash up, but with God I’m not washed up.”
Evander Holyfield’s adherence to a higher message, his insistence on bringing Christ into the clinches, makes some dismiss him. In 1997, after he faced Tyson for a second time in what would be called the Bite Fight, the New Yorker’s David Remnick wrote of the then champion of the world, “No one much cared about Holyfield. He was likable enough. But he was dull copy. He hadn’t raped anyone. He hadn’t been to jail. He talked about Jesus Christ all the time and literally sang gospel music while hitting the heavy bag.” Compared to the ego of Ali and the antics of Tyson, Holyfield seemed safe, if confusing, when he spoke at all. “He never says a word,” Tyson told Oprah Winfrey in 2009, during a public “reconciliation” between the biter and the bitten. Holyfield sat beside him, smiling the silent smile of the forgiver. “This guy doesn’t talk,” Tyson continued. “I feel like I’m having a face-off with him every time I meet the guy.”
Holyfield will tell you that this perception of him is wrong: “I love to talk!” He will tell you this while he reclines in a black leather swivel chair in his study in the palatial house on the highway that bears his name. He will tell you this between sips of Holyfield Choice water—not yet in Atlanta stores—with his legs spread wide in red training shorts, Nike sandals removed, arms gesticulating from a cut-off shirt that reads “moveforever.com,” an arthritis remedy endorsement. But before he tells you this, which you may come to believe, he’ll give you the Holyfield Choice pitch: “It’s Alka-Pure. It’s got more oxygen and water, and it’s good for, what you call, when your body gets too acidic and all that, which causes you to have cancer and all that.” It prevents cancer? “Well, it’s supposed to. It also don’t make you go to the bathroom quick.” That’s what the water people told him.
Holyfield shuffles off in sock feet to one of three kitchens, far away, and comes back with bottles and a smile: “Take two. You look thirsty.” It’s hot in his study in late September, like a boxing gym. Three hours later, you’ve gone to one of his seventeen bathrooms twice. He gets up, finally, and goes himself, talking through the open door. “I believe in the Word of God. I believe I’ll be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world again. I believe.” Then the sound of flushing.
Buddy Davis is the president of the Georgia Amateur Boxing Association. Bo is the secretary and treasurer. (The couple received their own Ring of Honor in November.) She’s also Holyfield’s former personal assistant, a chain-smoker, a lover of dogs, and nurturer of small boys who want to box. Warm, blunt, and loyal. Holyfield calls her Mama Bo. In the past twenty-two years, she has been to almost every one of his fifty-three professional fights; he always buys her and Buddy plane tickets and arranges ringside seats. She knows Holyfield’s likes and dislikes (“Drink Coke? Never”) and his secrets: She used to mail the child support checks to the mothers of his children (“You wouldn’t believe how much money he was paying those women!”). Holyfield says he has twelve children, and Bo believes he’s had them with seven women. She would know.
Evander Holyfield loves family: “That’s why I keep getting married,” he says. He has been a husband three times. He says his well-educated wives—a doctor and a nurse among them—have all thought they were smarter than him. And they’ve all said he’s too structured, like a soldier. A dumb soldier. “Every girl I met, I had more than them. I brought them into a lifestyle like this”—he gestures at the walls of the mansion, which climb perhaps twenty feet to the ceiling—“and then they tell me, ‘You’re not smart.’ And I tell them, ‘If I came from zero to here, it’s because I did something right.’ Why do I have all this? If I’m such a bad, low-down, dumb person, why do I have all this?” For her part, Bo says Holyfield just plays dumb: “He’s smarter than he lets on.”
And deeper in the hole, too. With taxes on his Fayetteville properties adding up to more than $155,000 in 2010, cumulative child support payments in the $500,000 range, and the occasional $17,000 electricity bill, Holyfield has to keep fighting. It’s the ring or the poorhouse, and Holyfield has always chosen the former, no matter the trouble it’s brought along.
Holyfield met his current wife, Candi, through his now defunct music label, Real Deal Records. They married in 2003. (Candi, a thirty-one-year-old nurse with whom he has two children, was an aspiring singer.) But that doesn’t mean the other women are out of the picture. “If any birthday comes up, or baby shower,” says Bo, “all of them mamas come together to Evander’s house and have a party. It amazes me. One of them is paying for the other’s party. I just sit there dumbfounded.”
“Look, my mama raised me this way,” Holyfield says later. “My mama used to get up at five o’clock and wash clothes on her hands. I figured if Mama did all she did with no man, and a woman have a person like me who pay the bills and do all these things . . .” He pauses, leaning back in his chair. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’m just a popular person, so mine appear to be bigger. Almost like Michael Vick. They were dog-fighting all these years. He was just a popular person got caught. I didn’t invent having babies out of wedlock. There was babies out of wedlock before I was born. There was spending too much money before I did it.” He has sinned. He says God knows he’s not perfect. But neither is any Christian.
Last year, Candi Holyfield claimed her husband had physically abused her more than once, dating back to 2008. She said he’d hit her on the face, head, and back for complaining about the temperature of the house—the heat was shut off—and not tithing enough to church. She filed for a temporary protective order on February 3, but soon, reportedly, had it dismissed. And the threat of home foreclosure certainly isn’t new: His $20 million, 109-room mansion, where each of his children has lived at some point, has almost been seized twice since 2008. (The house was saved shortly before auction at the Fayette County courthouse.) And unpaid child support, too, is common enough. (He was taken to court for owing $6,000 to Toi Irvin, mother of his son Evan, an amount he has since paid.)
Five hundred thousand dollars in debt to a Utah landscaping firm, though?
Of course, there have been many unpublicized acts of kindness and charity. Past board members of the Evander Holyfield Foundation—which for years gave out ten college scholarships to needy Georgia kids—would learn, long after the fact, that Holyfield had paid for a poor woman to get her nails done around the holidays, or had fed a hungry family out of the spotlight. Too late, they’d say, to get proof of his generosity on television or in the papers, alongside his mistakes. “But that’s Evander,” says Ken Schick, HBO Sports’ general manager and a former Holyfield Foundation board member. “He doesn’t care about credit. It can be frustrating.”
Holyfield doesn’t employ a publicist to speak God’s Word for him.
“Where I grew up, people smoked, drank, all that,” says Holyfield. “I didn’t do it. I could have stole, could have had sex with anybody I wanted, could have shot me up a couple people and all that. But if you die and wake up and there’s hell? Eternity. It’s too late. Think about it, that chance. Didn’t nobody want to hang out with me because they thought I wanted to be better than them. So I was by myself all the time. I remember the smoke truck used to come by for the mosquitoes. It scared the daylights out of me, ’cause you couldn’t see when the smoke comes. And I’m just thinking: When the smoke clears, I’m gonna be all by myself in that little bitty box house with the tin roof. ”
Bo Davis saw Holyfield’s dimpled hands before she saw his face. He was eight years old, standing in front of her at the Warren Memorial Boys Club on Berne Street in southeast Atlanta. “I see these little hands touch the table I’m at, registering kids, and I look down and see his eyes. They’re still compassionate eyes. That’s when he got my heart, right then and there.” She asked him for his name, and he had to correct her when she kept calling him Evan. “Mrs. Davis,” he said to her, “I wanna be a boxer.”
His coach Carter Morgan, a small, freckled curmudgeon, suffered from emphysema and died when Holyfield was sixteen. Morgan told him that he’d be champion of the world someday. Morgan was the only man in his life, the only person other than his mother who told him he could be something worth being. “He was always telling me I didn’t have to be like Joe Louis. I was like, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Joe Louis was a champ, but he wasn’t smart.’ I was thinking about quitting school. He said, ‘If you quit, I’ll never train you.’” And young Holyfield believed it. So he didn’t quit, and he never lost a match between the ages of eight and eleven. When he graduated from Fulton High School, he weighed 147 pounds. He made $8,000 a year working at the airport, and $55,000 from his first pro fight. He never listened to the critics who said he wasn’t big enough or mean enough to be a heavyweight. He became an Olympic medalist and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world at twenty-eight. He was given the key to Atlanta by Mayor Maynard Jackson. And eventually, he made more than $248 million fighting huge men under bright lights in big arenas.
When he was twenty-one, Evander Holyfield finally met his father, an illiterate lumberjack in Atmore who hauled wood for the local mills. His mother told him that big, quiet Ison Coley, who could lift cars and wrestle bears, was his father. Coley, who signed his name with an X, accepted Holyfield as his son. But he never went after his son’s money. “Evander had to push it on him,” Bo says. He bought his father a house, a car, and a truck and paid for his medicine. In 2007 Coley died of a heart attack.
By all accounts, Holyfield is a generous and modest man. His biography, written by his brother Bernard, is titled Holyfield: The Humble Warrior. “He doesn’t stand up there and say, ‘I’m the champion,’” says Bo. Where did that modesty come from? “His mama beat it into him,” she continues. “She’d bash his head in if he didn’t go to church. I sometimes wonder if she wasn’t a bit overly that way. But I know he loved her with a passion. And he did whatever she said.”
“My mama was a strong woman,” says Holyfield, “so I’ll always choose women with a lot of fire. Then, eventually, it won’t work out because I got my dad in me. I might look at them like, ‘I work hard and do all this and you talk to me like . . .’”
Annie Laura Holyfield never watched her son fight. She couldn’t stand to see him get hit. So occasionally, she’d fly to the bout and sit up in the hotel room until they told her who had won. Then, usually, it was time to party. She’d come downstairs and dance all night with her youngest child, the skinny boy they’d called Chubby, champion of the world.
“We the same thing,” Holyfield says of Dollar. “We the same age. My life started booming when I started going to this church. He get better, I get better. You know, I remember a time when, ‘Okay, put your hand up here, we gonna pray on this picture that we gonna have a new church and that we gonna have it paid in full.’ Eventually, we did.”
Holyfield’s last significant payday was in June of 2003, when he received $5 million to fight James Toney, who beat him in nine rounds. Over the next five years, he fought five minor fights, winning four of them but losing a shot at the World Boxing Organization’s heavyweight title. In June of 2008, as his home faced foreclosure, Holyfield told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I’m not broke. I’m just not liquid.” The writing had been gathering on the walls he erected. “When he built it, I kept telling him that’s too much space,” says Bo. “‘What you gonna do with it?’ ‘I’m gonna have seventeen kids,’ he’d say. ‘Well, you’ve lost your mind. You don’t need that house.’ ‘Yes, I do.’ He’s stubborn. Now he’s realizing maybe he didn’t.”
After moving in, he bought his mother a house across the street. His older sister, Eloise McCoy, took care of her before Annie Laura died in a car accident in 1996. McCoy and a harried accountant—Holyfield fired one a few years ago after being told to sell the house—are his only full-time employees now, not counting the yard crew or housekeepers. (McCoy refers to her younger brother, when not in his company, as “Mr. Holyfield.”) In the nineties, when he was arguably the biggest name in boxing, he had a full-time staff of a dozen to assist with his daily life, according to McCoy.
When the big money was pouring in, Holyfield was especially loose with it. After he made $20 million beating George Foreman in Atlantic City in 1991, a smooth-talking guy in the music business said he would multiply it. He’d already taken Holyfield’s money once. “He said, ‘All I want is that car down there,’” recalls Bo. “Next thing I know, here’s that turkey driving up in Evander’s Lamborghini.”
At that time, there was a weekly bowling competition at Holyfield’s private alley. One day, he bet a Mustang with Mike Weaver. Holyfield lost the first game, then called for double or nothing. With two Mustangs on the line, he narrowly beat his nephew. “He pulled it off in that last frame,” Weaver says. “If he like you, he treats you real nice—bonuses and things. He’s a good boss.”
Lately, Holyfield has been diversifying his gambles as he tries to recoup his fortune. There’s more than bottled water and arthritis cream. He’s got a Foreman-type grill, the Real Deal Grill. And he’s launching a fitness brand in India that will reportedly include designer gyms, health cafes, white-collar boxing clubs, fitness mobile phone apps, and boxing academies, projected to make $15 million over its first three years, according to the Economic Times in India. He’s also done TV commercials for the fast-food chain Zaxby’s and appeared alongside other fading celebrities on Dancing with the Stars. He placed fifth in 2005, doing the cha-cha with Edyta Sliwinska to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
Holyfield declined an offer to return to the show. Because his real job, as he sees it, is still boxing. His calling. “This is all he does,” says Xavier Biggs, a former boxer who runs a gym in Decatur and who trained with the champ in the eighties. “Him. His identity. What drives him. What feeds him, too.” In his prime, Holyfield commanded up to $35 million per contest, as he made against Tyson the second time they met, when Tyson took a bite out of his right ear. The ear, incidentally, has been surgically repaired. It looks almost normal at a glance. “We made all this doggone money,” Holyfield laughs. “You think I’m worried about this little piece of my ear? Thirty-five million in nine minutes! Boxing is good to me.”
Others aren’t so sure. In August of 2005, the New York State Athletic Commission banned Holyfield from boxing within state lines after a poor performance, due to his “diminishing skills.” (He blamed a shoulder injury.) A recent Bleacher Report blog post, titled “Evander Holyfield Will One Day Be Killed in the Squared Circle,” half-jokes that “Holyfield is now more decrepit than the entire cast of Golden Girls.” A few old friends of his, like Ken Schick, who calls Holyfield one of the most loyal people he knows—Schick once saw him turn down a Pepsi, in private, because of a Coke endorsement deal—have encouraged him to stop fighting.
Most of his confidantes-cum-employees are too loyal to suggest it. His trainer won’t admit that Holyfield will soon be broken: “No problems he’s told me about.” And his accountant won’t say that he’s going broke: “I can’t answer that without Mr. Holyfield’s permission.” Meanwhile, the shrinking crowds keep cheering him on. “Nobody,” Holyfield says, “wants to get knocked out by the old man.”
“There are no recognizable American names in the heavyweight division right now,” says Schick. “It’s pretty much dead. That’s a big part of why he’s able to keep getting fights. He’s not as quick as he was twenty years ago”—when he single-handedly launched HBO’s TVKO sports business in 1991, fighting Foreman for $34.95 per view—“but he still appears to be in great shape.” But appearances, like punches, are deceiving. Holyfield’s six-pack and biceps don’t betray the back spasms that stiffened him against Larry Donald, or the shoulder injury that limited his left against Chris Byrd, or the slowing leg cramps the second time he faced Lennox Lewis. And those fights all took place more than six years ago.
“His fitness, it’s unnatural,” says Vail, a squat pugilist turned cop who trains boxers on the side. Vail quickly corrects himself, realizing that his intended compliment sounded like confirmation of the allegation that the boxer has used human growth hormone. (“No,” Holyfield says. “Has anybody seen me grow? I take different vitamins and oils. But if it ain’t on the chart for enhancement, it ain’t illegal.”)
Vail has worked with Holyfield’s son, Elijah, a tenacious and intense thirteen-year-old boxer. “He good,” says Holyfield. “But he loves football more than boxing. And he cries when he loses, just like I did.” This is the career advice he gives his kids: “If you love something like you love them Nintendo games, you’ll be successful.”
The cop did such a good job with his son that Holyfield sought him out. “I used to be a crisper, quicker puncher. I need to work on the fundamentals again.” Until his late thirties, Holyfield trained three times a day leading up to fights. “I was a training demon,” he says. Holyfield had noticed and admired Mike Tyson’s legendary work ethic. But three-a-days became too much. He is made of flesh, after all.
Holyfield is shadowboxing now, as a few young boxers and an old man called Ham, whom he has befriended, watch. He tells them he doesn’t believe in luck or shortcuts. He works hard, takes calculated risks, and prays during fights if he has to. “I can beat the Klitschko brothers and David Haye,” he says, referring to the three men who each hold a heavyweight belt. “Successful people take risks. Look at the Wright brothers. How many planes did they wreck?”
At the old Omni, when he was a teenager, he lost an amateur Golden Gloves fight to his friend Michael Grogan and cried for hours afterward in the upper deck, where Bo found him. At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, where he was the favorite to win the boxing gold, he was disqualified for landing a blow as the round-ending bell rang, though the referee later apologized and admitted that it was a bad call. That time, Buddy cried for him. In 1992, when he first lost to Riddick Bowe, he bought horses and motorcycles, thinking he would retire. “I didn’t think a man with two hands could whup me, no matter how big he was. That’s how I used to think.” Now he knows his mortality. But he refuses to bow to it.
In the ring, Holyfield is lathered in sweat, bobbing and weaving to Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. The workout lasts two hours or so—enough time for him to hear “Man in the Mirror,” “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” and “Remember the Time” at least twice. By noon, he’s ready to eat.
“He’s the worst eater I’ve ever seen,” Weaver says with a laugh. “Hot dogs, ice cream, soda pop, pig’s feet, fried chicken. When he’s training, he’s not on any kind of vegetable diet or anything like that.” Before one fight, all he ate was Church’s Chicken. “It doesn’t stick to him,” says Weaver. “It just burns off.”
“That’s one of my thrills, being able to eat whatever I want,” says Holyfield, leaving the gym, headed to Annie Laura’s Kitchen—named after his mama—in Riverdale. He plans to have collards, corn bread, and mac and cheese. “People think I’m crazy for doing this at forty-eight, but Foreman won when he this old. Why can’t I? I’m still hungry.”
The Williams fight in Detroit was delayed twice before being cancelled in mid-November, most likely because of lagging ticket sales and no TV deal. Within a few weeks, a substitute bout with Nielsen, the Dutch fighter, was set. Nielsen, just three years Holyfield’s junior, promised a reporter that he’d “bite [Evander Holyfield’s] nose” in Copenhagen. It will be Denmark’s biggest sporting event of the year.
Holyfield has been heavyweight champion of the world four times. He wants to retire out of the reach of the next generation of Tysons and Holyfields and Bowes, though, should any appear to challenge his record, which is unlikely to be broken. Muhammad Ali, after all, was heavyweight champion of the world only three times.
“I believe God wants me to finish on top,” Holyfield says, not for the first time or the last, “to glorify His name.”
In early December, the Williams fight was resurrected as a tune-up for Nielsen. It was scheduled for January 22 (after Atlanta magazine went to press) at a “five diamond” resort called the Greenbrier, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Like Copenhagen, not exactly a boxing mecca. But it’s work, and Holyfield needs that. He’s got to line up another title fight. He’s got to find more believers.
“I was watching Clash of the Titans,” he says. “Every time the blood drips, the scorpions show up. The point is, when your blood hits the mat, it’s like life is leaving you for real. Drip, drip. You wipe it off and it keep dripping and you panic more. The first time I bled, I thought, ‘We gotta stop this match.’ I could see my whole eyeball. It was cut all the way in there. I didn’t pass out, ’cause they told me it was just a scratch. I said, ‘That wasn’t a scratch!’ They had to give me stitches in and out. It messed me up. But you get over that, too. I wasn’t gonna die.