Holyfield’s last fight?

This past Saturday, forty-eight-year-old Evander Holyfield fought his fifty-sixth professional boxing fight. In his twenty-seven-year career, he’s fought an average of twice a year, though that frequency has slowed considerably over the past decade, as many have called for the retirement of the former four-time heavyweight world champion. He’s lately landed in the headlines most often for money owed to ex-wives and the drama of keeping his palatial home in south Atlanta, on Evander Holyfield Highway, out of foreclosure.
For his second fight against Mike Tyson, which took place at the MGM Grand in 1997, Holyfield made $35 million. (It lasted just nine minutes, and Holyfield was declared the winner by forfeit when a small chunk of his ear was forcibly removed by Tyson’s canine teeth.) This was a personal high point, both in terms of payoff and the pugilist’s demonstrated skill. This past weekend, against journeyman Sherman Williams—a short, well-spoken 38-year-old Bahamanian who looks more like a porter than a boxer—Holyfield made a small fraction of that: an estimated $500,000.
The fight took place at a 230-year-old, 6,500-acre mountain resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virgina. The Greenbrier has hosted twenty-six presidents through the years, but never a boxing match. This event, curiously, was given the name “Redemption in America: The Journey Back Begins Now.” It wasn’t entirely clear who was being redeemed, or coming back: The hotel? The little, no-name boxer from the Bahamas? The old, big-name boxer from Atlanta? Holyfield had lost two of his last three fights, though his single win did earn him the lightly regarded World Boxing Federation’s heavyweight belt, which has historically been the pride of journeymen just like Sherman Williams.
How did one of the greatest heavyweights of all time get here, defending a belt no one cared about against a boxer no one had heard of? Read Charles Bethea’s profile of Evander Holyfield, The Believer, in the February issue of Atlanta magazine, to find out. Below, Bethea offers a diary of his firsthand impression of Holyfield’s latest—and perhaps last—fight, which took place after the profile of the boxer went to press.

10:45 p.m. Ringside. Michael Jordan is said to be here, somewhere. I can see overweight former world champion Larry Holmes thirty yards to my left, and hall of famer Lennox Lewis, whose trademark dreadlocks have receded in retirement, just across the ring to my right. Evander, who years ago fought both Holmes (winning) and Lewis (twice: drawing and then losing), is in a back room praying. He’s older than many of the extravagantly arrayed people—in derby hats and tuxedos—who’ve shelled out as little as $500 and as much as $20,000 to see what could be Holyfield’s last, protracted dance here in this makeshift Appalachian MGM. A man nearby downs a highball and calls for blood. Any blood.

11:19 If a 7’1’’ 300-pound boxer falls in a ring in White Sulphur Springs, WV, does he make a sound? Yes. The penultimate fight of the night has come to a gory close, as Travis Kauffman fells long, tall Julius Long, soon after the giant’s nose opened up. The canvas has now been seasoned red for the main event.

11:22 A fog machine is spraying a fine mist into the ballroom in order, one presumes, to approximate the smoky atmosphere of the hallowed Vegas rings 2,243 miles away. But the lights are still bright enough to make out the faint cellulite on the exposed posteriors of the “Real Deal Dancers” shaking around the room.

11:24 The Edwin Starr classic, “War” (What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing!), rings out from the mouth of former Springsteen band member, Clarence Clemons. It’s at least an hour past Holyfield’s normal bedtime.

11:39 Finally, the challenger enters. Sherman Williams looks nearly a half-foot shorter than Holyfield, but he’s 34 pounds heavier. Built like a fire plug. Reggae music blares for the fighter and his entourage draped in the aquamarine, gold and black colors of the Bahamas flag. He is not an impressive sight, but he doesn’t look scared.

11:40 Holyfield enters to the song, “I’m still standing after all this time.” He’s wearing a red cloak, and he’s in a sweaty lather. He doesn’t smile, or look anywhere but straight ahead, in a seeming trance. Perhaps he’s praying, as he often does in the ring. His four-man entourage includes nephew and confidante Mike Weaver, who has been with him throughout training. None of them looks especially confident.

11:43 Singer/actress Tasha Taylor performs the national anthem in the middle of the ring, standing between Holyfield and Williams. Holyfield claps with gloved hands when it’s over but continues to scowl.

11:48 The ring announcer reads through Holyfield’s storied resume (the wins over Buster Douglas, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Riddick Bowe, John Ruiz, and Mike Tyson twice), his voice nearly breaking as he says “a record four-time heavyweight champion of the world!” Holyfield stands silently. He wants a fifth, then, as he’s said many times, he’ll retire. All he can think about is the fifth: a better number than four, and one which will put him out of reach in boxing history.

11:49 The first round begins. Holyfield bounces around, looking spry. Certainly not 48-years-old. He misses with a few punches, but they look pretty good. Williams stands back, watching his dancing foe, trying to feel out which version of Holyfield he’s fighting.

11:50 Williams takes a punch after the referee has tried to split the clinched boxers, and the blow nearly hits the stunned ref, Dave Johnson. The first round is a toss-up as far as points go. Holyfield may have had it by a slight margin. In any case, it appears this will be a well-contested bout.

11: 53 The second round begins. By the sound of it, there are plenty of Williams fans in the crowd: they erupt when the Bahamanian begins making contact with some punches. Holyfield lands a good chin shot, but Williams closes the round with a decisive flurry of blows to the ex-champs’s body—which is bouncing a little less confidently now—and perhaps one to the head, taking the round in points.

11:57 The third round begins. Holyfield is slow to get off his stool and return to action. Finally, he’s up and facing Williams. Holyfield’s reactions seem a split-second late now, but he manages to dodge a few huge swipes from Williams’ right hand. Then one connects over Holyfield’s left eye, which is visibly bleeding. Williams seems to have turned a switch, and goes after Holyfield with rapid-fire right hand shots to the body and head. Holyfield returns a few, but Williams is in control. Just before the bell, Williams lands a hard overhand right, which sends Holyfield onto his back-foot. He remains upright, but it’s unclear how firmly he’s standing, or what he’s thinking, as the bell sounds.

12:01 a.m. Mayhem in the ring. Holyfield isn’t returning for the fourth round. The cut over his left eye, his team seems to have communicated to the ref, is interfering too much with his vision. Was it caused by a punch, though, or a head-butt? This makes a difference in the outcome. It’s been judged the latter, and the man who fought through a bitten ear back in 1997 is done for the day. Some of the Williams camp, still thinking it’s a technical knockout (TKO), declares victory. When they realize it’s been judged a “no contest,” they jump up and down in anger and disgust. If a fight ends this way before the fourth round—with an accidental blow that causes a fight-altering injury—there is no winner. Such are the rules of boxing, which Holyfield has, perhaps, used to his advantage to escape a fight he was losing. It’s the first “no contest” of his career, and he quickly departs with his nephew amid a chorus of boos from the crowd, wearing his blood red cloak, after saying this:

“I’m cut. He head-butted me. He came down on me with his head. I don’t know about my next fight [March 5 vs. Brian Nielson in Denmark]. I’m cut, I’m cut. I’ll give Sherman a rematch. Stuff like this happens and I’ll shake it off. Hopefully, I’ll get this stitched up and it won’t be a problem. Life goes on, it’s part of boxing.”
12:03 A new day has dawned, just a few minutes old, and an old fighter disappears once more.

Sherman Williams, who says the fight was a circus, steps up to the microphone: “I was fighting a legend and I can’t take anything away from him. I feel like I should have won by TKO. I cut him with an overhand right, but I respect him. I root for him. He’s almost 50 and still training and performing. I admire what he’s done, but it’s time to let younger guys fight and older guys do television commentary … Mr. Holyfield shouldn’t be taking punches from younger guys. That’s how I feel. It’s time for him to move on but, if he wants, we can do it again.” Minutes later, away from the mic, Williams says to a much smaller group: “By the fifth round, I woulda put the old man flat on his face. But it was all about him. I’m a big boy and I ain’t gonna waste money protesting something they won’t turn around. He got whooped. He don’t wanna see me no more.”
Photos by Steven Limentani