Evander Holyfield: dedicated or delusional? Courageous or crazy? At 46, he does not care what boxing fans think. For those urging him to get a life or to find normalcy, whether out of care and concern for him or simply the desire to shove the doyen off boxing's stage, he says: "I have respect for that. But that's just your opinion. I have an opinion, too."
His opinion holds that he has one good bout left, maybe more, in his still sculptured body. He will try to summon it Saturday in Zurich in a match with Nikolai Valuev, a 7-foot Russian.
At stake is the World Boxing Association heavyweight belt. Holyfield would buckle it around a waist that has barely expanded since he won his first professional title, in 1990. This would be Holyfield's fifth heavyweight title, extending his record and distinguishing him as the eldest to reclaim a championship. He would surpass George Foreman, who did it against Michael Moorer at age 45 in 1994.
Holyfield insists such a distinction is not driving him to squeeze the last sweat drops out of his vocation. Nor is it money, even though he is sitting on an incredibly shrinking nest egg. Nor is it about pride or re-establishing his name, no small feat for someone so far removed from fame, other than for his "Dancing With the Stars" gig, that Google Earth would be hard-pressed to find him.
This fight, he attests, is about imparting a continuous lesson in perseverance to his 11 children, particularly the eldest.
Seven years later, Holyfield, battling illness as well as Lennox Lewis, considered leaving the ring in the middle of a bout until he spotted Junior in the arena and changed his mind, he said, cringing at the notion of the namesake someday hearing, "You're going to be just like your daddy and quit under pressure."
Two daughters recently beseeched him to abandon the sport. He listened, then told them: "I control my life. I make my decisions. I wouldn't be wasting my time doing something I don't think I can do."
Holyfield has parried hooks and thrown uppercuts since he was 8, when a coach at an Alabama boys' club implanted the dream that he could someday rule the heavyweight division. A career beset by physical hardships and pockmarked by bizarre incidents has left him unfazed. His longevity is a product of rolling with the punches, not only the sort delivered by a gloved fist.
One bout was interrupted when Mike Tyson's teeth removed a chunk of his ear. Another was halted when a paraglider dropped into the ring. He had fights put off when an opponent had hepatitis and another was imprisoned for rape.
His physician informed him he had a hole in his heart in 1994, prompting the faith healer Benny Hinn to lay hands on him at a revival. (Mayo Clinic doctors later concluded the defect never existed.) The New York State Athletic Commission suspended his license after a loss stemming from a shoulder ailment. Foreshadowing the challenges and oddities was his disqualification for a supposed late punch in the 1984 Olympics, which cost him a shot at a gold medal.
Holyfield, whose ability to be calm in the swirl of chaos may be his greatest strength, has never lost his mojo.
There was the time Lewis accused him of hypocrisy for pledging to Christianity while fathering several children out of wedlock. How did he vent? By predicting a third-round knockout of Lewis (the bout ended in a draw). Holyfield said that the uncharacteristic boasting was uncalled for.
Retirement has not tugged hard on Holyfield, the rare fighter who relishes training. Inspirational gospel music blares through the gym, Holyfield singing along as he endures the mind- and body-numbing ritual of prepping for his fights.
At his camp in Houston, he skips rope and attacks the punching bag to the beat of his favorite tunes collected over two decades, each song remindful of a milestone bout.
He admits to the aches and pains inescapable with creeping age, and he may cancel a session or cut one short.
"I'm not doing what I used to do, trying to burn it every day," he said. "My body don't recover as fast."
In his glory days Holyfield said that he sought divine help only on the day of a bout. Now, he summons his Lord to deliver him through training sessions. "I'm paying a superprice," he said, "because I want it at this age."
Besides, motivation "is hard when the money hasn't been big for quite a while," said Tim Hallmark, his fitness adviser and nutritionist for all but one fight in the past 23 years.