By Lee Gruenfeld
The co-author of Evander’s autobiography, Becoming Holyfield: A Fighter’s Journey looks back over the champ’s life.
It’s hard to write about Evander Holyfield without resorting to cliché: “A living legend…larger than life…heart of a champion…an iron will…”
Problem is, all of these things are true. So instead of trying to come up with new phrases to describe this unique man, I’ll just tell you a little about his life and let the history speak for itself.
On October 19, 1962, as the rest of the United States tensed for nuclear war with the Soviet Union over the Cuban missile crisis, Annie Laura Holyfield gave birth to the last of her nine children. His father’s name was Isom Coley, but Annie Laura gave the infant the last name of her ex-husband, Joseph Holyfield. His first name came from the mythological Euandros, meaning “good man,” the son of Mercury who founded a city on the site where Rome would eventually rise and became its king, Evander.
The young boy grew up in poverty in Atmore, Alabama, but didn’t know it at the time. There was always food on the table and while his older siblings worked to help support the family, Evander spent every waking non-school hour playing football, racking up both offensive and defensive MVP trophies despite his small size. It was that undersized stature that would eventually dash his hopes of playing for the Atlanta Falcons, but a Plan B had emerged as a fateful replacement. Evander had discovered boxing at the age of eight, and didn’t lose a match until he was eleven. By the time he graduated high school he was one of the highest-ranked amateurs in the country and earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic boxing team.
The Los Angeles Games of 1984 provided the first opportunity for Evander to demonstrate his special brand of grace and poise on an international stage. After thoroughly decimating every opponent on his way to the semi-finals and establishing himself as his country’s surest bet for a gold medal, he was disqualified for a late punch. The stunned crowd was on the edge of riot over the patently unfair call, and it was only Evander’s calm demeanor and refusal to give open vent to his emotions that averted total chaos. The International Olympic Committee declined to reverse the ref’s decision but took the unprecedented step of overturning the rules that would have deprived Evander of a bronze medal.
After the Olympics, Evander turned pro and wasted little time in letting the world know that he was a fighter to be reckoned with. After winning his first two fights as a light heavyweight by decision, he knocked out his next two opponents in a grand total of three rounds and moved up to cruiserweight. His performance in that division, one weight class below heavyweight, would become the stuff of legend. It took him less than a year to win seven fights, six of them by early-round knockout, and earn the right to fight for a world title.
That fight, an epic 15-round battle against WBA champ Muhammad Qawi, was the Fight of the Decade of the 1980s and the first real demonstration of Evander’s superhuman will. A deeply spiritual man, he spent several of the brutal late rounds praying for God to give him the strength to go the distance. His faith was as responsible for his eventual victory as his fists, but he barely had time to savor his new belt before being rushed to the hospital so badly dehydrated that it took over two gallons of intravenous saline to restore the fifteen pounds of bodyweight he’d lost in the ring, plus another ten for good measure.
He successfully defended the title against Olympic gold medalist Henry Tillman, added the IBF belt a few months later, knocked Qawi out in the fourth round of a rematch shortly after that, then took the WBC crown from Carlos DeLeon to become the undisputed champion of the world. Evander’s domination of the cruiserweight division was so overwhelming —to this day he is still the only undefeated, undisputed cruiserweight champion—that his image now permanently adorns one of the championship belts.
With nothing left to prove in that division, it was time to move up to heavyweight. It wasn’t easy. Never a big eater (I never once saw him finish a meal), Evander was barely able to tip the scales at 200 pounds and was forever destined to be the smallest guy in the ring against opponents who often towered over him and outweighed him by over forty pounds.
Treated at first by the press as a “blown-up cruiserweight” who would never survive the heavyweight division, much less win anything, Evander rocked the boxing world by winning his first six fights by knockout, becoming the #1 contender for a world championship. Only one thing stood in his way: the “Baddest Man in the World,” Mike Tyson. But before that fight could take place, Tyson lost his three crowns in a sensational upset by Buster Douglas.
In October of 1990, it took Evander only three rounds to knock out the man who knocked out Tyson, making him the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
The fighting press, instead of eating their earlier words about Evander’s chances as a heavyweight, wasn’t satisfied. “He still has to fight Tyson,” they insisted.
He was willing, but Tyson’s legal difficulties interfered. Evander fought on, winning against the likes of former world champions George Foreman and Larry Holmes, before finally suffering his first professional loss at the hands of Riddick Bowe in a twelve-round decision. A year later he beat Bowe in the rematch, but owing to an odd series of bureaucratic maneuvers, he only got back two of his three crowns. In his next fight, he lost them both to Michael Moorer after tearing his rotator cuff in the second round. While being examined by physicians afterward, he was told that he’d also suffered a heart attack sometime during the fight, causing irreparable damage to his heart and slamming the door shut on his boxing career.
Evander credits God with healing his heart, to the amazement of his doctors as well as specialists at the Mayo Clinic who declared him fit to return to the fight game.
The timing was perfect. Mike Tyson was released from prison and roared back into the ring gunning for Evander, earning the shot by knocking out his first four opponents in a total of fewer than eight rounds. Evander was busy elsewhere, fulfilling another dream that the sporting press had assured him was an impossibility, the idea of a fighter ever carrying an Olympic torch into the stadium for the opening ceremonies. Not only did he do that at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, but when he handed the torch to the great swimmer Janet Evans, she in turn handed it to another fighter, Muhammad Ali, who then lit the torch.
Holyfield vs. Tyson a few months later at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas was the one for all the marbles, but even when Evander dispatched the Baddest Man in the World in the eleventh round, it still wasn’t enough. “A fluke,” the press declared. “Let’s see them fight again.”
That was fine with Evander —he would be paid over $34 million for the rematch— but this time the fight would end in one of the most bizarre episodes in all of sports history when Tyson disqualified himself by biting off a piece of Evander’s ear. While Iron Mike disgraced himself, Evander became only the second heavyweight in history to win the world title three times. The other was Muhammad Ali, but Evander would go on to regain world titles twice more and become history’s only five-time champ. The latest came on April 10, 2010, when he beat Francois Botha to take the WBF crown, twenty-six years after his first professional bout.
There’s more to Evander than boxing. He made over $230 million in the ring and tried to do some good with it, giving millions to the church and to various causes he supported, including the Evander Holyfield Foundation. In every workout of his that I attended, I noticed that he took time to encourage younger fighters with tips not only on how to fight but how to conduct themselves as representatives of a sport not always well-understood by the general public. Much has been made of his many children, but less well known is that they grew up in his own home where he could provide a stable, disciplined and loving family environment.
President Bill Clinton praised Evander’s “passion, drive and athleticism” on the cover of Becoming Holyfield. To learn more about why, click on the links at the top of the page to read more highlights of Evander’s storied life and career.
© 2011 by Steeplechase Run, Inc. All Rights Reserved — Posted by permission of the author