ATLANTA -- There’s a big bash set for Friday in L.A. when Evander Holyfield turns 50, and it might be the first documented case where the surprise party is for the guests.
That’s because a four-time heavyweight champion plans to wind up and deliver a roundhouse birthday greeting they surely won’t see coming.
“I already told people I was going to retire,” he told Sports on Earth on Tuesday, “but this morning, when I woke up, I thought about it some more. Now I’m not going to retire. One can change his mind, can’t he?”
So, like many before him who had a change of heart, Holyfield says he will keep boxing, against all odds and sound reasoning, a proud pugilist fiercely battling the forces of age, financial catastrophe and a dying sport that keeps ducking him, for his own safety. The same warrior mentality that made Holyfield the last great American heavyweight is now turning him into a sympathetic or courageous figure, or maybe both.
“Boxing is what I do best,” he said. “It’s what I know.”
He’s in amazing shape for his age. Almost everything else about him sports a potbelly, though. He hasn’t had a meaningful fight in nine years, the boxing establishment all but tuning him out. His ringside seats, when he does fight, don’t draw A-list celebrities or four-figure price tags anymore. The New York State Athletic Commission banned him seven years ago because of “diminished skills.” Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, the brothers who represent the only big paydays in the heavyweight class, said they’ll fight anyone but Holyfield, their hero, out of respect.
“I can beat them,” Holyfield said. “I feel I can beat anyone.”
As for Holyfield’s finances, they’re bloodier than some of the faces he battered in his prime. He was evicted three months ago from his dream house, a 54,000 square foot hunk of marble and stone with 17 -- no, that’s not a typo -- bathrooms. A treasure trove of his memorabilia will be auctioned in November, including his cherished Olympic bronze medal and the trunks he wore in the infamous Bite Fight. Meanwhile, court documents say a boxer who earned roughly $230 million is hundreds of thousands behind on child support payments he may never make.
Finally, because he was so consumed by boxing, Holyfield never found another life calling that would’ve allowed him to retire a decade ago, when friends in and out of boxing wanted him to. There are concerns about his long-term health and how additional fights could impair him.
Inside a condo in Atlanta, you’d expect to find another tragic tale of a boxer who took too many life blows. But there is no chalk outline on the carpet for Holyfield. In a wide-ranging and open discussion, his enthusiasm and determination makes you understand why and how he recaptured his belt four times, something no heavyweight has ever done. Hopelessly fueled by stubborn pride and a tremendous will, the man just refuses to see any obstacle, no matter how formidable, that he can’t KO.
“People told me I was old when I fought Riddick Bowe in 1992,” he said. “People said I would never be the heavyweight champ. If I listened to what people said, I’d never have won all those titles. So why should I start now?”
He beat Bowe once in their epic trilogy, along with Mike Tyson twice, Michael Moorer and Ray Mercer. He was always the perpetual underdog, a pumped-up light heavy who wouldn’t concede defeat or feel pain, even when Tyson went cannibalistic and turned Holyfield into The Real Meal. He overcame a heart defect that forced a temporary retirement. His fights generated more than $500 million in pay-per-view sales; only Oscar de la Hoya and Tyson brought more bank. And he was a beloved international figure in his prime, humble and homespun, someone who’s motto was “anytime, anyplace, anywhere.” But that all seems so 1990s-ish.
He should be finished. And yet, he should also be a five-time champ. He was robbed in a controversial decision that went to a clumsy nomad named Nikolai Valuev in 2008 that cost Holyfield the WBC title and a possible meeting with a Klitschko. Many thought it would be the moment when Holyfield pushed himself out the door. They didn’t understand. All it did was keep Holyfield believing in his skills and that another shot was coming.
“They won’t fight me,” he said about the Klitschkos. “They have the right. If I can’t get the championship fight then I’ll continue to wait. Somebody is going to beat them at some point and then I’ll fight that winner.”
He’s attracted to the ring because it’s the one place where he doesn’t feel overmatched, where there’s a sense of superiority, however debatable. It’s the place where he doesn’t need anyone’s help. Because when it came to managing his money, Holyfield’s instincts betrayed him. In the vocabulary of boxing, he allowed his guard to drop far too often.
He didn’t lose his fortune in the stereotypical way that other athletes go broke. Actually, Holyfield was never flashy, certainly not the heavyweight version of “Money” Mayweather. He didn’t own a slew of exotic animals, either in his backyard or hanging as coats in his closet. He was never blinged out. He didn’t drive more cars than the local dealer. Holyfield problem was he overspent on bad advice. He was too trusting for too long to the wrong people, a whale who swam with sharks. That’s why he’s in financial rehab and it promises to be a long if not impossible recovery.
“Of course, it’s tough,” he said, “but not as bad as it’s made out to be. I’m not making $30 million a payday anymore. I’m not making the $64 million I did in my best year. I’m not poor and broke. It’s just the direction in which things went. It’s not that I blew money; people just took advantage of things I didn’t know.”
There was always a business deal that Holyfield was encouraged to invest in that made other people rich and him just a little bit poorer. He placed his faith in the Lord and his checkbook with the devil. Among the more ambitious deals he fell for: Holyfield would have his own cable TV network, like Oprah. And he would have his own grilling machine, like Big George.
At one lengthy stretch during his $20-million paydays, Holyfield gave a healthy percentage of his earnings to his church, and you do the math on that. It’s almost too irresistible to point out that a good chunk of his money helped enrich a local reverend who went by the last name “Dollar.”
Holyfield could pick his fights a lot better than he picked his people.
“In the end, it was my fault,” he said. “But you have some unprofessional people who will steal. A lot of things happened to me because I didn’t have a great education.”
The one true symbol of excess was mammoth in scope and acreage, and also a bit misleading. In the middle of his career, while money was no issue, Holyfield bought a horse farm just south of the Atlanta airport with plans to build a big house. It was a way of exorcising the ghosts of a cramped and poverty-filled past; as the youngest of nine kids, Holyfield always craved his own space. He had no idea about designing a house or the annual cost of upkeep or any of those fine-print details; he just wanted something nice. So when architects and contractors told him he should have more -- “you’re the champion of the world” -- Holyfield figured, why not? Then advisors came up with unique ways to finance a property that Holyfield could’ve paid for with the spare change in his sofa.
“I was a man who came from the ghetto who built a home just the way he wanted,” he said. “I had somebody show me how to do it differently, you trusted them, you get a loan and you’re stuck paying for it. Because I didn’t know, it cost me all this money. I had business people who did this for their good.
“People don’t know that I built that house for my grandkids. They would get to see what I left for them. That was the most disappointing thing about it. I was asking the banks to give me time. They treated me unfairly. They were bailed out by taxpayers and they didn’t work with me in any way. They just cut me out. Give me a chance to keep my house, come up with some kind of plan. It’s just wrong how they went about it. They made me look like I wasted money. I’ve never been a person that wasted money.”
After the real estate crash the house was purchased as a foreclosure. The lenders allowed him to stay for several months. Late this summer, a marshal drove through the massive iron gates, knocked on the door and told Holyfield his time was up. The 12th round was over.
Three expensive divorces also didn’t help, and in a coincidence, Holyfield says all six mothers of his 12 children have homes, while he’s in a condo.
About the children. Holyfield has been punched-lined for having so many, and yet he calls them “a blessing.” Three are college-educated: Savannah State, Spelman, Auburn. Two others are in college. He doesn’t regret the decision to have them. Whether he has the means to support them is an entirely different issue.
He remains passionate about a sport that, like Holyfield’s fortune, has lost its way. Fighting is now being staged in cages where opponents are allowed to use their feet and knees. Yes, it’s now a mixed martial arts world. We’re lucky to get one attention-grabbing boxing match a year, and the sport, at least in the heavyweight division, has been exported overseas, specifically in Eastern Europe, treated the way some American companies treat jobs. Holyfield places the blame on those running the U.S. amateurs and remains appalled at the state of the sport at the beginner levels.
“Our amateur program is not where it used to be,” said Holyfield, who came up through the ranks. “Also, you don’t see boxing on TV that much anymore. You don’t see any Olympic boxing. You see gymnastics. We don’t have anyone big in boxing to make changes, to find a way to make people a lot of money and to find the next great heavyweight champion.”
With the American pipeline all but dried up, the last great American heavyweight champion, still young at heart, believes he must fill that void, grab that one last payday, get that one last belt. He knows what you think, but what matters to him is how he feels. Holyfield will stay on this treadmill because, for so many different reasons, he simply can’t step off. Even when the boxing establishment is trying to pull the plug.
“After my birthday,” he said, “I’m going to start back training. I still think I have the ability to win. I just know I can win. It’s about being smart enough to train to suit who you are, not to train like a young kid, but like an older person who has faith in his ability to do the things needed to win.
“I’m very happy. I still live a great life. I go all around the world. People see me as a living legend. I’m getting invited to places. I do things that people think I can’t do. People say I’m not big enough, too old. I had some things go wrong. Well, everybody has something wrong in their life. They have to overcome it to be successful. I will, too.”