By Corey Erdman
One of the most famous fighters in the history of boxing sits at the end of a long string of tables at Prime One 16 Steakhouse in East Harlem.
Evander Holyfield promoted his second professional boxing show in New York City on Saturday night, a nine fight card at Resorts World Casino in Queens. Seven of his fighters fought, six of them won, and Holyfield kept good on his promise to spend time at brunch with each and every one of them, win or lose.
“I’ve been through it. I had ten losses and every single one of them were learning experiences,” said Holyfield.
In all, the fighters in his The Real Deal Boxing stable have suffered seven losses on his cards, yet Saturday’s draw of over 2,000 people for a local show in New York was perhaps his biggest event success yet.
In the main event, super featherweight contender Bryant Cruz scored a scintillating one punch knockout over hard-charging Angel Luna. However, it was a pair of youngsters who stole the show: Edgar Berlanga and Justin Biggs.
Berlanga, an amateur standout who made it to the finals of the 2016 Olympic Trials against Charles Conwell, drew an immense amount of rowdy Puerto Rican fans who nearly knocked over the barricades as he similarly toppled Enrique Gallegos. Biggs, meanwhile, sent Simon Saye crashing face first to the mat in scary fashion on a beautiful short right hook.
Biggs is indicative of Holyfield’s genuine dedication to his promotional outfit. During this year’s New York Golden Gloves, the two-division world champion attended the tournament and spotted Biggs during his bout against Nikita Ababiy in the finals of the 165-pound open weight class bracket. In the middle of the fight, Holyfield tapped Eric Bentley, his company’s COO on the shoulder and said, “I want to sign him.”
The fighters are still seemingly awestruck that they are in Holyfield’s presence, let alone know him on a personal level. For the current crop of prospects and soon to be contenders, Holyfield was either their gateway into boxing fanaticism, or for the younger fighters, a historical figure whose old fights their parents showed them.
“Evander was the one who taught me how to persevere,” said Biggs, who became a fan of Holyfield as a child after reading Holyfield’s autobiography.
“People are calling me the next Tyson, but I want to be like this man,” said Berlanga, pointing to Holyfield, prompting a chuckle and a smile from him.
It would be very easy for Holyfield to simply lend his name to a promotion and take a back seat, the way any number of current or former professional fighters of varying levels of notoriety do on a weekly basis. Moreover, Holyfield could very easily lend his name to any number of companies, collect checks and simply profit off his fame. After all, people much less famous than him make a handsome living endorsing charcoal face masks on Instagram.
But in a business as slimy as boxing, Holyfield’s intentions with his promotional company are oddly pure.
Holyfield doesn’t have to have steak and eggs with his fighters and make small talk with their managers sipping Bellinis, but he does it. More importantly than the brunch perks, Real Deal fighters have access to a laudable amount of health services provided by the company, going so far as to staff a company medical team. Holyfield provides his fighters with a team of ARP certified physicians who provide them with health care and track their physical and mental health before and after fights, which includes MRIs and advanced brain imaging.
“I’ve had the opportunity to observe the sport from both the promotional and the regulatory side. Many fighters don’t have health coverage and the only time most of them see a doctor is when they fight. Each state has a different roster of physicians, as well as terribly variable medical requirements and standards,” said Bentley, who previously served on the New York State Athletic Commission. “There is currently no way to efficiently track each fighter’s medical history from state-to-state, fight-to-fight, and we’re going to change that. These athletes are risking their lives every time they step in the gym and step in the ring; we owe it to them to make sure they go home to their loved ones and do the best we can to make sure they’re able to live their lives intact and healthy once their careers are over. Fighters are human beings engaged in a very dangerous sport. They deserve the very best medical care we can possibly give them.”
That Real Deal would be willing to incur those costs, on top of the recently heightened New York state insurance fees would seem financially perilous to some, but it is a massive step in the right direction in terms of immediate fighter safety and their long-term health.
Throughout his career, Holyfield was always positioned as the altruistic hero, the religious, friendly, foil to bad boys like Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe. Outside of the ring, he had his battles with financial issues, and towards the end of his career, battled criticism that he was holding on too long and endangering himself.
But perhaps his real work is coming now. As the story goes, Holyfield would have never boxed if not for a woman named Ms. Hawkins who paid for his membership at the Boys and Girls club when he was eight years old. It only cost her twenty five cents, but it kept him safe and changed his life.
Holyfield has more resources today than Ms. Hawkins did, but he ultimately carries on her work through the sport of boxing.