By Keith Idec
Twenty years ago, Evander Holyfield was headed toward one of the biggest fights of his career.
Fresh off his tremendous third-round knockout of James “Buster” Douglas, he was one of boxing’s biggest stars. The former cruiserweight champion demolished the man who beat the man and was making more than $25 million per fight.
George Foreman, four years and 24 fights into his heavyweight revival, was his opponent in a masterfully marketed main event that essentially established pay-per-view boxing as we now know it. A much smaller, much younger Holyfield defeated Foreman by unanimous decision at the Atlantic City Convention Center in that April 1991 bout, which propelled the Atlanta native into one of boxing’s best trilogies with Riddick Bowe and a celebrated career in which he earned nearly $300 million.
Two decades later, Holyfield is Foreman, only older.
At 48, he is six years older than Foreman was when they fought for the undisputed heavyweight championship. He is still slightly younger — seven months, to be exact — than Foreman was during his final fight in November 1997, when he lost an infamous majority decision to Shannon Briggs at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.
Holyfield has many more detractors than Foreman did, though, as he continues to box while his 50th birthday looms. A cringing legion of fans and media members has wished for nearly a decade that Holyfield would halt his unrealistic pursuit of regaining his status as undisputed champion.
As usual, a defiant Holyfield couldn’t care less.
“People have been telling me what I can’t do all of my life,” Holyfield said. “I’ve made a career out of proving people wrong.”
That’s Holyfield’s stock answer, precisely what he has to say as he keeps clinging to the belief that he’ll get the opportunities he needs to become the division’s unified champion again, no matter how old he’ll get in the process. Still, deep down Holyfield has to be asking himself how it all came to tonight.
How has one of the most bankable boxers in the sport’s history been relegated to headlining a horrendous heavyweight pay-per-view event in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.? What, other than a six-figure purse he once would’ve considered insulting, does the cash-strapped ex-champion have to gain by boxing Bahamian journeyman Sherman Williams at The Greenbrier, a resort that’ll attract black-tie clientele for the card tonight (9 p.m.; $29.95)?
Even if Holyfield (43-10-2, 28 KOs) beats Williams tonight and overcomes long-dormant Dane Brian Nielsen in their tentatively scheduled March 5 fight in Copenhagen, Denmark, he’ll have come no closer toward his supposed goal of reclaiming his heavyweight throne than he has been over the past two years.
That could be blamed, at least partially, on IBF/WBO champion Wladimir Klitschko, WBC title-holder Vitali Klitschko and WBA champ David Haye ignoring Holyfield’s existence even in a star-starved division that doesn’t offer many marketable title defenses for any of them. Nevertheless, it’s tough to fault them for their indifference toward Holyfield.
Fighting Holyfield doesn’t do anything for either Klitschko brother or Haye, who all can make millions for lower-profile fights in Germany and England, respectively. While you could argue that facing Holyfield would be no more blasphemous than Wladimir Klitschko (55-3, 49 KOs) encountering Dereck Chisora (14-0, 9 KOs), Vitali Klitschko (41-2, 38 KOs) clobbering Albert Sosnowski (46-3-1, 28 KOs) or Haye (25-1, 23 KOs) annihilating Audley Harrison (27-5, 20 KOs), it wouldn’t be worth the inevitable backlash for fighting someone so old and so far removed from heavyweight relevance.
Worse yet, what if Holyfield made any of those three fights more competitive than anyone anticipates, much the way he did against 7-foot Russian Nikolai Valuev during their December 2008 bout in Zurich, Switzerland? Holyfield definitely could’ve been scored the winner of a 12-round fight that lacked sustained action, though that dubious bout probably represented more of an indictment of Valuev’s skills than anything.
Had Holyfield won that fight, rather than losing a suspect majority decision, he might’ve regained enough legitimacy for one of the Klitschkos to have fought him by now. Instead, Valuev lost the WBA title to Haye in his next fight, 10½ months later in Bayern, Germany. Holyfield didn’t exactly set any CompuBox records during his fight against Valuev (50-2, 34 KOs, 1 NC), but he was, at the very least, as competitive against the gigantic former champion as Haye, who defeated Valuev by majority decision.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Holyfield should be considered a threat to the heavy-handed Haye, but it makes the possibility of a Haye-Holyfield fight seem somewhat reasonable.
Then again, Holyfield was easily out-boxed by another Russian, Sultan Ibragimov (22-1-1, 17 KOs), in the bout before he nearly took Valuev’s title. Holyfield’s uninspiring performance in that October 2007 WBO championship match in Moscow is among the reasons nobody really wants to see him challenge Wladimir Klitschko, who defeated Ibragimov in a dreadfully dull February 2008 unification fight at Madison Square Garden, or Vitali Klitschko.
That hasn’t prohibited Holyfield from selling the idea of him becoming the oldest recognized world champion in boxing history.
“I’m as strong as ever,” Holyfield said. “Today, 40 is the new 30. If you had my experience in the ring, and had beaten guys like Riddick Bowe, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson, [you’d] have no doubt [about becoming] heavyweight champion of the world again.
“None of the top-ranked heavyweights are American. My goal is to bring the [belts] back to America. It’s about redemption in America.”
His ambitious game plan seems a little less far-fetched now that Bernard Hopkins, 46, has proven that a once-great, well-preserved prizefighter can compete at the elite level well into his 40s. Holyfield has Hopkins-like discipline and remains in fantastic physical condition, but he hasn’t produced a performance comparable to Hopkins’ impressive outing against Jean Pascal last month in quite some time.
He has, however, beaten journeymen (Vinny Maddalone and Jeremy Bates) and faded former contenders (Fres Oquendo, Lou Savarese and Francois Botha) to maintain some semblance of respectability after going 2-5-2 from March 1999-November 2004. That’s why he’s favored to top the 38-year-old Williams (34-11-2, 19 KOs), who hasn’t beaten a top 10 heavyweight during his 13-year pro career, and the 44-year-old Nielsen (64-2, 43 KOs), who was never nearly as good as his padded record and hasn’t fought in nearly nine years.
Even if the ever-defiant Holyfield does win those two fights over the next six weeks, he’ll be no closer to his supposed goal of becoming undisputed heavyweight champion again and, deep down, left wondering whether if, at 48, he has convinced anyone he can.
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record and Herald News, of Woodland Park, NJ., and BoxingScene.com.