Boxers have always had nicknames; sometimes chosen by themselves, sometimes bestowed upon them by the public or some other third party. The point of a nickname has either been to in some way highlight the intimidation factor of the boxer, or to help with the marketing of the fighter through the “catchiness” of the name.
There’ve been some doozies, too. Jake “The Raging Bull” LaMotta, “Sugar” Ray Robinson, Seales, or Leonard, “Iron” Mike Tyson, or my personal favourite, the fictional, “Battling Bilson” as gifted to us all by the legendary humour writer, England’s own, P.G. Wodehouse (If you haven’t read this man’s work, make sure you do. The exploits of Bertram Wooster, his butler, Jeeves, and his friend, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, will have you in stitches for weeks!)
But no nickname has ever been more apropos than the former undisputed Cruiserweight and undisputed Heavyweight Champion of The World, Evander Holyfield’s moniker, “The Real Deal.” Holyfield is by any measure, a legend in the history of the squared circle. Like virtually all former champions, he has his detractors and his supporters.
Some see him as woefully overrated; others rate him as the “greatest ever.” For this writer, his legacy is somewhere in the middle of these extremes. It is patently ridiculous to suggest that the only man to ever hold the undisputed Cruiserweight and Heavyweight titles was “overrated.”
It is equally absurd to argue that a man with only 44 wins in 57 professional fights is the “best ever”. I don’t think Evander Holyfield himself would argue that he was better than Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, or Muhammad Ali, but I’m equally sure he’d be offended if someone were to suggest that he wasn’t as good as a Trevor Berbick or Mahmoud Charr!
Now, there are those who will argue forcefully that Holyfield’s reputation has been forever tainted by the Signature Pharmacy and Applied Pharmacy Services scandals; scandals that saw him inexorably linked to the use of P.E.D.’s.
The gist of it is that Holyfield is suspected of using steroids and Human Growth Hormone to bulk up his natural light heavyweight frame to heavyweight stature so that he could compete against the “big boys” of the sport.
To be fair, there is some compelling evidence that he did indeed do so. But even if he did, should that be allowed to wipe out what he accomplished? I would argue, ‘No” because these allegations didn’t come to the fore until 2007.
Evander Holyfield’s heyday pre-dated this by decades! While his physique was certainly much different late in his career, it wasn’t markedly so for his fights against Riddick Bowe or Larry Holmes or Michael Moorer, to name but a few. On balance, I am inclined to give the vast majority of his career, the benefit of the doubt.
Here’s what’s not in dispute about Holyfield though. Evander was (is?) a true warrior. The man fought everyone; he ducked nobody. His resume reads like the “who’s who” of the division during his time. Names such as Tyson, Douglas, Lewis, Holmes, Bowe, Ruiz, Rahman, and Toney (among others) are scattered like so many pearls throughout his record.
He had very few “easy” fights. The win percentage of his opponents was ridiculous. He fought at least 18 different men who had held titles themselves. It really is as impressive a curriculum vitae as any you will ever see.
Not only that, but the manner in which he acquitted himself in the ring spoke to his endless supply of courage and determination. I’m not sure that there’s ever been a braver fighter.
Consider some of these highlights;
• He had a piece of his ear bitten off by Mike Tyson, but still won
• He was unfairly disqualified from the 1984 Summer Olympics, costing him an almost guaranteed gold medal
• He fought and beat the great Riddick Bowe while suffering from a serious heart ailment
• He fought – and many feel (myself included), beat – the giant Russian, Nikolai Valuev, at age 46. Had he received the decision, he would have been a 5-time heavyweight champion. As it is, he remains the only 4-time champion of the division
• He was part of what is considered to be the greatest round in heavyweight boxing championship history; Round 10 of his first fight with Bowe
• He won an incredibly difficult and courageous 15-round split decision against the Hall of Famer, Dwight Muhammad Qawi to wrest the Cruiserweight title from him in what Ring Magazine referred to as “the best cruiserweight fight of the 1980’s”
• He has come from behind to win big fights on at least half a dozen occasions
• He repeatedly came back to win big fights in his career after having been written off as “shot” by all sorts of boxing pundits
These types of lists about Holyfield could be compiled and published almost daily; with little or no fear of running out of topics.
You see, here’s what made Evander Holyfield, “The Real Deal.” Here’s what made him one of the most popular heavyweights of all time. Evander only knew one way to fight; maximum effort and no quit.
If you paid to see a Holyfield fight, you knew what you were going to get; a warrior who was always willing to go out on his shield. He gave no quarter but asked none either. Holyfield was small for a heavyweight and many of his opponents expected that he would hit like a middleweight – which many said he did – but what they didn’t expect was how often he would hit them.
His efforts against Bowe and Tyson are the stuff of legends. Holyfield was one of those all too rare boxers whose stature actually grew in some of his losses, so great was his effort. Take a moment to look again at Round 10 in his first fight with Bowe. What courage! What determination!
Where in the world does that level of determination come from? Is it God-given? Is it nurtured? A little from Column “A”, a little from Column “B”? Holyfield had the typical “hardscrabble” upbringing so common among champion boxers.
He was one of 9 children, born in Atmore, Alabama. His family later moved to the projects of Atlanta and Holyfield would come to think of the city as “home.” The family lived in the infamous Bowen Homes Housing Projects so that the young man picked up boxing as his sport of choice is hardly surprising. He probably saw more fights in a week than most people see in a lifetime. There was little to eat at home and no money at all for extras.
What he did have at home was priceless though; his mother, Annie Laura Holyfield. She was an incredible woman who instilled the value of hard work and integrity into all of her children. Holyfield would often say that his mother was the only person in the world he was afraid of.
She taught him to work hard, to be responsible, and to own up to his mistakes. Evander Holyfield would say that even after she passed, he would still hear her admonishing him to “Pay attention.” In some ways, Annie wrote Evander’s life story for him. But all the nurturing and love in the world don’t put food on the table.
Annie had little formal education and bleak employment prospects throughout the childhoods of her kids. Holyfield was determined to make it in boxing because he saw no other way out.
Poverty is a powerful motivator. Abject poverty is an unbeatable one. With this background, it really was of little wonder that Holyfield was the fighter that he became. It must have been enormously difficult for his opponents to face a man whose options were winning or starve.
The thing every boxer, promoter, referee, judge, and fan knew about Evander Holyfield was that you had to practically kill him to earn a draw. George Foreman once called Holyfield the most determined boxer he ever faced. There are two quotations from Evander himself that I love and that I think speak to the essence of the man.
About his first-ever fight, Holyfield said this;
“Madison Square Gardens, November 1984. I don’t recall taking too much fear into the ring. I knew I could fight. But I got a big shock. They put me in with this rough, tough veteran called Lionel Byarm. He tested me to the limit. But, I fought my heart out and, in the end, prevailed. The story of my life, in my very first fight.”
About himself as a man, Evander Holyfield said this; “I’m just one woman away, my mother, from being the same as Mike Tyson. I would’ve ended up like him if my mama had not been so tough and strong. A lot of people, including Mike, don’t know I came from the ghetto. They think I’m too nice and proper. But that’s the way my mama raised me – to look people in the eye and respect them.”
Take a moment to digest these. Re-read them if you must. I can’t overemphasize their importance. For in these words, we find the core of this great man. We find his strength; we find the source of his determination. We find Evander Holyfield, Esq. – a man’s man, a true champion, a wonderful boxer. We find “The Real Deal.”