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The morning always began with a prayer and always proceeded with gospel music. It would have been easy to believe this was Sunday service, if the temple in Houston were not called the House of Pain, and if the prayers did not always end, more or less, with these words:
"Father, we just pray you put your protective hand around Evander ...."
He was the fellow in the "Jesus Saves" cap. His head came down to his shoulders in a slope, and his torso looked as though it had been cut from stone. Some people have called him the body beautiful, but that is to ignore the purpose of Evander Holyfield's life, which is kicking ass.
He was just about to stand up to the devil himself, and by all accounts, November 9 would bring the fight of his life. Bookies were gambling 25 to 1 against him; a cable company was offering a pay-per-view rebate if he went limp before three rounds. Holyfield found all this rather hard to take. Never in his life had he gone limp. He was the former heavyweight champion of the world, and he had made $120 million beating up strangers. He believed God gave him this talent, and he believed God fights beside him. And who's going to knock out Evander Holyfield and God?
He would not say the name of his opponent. (Why say anything, he asked, if you can't say anything nice?) But reporters came to him with the name, and they spoke it again and again, until it became almost taunting, until Holyfield had to defend himself without punching.
"I don't care what someone has done to someone else," he told the Associated Press. "He hasn't done it to me."
"You can't tell me what I can't do!" he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
And to the Atlanta Constitution, he said, "I'm in there to beat his head."
He was going to beat his head, and he was going to do it politely and impersonally and for the greater glory of God. Skipping rope before a mirror that read "No Fear," slamming his fists into the bag (grunt wham! grunt wham! grunt wham!), Holyfield was working hard to be our hero.
"I'm a son of God just like Christ is," he said. "We are all called to be Christlike and go out and save the world."
And he was going to save us all from Mike Tyson.
In Evander Holyfield, you see the art of boxing. In Mike Tyson, only the destruction.
Tyson may be the most fearsome heavyweight of all time, and he comes to us the gift of urban blight. He rose from a Bronx section of hell, his father absent and his mother an alcoholic. He became a gang member, a mugger and a pickpocket. Fighting was always what he did best, and it was in a detention center that someone recognized his skill. He was 13 when he was introduced to Cus D'Amato, the trainer who instantly saw a ferocious fortune.
At the age of 20, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history, and he is champion now, ten years later. In his fights, you see the face of a mugger, and in a matter of seconds, the face of the mugged, collapsing like an old jack-o'-lantern. Tyson is the American champion no one cheers for. Only rarely has he smiled at the cameras, and he has never properly thanked us for making him rich. He collects tigers, live ones, and reads comic books, but he has never seemed really satisfied with his life unless he is very nearly taking someone else's. "I feel like I want to kill someone," he told a reporter last August, and though there is much bluster in boxing, we believe him and fear him and aren't sure what to think about him except to wish for someone to knock him off our radar, for some artistic Superman, perhaps, who will make us understand again why we let men fight for sport when we won't let dogs and chickens.
There was a time when many people thought Evander Holyfield might be that man. It was five years ago, when he was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, and only a 5-1 underdog against Tyson. Then Tyson went to prison for rape, and in the three and a half years he was gone, Holyfield suffered some severe beatings, had a heart problem and retired.
He's 34 now, and many people have lost faith in him, but he never has. He sees his date with Mike as "the ultimate show of how good God is," a chance finally to prove his greatness to the world. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" is his motto, and he signs that Bible verse, Philippians 4:16, to every autograph. The David and Goliath tale stirs him deeply, and it's retold in his new autobiography:
"Although he knew the stakes were life and death, David gave little thought to his own safety .... As family, friends and his entire nation looked on, the young'un summoned the true source of his strength and knocked out his opponent with a single, well-placed stone from a slingshot."