By Chris Lane
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There was really no sign of life in this house, until Holyfield's personal assistant opened the door to his bedroom. Beside the bed of the former heavyweight champion were Bibles and Bible dictionaries, a concordance and a copy of something called Reclaiming the Inner Child and something else entitled Becoming a Leader. The walls were hung with Bible verses and the words "Pray Hard."
At his kitchen table, Holyfield sat for an interview without his usual smile. As he made clear in his autobiography, he considers reporters a godless sort; they, in turn, have told him he is "dull material." To every question, Jesus is the answer, and eventually, reporters begin to chafe at this. They imagine there's something more to Holyfield that they are missing, but it's quite possible there simply isn't. Maybe there's just his fists and his Bible, and Holyfield's fight to save souls by punching heads. Which is pretty interesting, if you think about it.
"You have all these things you can become, and you got to choose," he said. "I chose to be a professional boxer and still be with the Lord and give him the praise and glory."
He has every reason to be proud of himself. He grew up without a father, the last of eight children, sleeping with his head at the feet of his brother, Bernard. In a different Atlanta neighborhood, Holyfield lives with his second wife now ("she's a virtuous woman") and his six children in a 57,000-square-foot house. How he punched himself from there to here is the subject of Holyfield: The Humble Warrior, the only biography he has ever authorized. It was written by Bernard and printed by a Christian publisher. It is short on dirty detail and long on sermons, and Holyfield would like to see it in all the schools.
His original plan was to play football for the Atlanta Falcons. But after discovering that he was too small for the high school football team, "the thought of pounding away at a face-to-face opponent ... suddenly seemed inviting." He began hitting the bags at the Boys Club, running before dawn, doing hundreds of pushups and sit-ups each day and drinking raw eggs. He became known as that "crazy man who thinks he's Rocky." He became obsessed. If he had any interests beyond boxing and the Bible, or any acquaintances who were neither family nor foe, the book never mentions them.
Under the care of the Boys Club coach, Evander began rising through the amateur ranks. For a while, it was very easy, and the hardest part was knowing what to do when his opponent began to cry. Then the opponents got tougher. One day, something that felt like an anvil crashed into his head, and he began falling to the canvas. Like Jell-O in a Tupperware dish, his brain was bouncing in his skull, and Evander was off on his first trip to that place Muhammad Ali called "the half-dream room."
"You see neon, orange and green lights blinking," Ali wrote in his autobiography. "You see bats blowing trumpets, alligators play trombones and snakes are screaming. Weird masks and actor's clothes hang on the wall."
This is a critical point in the development of a boxer. Evander learned that he could take a blow to the head. He got up that day and won the fight, and as the book said, "Evander Holyfield would eventually be known as the boxer who just wouldn't give up."
Boxing is like trying to adjust a pitching machine while you take fastballs in the face. You expect to get hit, he said, and "you have to be in a state of mind where you don't feel." For every blow your opponent strikes, you want to strike two blows, and back and forth you go, boom boom boom, until the fainthearted one gives up.
When his body began to fail, Evander's spiritual side always took over. He came to believe that boxing was 90 percent spiritual, and after every victory, he would tell the reporters how grateful he was to Jesus. His mother had been on the line with Jesus all along. Until she died this year, Annie Holyfield never watched Evander's fights but remained on her knees throughout, praying for his safety.
On the rare occasions that he lost, Evander would go home, run more miles, lift more weight and read more of that Bible. He became a master in the junior heavyweight division, priding himself on his ability to sense when an opponent was hurt, and like a shark, to go in for the kill. This, in turn, drew the reporters, and when at first they called him "Hollyfield," he told them it's "Holy-field, like the Bible."
At the 1984 Olympics, he encountered hordes of screaming fans, and for the first time, according to the book, "Evander felt like a Beatle." He returned with a bronze, took off the headgear that amateurs wear and entered the world of professional boxing.
Holyfield breezed through his fights until 1986, when he challenged Dwight Qawi for the WBA cruiserweight title. Qawi was a short, powerful puncher, and Holyfield was considered more of a boxer. He was expected to dance around Qawi, hit him with jabs and slip away from his power. But by the fifth round, Holyfield had grown tired of this, and he spent the next ten rounds slugging it out toe to toe. He threw more than a thousand punches and was hit by nearly as many, but in the end his hand was raised as the victor.