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By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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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."
Otherwise known as the House of Pain, the Main Street Gym is a sheet-metal warehouse on the edge of downtown. In the parking lot there, Team Holyfield usually gathered before dawn. Eventually, someone would throw gravel against the walls, and a groggy old boxer would turn on the lights and open the doors. Inside, they waited for the boss, and when he walked in, his assistant trainer, Tommy Brooks, would stand up and roll out his voice like a heavy carpet:
"Aaand the new ... WBA ... heavyweight champion of the world -- Evaaander Hooolyfield!"
Three weeks before the fight, Holyfield arrived to this greeting, smiled, took off his shirt and sat down by the ring. His personal assistant put the music in the boom box (Everybody put your hands together, and let's praise the Lord ...), and Brooks began taping Holyfield's hands and padding his knuckles as a woman massaged each of Holyfield's muscles. Tended like an expensive animal, the boxer chattered about the Atlanta Braves. He used to sell Cokes in the stadium back when the Braves were giving their tickets away, he said; now he endorsed Coke, and the Braves had just blown out the Yankees in the first game of the World Series. Holyfield was especially excited about a 19-year-old rookie who hit a home run.
"Ain't nothing more dangerous," he said, "than a man with nothing to lose."
He looked to be in dangerous shape. He was 220 solid pounds, about ten pounds heavier than he usually fights, and Tim Hallmark, his conditioning coach, said Holyfield was stronger than he had been in years. They built this body over time, and began preparing for this fight last May. They did their running in Memorial Park, often stepping off the trail to dance in circles as Holyfield would have to do in the ring. They lifted weights at World Gym on Richmond, doing squats in the stance of a boxer and one-arm presses with the twisting motion of a punch. Between these exercises, Holyfield consumed concoctions whose names sounded like engine fuel, like Metabolol Maximum and EXTEND Nutritional Supplement Performance Spray.
Staring at the fighter's body, standing by the door, there was usually a small cluster of men with undamaged faces who said such things as:
"I like a man who don't back down."
"Think of the guts it takes to step into the ring with the world's toughest man. And you don't have any teammates to back you up! It's kind of like golf, I guess."
If you've never been punched in the temple or poked in the solar plexus, you don't understand boxing, the boxers say. What does a gambler know, except how to make money? Do you really believe 25-1? "Man's got to be crippled, blind and in a wheelchair for those odds," said Don Turner, the head trainer. And don't forget that the only man who ever beat the professional Mike Tyson was a 42-1 long shot. And Holyfield knocked that man out in three rounds.
"This fight I think will be one of the greatest of the century," said Brooks. And he said that Holyfield said, "I'm going to blaze this guy."
His trainers had brought in the best Mike Tyson imitation they could find, an ugly, evil-looking ex-con who called himself Gary "Bring the Pain" Bell because that is what he said he did -- bring the pain. For weeks, they had launched this guy against Holyfield in 15-second assaults, but now the two men were simply going to spar a few rounds. In boxing circles, the word is that Holyfield likes to exercise, but he's not too big on boxing for free and doesn't really like to spar.
So this was simply a polite dance. At one point, Holyfield threw a lazy right and then a lazy left, and Bring the Pain ducked them both and probably could have laid the boss out right there, if it meant making money instead of losing it. Bring the Pain never really brought the pain but he didn't take much of it either. There had been no heavy blows and no bodies falling, and even a man with the straightest nose could tell this would never do against Mike Tyson.
"Oh, he'll be all right," said Brooks to Turner, but no one seemed convinced, no one except Holyfield.
He usually lingered afterward, slurping his chocolate Metabolol Maximum in his white robe, and telling anyone who would listen about Jesus. The truth was, Holyfield was fighting for our souls. That was why his training sessions were open to the public and why he invited reporters into his home.
Holyfield lives in Atlanta most of the year, but he comes to Houston to train with Hallmark, and five years ago bought a house near Memorial Park. The home is little more than an expensive place to sleep after sweating. He keeps a Jaguar and a Ferrari in the garage, but inside, the place is sparsely furnished, and the most striking feature is a television that covers a wall. Other walls are decorated with pictures of knockout punches. The study is completely barren, except for a bust of no particular black man, the gift of a gambler who won $2 million betting on the underdog.
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.
Over the course of the fight, he had lost 15 pounds. His lungs burned, his hands looked like balloons and he felt as though he had been in a dozen auto accidents. He wondered if it was worth it, if he ever wanted to fight again, but then people began telling him, "You're the man, Holyfield!" and all his questions were erased.
It only made sense to him at that point to beef up and become a heavyweight and try to be the true king of the hill. He was 4-0 as a heavyweight when he got his chance against Buster Douglas, the man who busted up Mike Tyson.
"Cakewalks! Cakewalks!" Douglas said of Holyfield's record at the prefight press conference. "He didn't fight anybody!"
"It'll be a cakewalk when I beat you," said Holyfield, and he knocked him out in the third round.
Holyfield suddenly found himself embraced in public by unknown women. He would pose for photos with them, and they would nudge his wife out of the picture. In 1991, she divorced him. Holyfield doesn't consider it a heroic part of his life, and he won't talk about it.
He held the heavyweight title for two years, then lost it in a collision with a giant named Riddick Bowe. A year later, in 1993, before stepping into the ring with Bowe again, Holyfield said to the Lord, "Thy will be done." And each of the many times that he struck Bowe, the boxer called out "It is done! It is done!"
And it was done. Bloody and bruised, he was champion again. And five months later, it was undone, and bloody and bruised, he was just a man.
After that bout with Michael Moorer, Holyfield was diagnosed with a heart defect. His doctors recommended he retire from the ring, and so finally he announced it. Then he got a second opinion and then a third and a fourth. He was "slain in spirit" by a faith healer, and then again he was back.
"It wasn't the money .... It wasn't the fame," his book tells us. "This time, it would be about demonstrating the power of faith and showing people how God could help them overcome their own trials."
Whatever. It would also allow him his shot at Mike Tyson. They had met before, at the 1983 national Golden Gloves tournament. According to Humble Warrior, after Holyfield was declared the light heavyweight champion, and Tyson, the heavyweight winner, Holyfield turned to him and said:
"You want to fight?"
"I like you," said Iron Mike. "I'll box you with just one hand."
"You better use both, boy," said Holyfield, "or I'll whip you."
They got into the ring and began trying to knock each other out. Holyfield likes to believe he won, but the fight only lasted a single round. One of the coaches stepped in and told them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt.
Since returning from prison a year and a half ago, Tyson has fought four times, for a total of eight rounds in the ring and more than $80 million in his pocket.
"Everyone comes in with a plan, but it all goes out the window as soon as they get hit," he said in August. "That's when the intimidation takes over."
"There is no intimidation," said Bruce Seldon, his opponent at the time. "There is no intimidation. There is no intimidation."
Seldon lasted all of 109 seconds. No one saw the impact that knocked him down, not even in the replay. There was speculation that he was hit with "a Wild Kingdom animal dart," but the consensus is that Seldon took a dive.
Evander Holyfield will not do that, never has and never will. This is his challenge to Mike Tyson and the reason people worry for his health. Tyson's people promise, "It's going to be a little messy."
Holyfield said, "What people have to realize is this: I don't take no risks at all 'cause I believe in Jesus. I'm protected by the blood of the lamb."
The plan was to box with Iron Mike, not to brawl, to hit him with jabs while circling away from his power, that terrible left hook. When Tyson comes charging, Holyfield must hold his ground, since a man is virtually defenseless when he's backing up. At all other times, Holyfield must dance. He must do the dance of his life.
Holyfield is a proud man, and he has a tendency to meet each fighter on that fighter's terms. The plan for Tyson was the plan he abandoned against Qawi and Bowe, and the plan that Ali gave up some 20 years ago against George Foreman.
Foreman had never needed more than three rounds to do his work. If Tyson carries a hammer, Foreman, the old-timers say, packed a sledge. Ali intended to run until Foreman got tired, but then he saw that Foreman was maneuvering the angles, taking one step for every six of his. At that point, he did what seemed like suicide to everyone else. He leaned against the ropes and let George wear himself out whaling away. By the eighth round, Big George was exhausted, and Muhammad Ali rose to knock him out.
"If the price of winning is to be a broken jaw, a smashed nose, a cracked skull, a disfigured face, you pay it if you want to be king of the heavyweights," Ali wrote. "If you want to wear the crown, you can play it careful only until you meet a man who will die before he lets you win."
Muhammad Ali went too many times to the half-dream room and is stuck there now forever. Holyfield said Ali would do it all again.
In the House of Pain on Friday, there were an unusual number of old men and fathers and sons, and they had pulled up chairs around the ring to see the past and future heavyweight champion of the world. His shirt read "God's Message to America," and Holyfield seemed inspired by the size of his congregation.
The first sparring partner was David Tua, a short, massive former Olympic bronze medalist with an explosive left hook that Holyfield had felt before. Holyfield was untouched that day. He stalked Tua all over the ring, and after two rounds, Tua left with a bloody nose and a cut beneath his eye. The gospel song floating through the air was No one else can touch my heart like you when Bring the Pain came charging across the canvas. He pushed the boss into the corner and had just begun pummeling him, when Holyfield ducked underneath, rose on the other side and unloaded his uppercuts, his hooks and the whole damn arsenal on the poor body of Bring the Pain.
"That's it, boss! I like that!" said Brooks. Bring the Pain was a poor Mike Tyson imitation, but the old men were chuckling to each other and shaking their heads, and Turner nudged a reporter and said, "Did you see that? And we got two weeks. Two weeks!"
Evander Holyfield stepped out of the ring, smiling. Brooks wiped off the fighter's sweat, the personal assistant fetched his robe, and fathers put their sons in his lap. Something had happened up there. Holyfield had shared his faith.