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Evander Holyfield: Just how good was the former four-time heavyweight champion?

Photo from The Ring archive
11
Jun

Few could match Evander Holyfield for heart, determination and will to win. The Georgia native was fiercely proud and he displayed that each and every time he entered the ring, becoming the undisputed cruiserweight champion and undisputed heavyweight champion.

Holyfield was an excellent amateur, beating out long-time rival Ricky Womack to earn a spot on the 1984 U.S Olympic team. However, “The Real Deal” was controversially disqualified at the semi-final stage when he struck Kevin Barry with a left hook as the referee called break.

The humility Holyfield displayed at having a to settle for a bronze medal struck a chord with then-publicist Kathy Duva of Main Events.

“What amazed me the most about Evander was that after he was blatantly robbed by the Yugoslavian referee (Note: The eventual gold medal winner also hailed from Yugoslavia), Evander carried himself with such grace and dignity,” Duva told The Ring. “Such a very young man, yet he did not let his anger get the best of him.



“From my vantage point in the stands I could look down through the bleachers and see Evander standing at the entrance to the locker room area during the entirety of the two sessions that comprised the gold medal rounds. That year, of course, the Americans medaled in just about every category. And most of those medals were gold. Evander wished every one of his teammates good luck on their way out to the ring, and he congratulated every single one of them as they returned to the locker room after their fights.

“I would have expected someone who was treated as badly as Evander was in Los Angeles to simply pack up and go home. And nobody would have blamed him for it if he had. Instead, he stayed there to support all of his friends as they fought for the same gold medal that should have been awarded to him. I knew then that it took a very special person to do that.”

The Real Deal unified the three major cruiserweight titles between 1986-1988. Photo from The Ring archive

The experience lit a fire under Holyfield and in just his 12th professional fight he edged out the vastly more experienced Dwight Muhammad Qawi to become the WBA cruiserweight titleholder. He then unified with IBF titlist Ricky Parkey and WBC counterpart Carlos De Leon, and today he is unanimously recognized as the greatest cruiserweight of all time.

After abdicating his cruiserweight throne, Holyfield moved up to heavyweight. He set his sights on Mike Tyson but before they could lock horns, Tyson lost. Holyfield would best Tyson conqueror Buster Douglas to become undisputed heavyweight champion.

After defeating aging former champions Larry Holmes and George Foreman, Holyfield lost his titles to Riddick Bowe. He rebounded to beat Bowe a year later but lost to Michael Moorer and looked washed up when he was stopped by Bowe in their rubber match.

When Holyfield finally faced Tyson he was a 25-1 underdog and many feared for his safety. However, the former champion rolled back years and produced an outstanding performance to stop Tyson in 11 rounds and claim the WBA heavyweight title. Tyson was disqualified in the infamous return fight for biting his great rival’s ears.

Holyfield soldiered on. He avenged his loss to Moorer and benefitted from a draw against Britain’s Lennox Lewis before losing a decision in the rematch. He later became the first man to win a portion of the heavyweight title on four occasions when he outpointed John Ruiz.

Although he fought on for over a decade, he was no longer at his brilliant best.

Holyfield won The Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year award three times, in 1987, 1996 and 1997. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2017.

Here we speak to coaches, managers, promoters and former opponents who share their thoughts on a remarkable warrior.

TRAINER, MANAGERS, PROMOTERS

RONNIE SHIELDS
Trainer

“Evander was always the smallest guy no matter what weight he was in, even as an amateur. Evander loved fighting bigger guys. He was a very smart guy because he realized when he was a heavyweight, he was a very small heavyweight, but he was the fastest heavyweight; he had the best handspeed, he had the best footspeed. There was nobody in the heavyweight division who could match him in speed and he knew this, that’s is why he was able to become champion of the world and he got away with it for so long. People didn’t realize the speed of his combinations, the footwork he had, and they couldn’t keep up. These guys might hit him and hurt him but you’re not going to knock him out. This guy had an iron chin. When you look at Holyfield, you’ve got to look at Ray Mercer, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson — all those guys in that era and Evander fought every last one of them. It was hard to become champion in that division and Evander fought them all, and this is why he was four-time heavyweight champion — because of his chin. Evander Holyfield had a great jab, he threw combinations like nobody else — that’s what kept him in fights. That’s how he was able to beat those guys who were really big. If Holyfield had stayed at light heavyweight, he would have ruled that division. He went up to cruiserweight and he ruled that division without a doubt and then he went up to heavyweight and ruled.”

SHELLY FINKEL
Manager

“After he fought the rematch with Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Evander and I had a conversation. I asked him what he thought about the fight. He said that he knew he was going to beat him, but when he dropped him early, he was saying to himself, please stay down and when he got up, he said to himself that he was going to be mad now.

“Evander is a very special human. He has more determination than any person I ever met. Think about the giants he fought, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. The only fighter that really handled him was James Toney, which was with a sustained body attack. Early on, he told me that he would beat Tyson because he wasn’t afraid to take his punches.”

KATHY DUVA
Main Events Publicist/Promoter

“I have a lot of memories of his fights because I attended every one of them from the Olympics in 1984 through June of 1996. Evander first caught our attention in LA. I was very happy when my husband, Dan, was able to convince Evander to sign with Main Events. His career turned out to be just as special as Evander. While he had to compete with Mike Tyson for attention during his far more accomplished career, Evander never gave in to jealousy. He again accepted his role in the reality show that was the heavyweight division during the time of Mike Tyson. And when he finally got the chance, Evander made it quite clear that he was the superior fighter.

“Whenever the subject came up of how it could be that Mike Tyson, who we knew was not Evander’s equal in the ring, was generally recognized as the best in the world, Evander would simply say that he accepted that he would not be appreciated in his time. That recognition would come later.

“In the end, I suppose that Evander’s patience was one of his greatest and least recognized attributes. After the debacle of the Olympics, he was willing to be patient enough to wait to achieve his goals as a professional. Once he won the heavyweight title against all odds, defended it multiple times, won it back from Bowe and dominated his division for years, his reputation and celebrity were still eclipsed by Tyson’s. So, Evander was patient enough to wait until he finally got his shot at Tyson. Evander left no doubt in those fights that he was the better fighter. And yet, I still run into people who worked in boxing during Evander’s career that believe Tyson was the best fighter of his era. And, of course, many fans still believe this. Evander is surely aware of this, but he has never seemed to harbor any animosity or jealousy towards Tyson.

“Recently, though, Evander seems to be getting the kind of recognition today that he deserved in his prime. His patience finally is being rewarded. I see Evander quite frequently when his son, Evan, fights. He gets mobbed by the fans everywhere he goes and he really seems to enjoy the attention. It makes me very happy to see it. As his publicist, I found myself fighting the tsunami that was Mike Tyson as I gamely tried to convince the media that Evander was so much better than they realized. From the looks of what I have seen in recent months as we travel to Evan’s fights, I don’t have to work to convince anyone of Evander’s greatness anymore.”

FORMER PRO OPPONENTS

DWIGHT MUHAMMAD QAWI
July 12, 1986, The Omni Atlanta, Georgia • Titles: WBA cruiserweight
December 5, 1987, Convention Center, Atlantic City, New Jersey • Titles: IBF and WBA cruiserweight

“Holyfield was real busy with the jab. He had perpetual motion; he kept moving, angles. I hit him good in the first fight and the second fight. In the third round (of the rematch), I hit him with a right hand, and he stopped, woke back up and got away. Between rounds, his team jumped all over him, ‘You got to get him out of there.’ I heard them. He took a heck of a shot.”

Henry Tillman (left) lands a left jab against Holyfield. Photo from The Ring archive

HENRY TILLMAN
February 14, 1987, Bally’s Hotel & Casino, Reno, Nevada • Titles: WBA cruiserweight

“We still remain friends to this day. We fought in February 1987 and in July of the same year he was one of the groomsmen at my wedding. It was just business. It was a good fight. I got knocked down three times in the seventh round and they had the three-knockdown rule involved. I fought a helluva legend at a time when we didn’t know he was going to be such a legend.

“He was good, he was real good. He fought from 106 pounds all the way to heavyweight, that’s why he could do so much. He was a big man who thought like a little man and could move like one. Holyfield was good at catching blows, moving his head and he was a good combination puncher. Power comes with speed, he had good handspeed, but he was very, very consistent. He was a very, very hard worker, no smoking, drinking, he prayed a lot, read the Bible and ate right, he was dedicated to the sport. He’s a good man – solid. If you were in the trenches, you’d like to have him next to you.”

OSSIE OCASIO
August 15, 1987, Parking de Nouveau Port, Saint-Tropez, France • Titles: IBF and WBA cruiserweight

“He had a powerful jab and you could not see it coming. He was a fighter who moved in angles making it hard to hit him. He moved as if he was dancing, he was a masterpiece. He was a complete fighter and, in his career, he ended up beating almost 99-percent of the fighters he fought. He was one of the greatest I ever had the pleasure of stepping in the ring with.”

PINKLON THOMAS
December 9, 1988, Convention Center, Atlantic City, New Jersey • Titles: None

“Holyfield had good handspeed at that time because he was moving from cruiserweight to heavyweight. He had fought James Tillis and I was his second heavyweight fight. He had good footspeed; moved really good on his legs. He had a nice style, I liked his style, I was very impressed by him.”

Holyfield (right) attacks Douglas. Photo from The Ring archive

BUSTER DOUGLAS
October 25, 1990, Mirage Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada • Titles: Undisputed heavyweight

“Holyfield had some good foot movement; he pivoted pretty good. He had good hands as well. He was very active and threw good combinations. What made his power different was speed, he had good handspeed. He was always ready – mentally, physically – each and every time out of the gate.”

GEORGE FOREMAN
April 19, 1991, Convention Center, Atlantic City, New Jersey • Titles: Undisputed heavyweight

“Evander was a good boxer. He’d wait for an opening and he’d throw combinations. Evander hit me – I don’t know – 25, 30 times and when he didn’t do anything to me, he threw an elbow to make it look as though I was staggering. It wasn’t even a shot, it was rude and crude, but it’s boxing, he knew that even if they didn’t do damage, they’d sway the judges. The combinations, he threw them like a middleweight. A few times I hit him pretty good. He was great at covering up and stepping out of the way. I’d hit him with a hard shot, rock him a little bit and he’d always hit me back. I’d never seen a guy with that much determination, other than Muhammad Ali, who had more determination than I’d ever seen in my life. I think (Holyfield) could have hung with anybody in any era, the guy was that good.”

Bowe (left) at his very best against Evander Holyfield in their first fight. Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

RIDDICK BOWE
November 13, 1992, Thomas & Mack Las Vegas • Titles: Undisputed heavyweight
November 6, 1992, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas • Titles: IBF and WBA heavyweight
November 4, 1995, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas • Titles: None

“He was better than anyone I ever fought. He could think, he could match wits with you. Our fights were so good because he could match me in the thinking aspect. He was always in such great shape. He had the best defense, the best offense. I mean hands down, he made you work. I could shake Evander and he’d come back with four, five shots. And if you weren’t in shape, that’s when he was going to get you. He was always going to come back at you. Evander had not only great hand speed but he put something on it. In the third fight he knocked me down. What he did was throw a [relatively light] left hook and I was thinking, “C’mon man.” He threw another [weak] left hook and I was like, “Really?” I didn’t realize that he was setting me up to relax. The third one he hit me with I seen the lights and the count. I’m like, “Damn, he fooled me again !” When I had him in trouble, he had damn good feet (laughs). I know one thing: When you hit him and hurt him like in the first fight, he was hard to catch up with. I truly believe it was because he was able to maneuver in such a manner. Evander was smart, he was a thinker, he was in great shape, he had all the attributes to make him a great champion. That’s why he and I fought against each other so hard and so well.”

MICHAEL MOORER
April 22, 1994, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas • Titles: IBF and WBA heavyweight
November 8, 1997, Thomas & Mack Las Vegas • Titles: IBF and WBA heavyweight

“I feel Evander was the best that I faced because he was always at his peak. When you are at your peak, you are always ready for everything and anything that is put before you. So, I feel that he would have to be the best one that I fought because he would always get himself in the best shape possible for any fight. He was always that guy. If he did not beat you the first time, he would beat you the second time. Evander is always going to be a good guy. He studies you. He was a student of the game and he perfected it. I’ve always respected his smarts. Evander was always going to have the best skills over the majority of boxers because of his pedigree. He knew how to box; he knew how to punch and he knew how to fight. I would say he was the best boxer because he adapted, he made the adjustments. He was a pro. He knew what to do and how to do it. Evander is synonymous with boxing.”

RAY MERCER
May 20, 1995, Convention Center, Atlantic City, New Jersey • Titles: None

“He was just fast. Before you know it, the jab is coming back. He was a smaller guy, so he was obviously faster than the big guys. When he threw punches, he didn’t just hit and stay there, he was a very smart fighter, he’d hit you and move to the side. He’ll come back with something and move to the other side. He’s real slick on his feet. Everybody knows he’s got the skills to hit and move, hit and not get hit. He was slick, everything his trainer told him to do he does. He was in a position to punch all the time, that’s one thing that amazes me, you have to have good footwork for that. He knows all the moves; he’ll make you pay for your mistakes. He’s just a natural, he’s got everything, he’s complete, he’s ‘The Real Deal.’”

MIKE TYSON
November 9, 1996, MGM Grand, Las Vegas • Titles: WBA heavyweight
June 28, 1997, MGM Grand, Las Vegas • Titles: WBA heavyweight

“He threw terrific shots with both hands and with bad intentions. Great champion: chin, heart, determination, work ethic, demeanor.”

Lewis on the attack against Holyfield in the rematch. Photo by Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images

LENNOX LEWIS
March 13, 1999, Madison Square Garden, New York • Titles: Undisputed heavyweight
November 13, 1999, Thomas & Mack Las Vegas • Titles: Undisputed heavyweight

“Evander was very talented. The word was that he was the greatest heavyweight of our era but nobody could say that until he fought Lennox Lewis. In the first fight he was overconfident, singing during his ring walk, so I went after him and he was shocked to get that draw. Second time around he knew what to expect, so it was a tougher fight but I still won comfortably. Holyfield had excellent variety to his defense. He could cross his arms like George Foreman, but he was also well schooled in the traditional type of defense you get taught in the amateurs. Evander presented a real challenge and I had to put in a lot of effort to break through. I couldn’t just land one or two shots and be content; it had to be threes, fours and fives. Holyfield was the best opponent I faced in my career.”

JOHN RUIZ
August 12, 2000, Paris, Las Vegas • Titles: vacant WBA heavyweight
March 3, 2001, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas • Titles: WBA heavyweight
December 15, 2001, Foxwoods Resort, Mashantucket, Connecticut • Titles: WBA heavyweight

“No matter what I did, he escaped, except for that one time (Ruiz dropped Holyfield in the 11th round of their second fight). He had the best ring smarts. He knew what needed to be done to win. He had the big name and always went to war. He brought everything but the kitchen sink into the ring to use. He knew how to win and did everything to win.”

CHRIS BYRD
December 14, 2002, Convention Center, Atlantic City • Titles: vacant IBF heavyweight

“He tried to put you in traps. I’m not stupid in the ring, but he tried to trap me in the corner. It was a cat and mouse game. He would take steps both ways to try to trap me. I had to go in my bag of tricks. He used his head at certain times. It was smart stuff and it breaks a guy down in the course of the fight.”

 

Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter @AnsonWainwright

 

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