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Fright Night : Nice Guys Finish on the Canvas

November 09, 1996|JIM MURRAY

LAS VEGAS — The thing about Evander Holyfield, the fistfighter, is that when you first encounter him, you aren't sure you have encountered him.

It's not that he's nondescript, really. It's more that he fades into the background, as if he's camouflaged.

He's kind of invisible as a heavyweight champion. Champion after the reigns of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Like getting a spot on a vaudeville bill between a talking dog and a guy who saws a girl in half.

He's not obsequious, simply polite. Civilized, really. Miscast as a pugilist.

You know how heavyweight champs are: "I am the greatest!" "I can lick any man in the house!" "I'll moider da bum!" Holyfield just kind of hangs his head and says he'll do his best. He always reminded me of a guy standing in the rain waiting for a bus that never came.

In the first place, heavyweight champions are not named Evander. They're named John L. or Jack or Jersey Joe or K.O. Can you imagine anyone calling Evander the Brown Bomber? The Manassa Mauler? The Bushwick Assassin?

He's almost an opponent. An opponent in fight-game jargon is sort of a nonperson, a guy you measure against more colorful or talented pugs he meets. A guy who looks good on your record, a guy who's meant to look good--but not too good.

Interim champs have never fared too well in public esteem. They're kind of like sidekicks in the movies, straight men in the comedies. Below-the-title billing.

You go a long way toward understanding Holyfield's place in the pugilistic scheme of things when you know he made his initial reputation getting jobbed in the '84 Olympics. He knocked out a New Zealander named Kevin Barry but the referee decided he hadn't bent his elbow enough--or some such idiot infraction--delivering the blow.

That was vintage Holyfield. He wasn't particularly upset by it. Indignation is not part of his arsenal. He deals with misfortune as equably as he deals with good fortune. Twenty lawyers wanted to sue the Olympics for him. Holyfield shrugged.

He began his pro career on that negative note--the man the Olympics wronged. He got sympathy, not acclaim.

He wasn't big, he wasn't fast. He was just ubiquitous. He fought a dogged kind of style. It wasn't exciting but he managed to win. Holyfield was like that mythological ballplayer who can't hit, can't field and can't throw--all he does is beat you.

Holyfield, though, was not without skill. He somehow found his way through the thickets of pro boxing's obstacle course of championships to find himself in line for a title shot.

The heavyweight division had an odd assortment of characters in those days, guys who used to be called second-raters, guys named Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, Henry Tillman, Bert Cooper, Alex Stewart, guys who were in shape for one fight and not for the next two.

Holyfield had one advantage over them: He was in shape for all of them. He had the work ethic of a Yankee cabinet maker. He won 'em all.

And for once, he was in the right place at the right time. He was negotiating for a fight with Tyson, the undisputed champ, when Tyson split for Tokyo and what was to have been an easy pickup of a few million yen fighting a palooka named Buster Douglas. But Buster busted him and it was the greatest break of Holyfield's career.

Holyfield got a fight with Douglas, who showed up at the weigh-in looking like a bowl of whipped cream. When he got whipped in three rounds, Holyfield found himself in possession of the same hallowed title that had belonged to Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Ali.

No one ever mixed him up with any of those, but Holyfield picked up a few pay nights beating the likes of superannuated former titleholders like Larry Holmes, who threw up in the ring, and George Foreman, who was a member in good standing at the time of the American Assn. of Retired Persons.

Holyfield lost his title to Riddick Bowe, who lost no time himself retrogressing the title back to its hall-of-mirrors, alphabet-soup confusion of identities.

No one can quite figure out why Holyfield is fighting Tyson at the MGM Grand tonight. Wouldn't it be simpler just to step in front of a train? Call Dr. Kevorkian on his mobile phone?

Tyson is not to be confused with a guy who, so to speak, wins with bunts, deft base-running, or jabs or footwork. Tyson is not a Holyfield, Tyson is a holy terror. If you saw him coming, you'd cross the street.

Holyfield is past his prime, whatever that was. When he was thought to have heart irregularities, and the doctors downplayed it and gave him permission to get on with his active lifestyle, they probably thought it meant he would play 18 holes of golf, swim the channel, play five sets of tennis or run a marathon. They never envisioned 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. A lion would need a doctor's OK for that.

Holyfield has a 53,000-square-foot mansion in Georgia, the first nickel he ever made, and he's on a first-name basis with God. But he hankers to get out of his old anonymous, face-in-the-crowd identity in boxing history. He wants to Be Somebody.

Remember the old Marlon Brando movie character and his lament, "I coulda been somebody, I coulda been a contenda!"? That's Evander. He wants to be mentioned in the same breath some day with the greats of old. He wants to be a Manassa Mauler, a Bushwick Assassin, not old Evander What's-His-Name.

"I won't be scared," he promises.

The captain of the Titanic said that about the icebergs.

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