Boxing


Evander Holyfield: What Has The Old Man Got Left?

evander holyfield22.08.06 - By Stuart Cornwell: On October 19th, less than two months from now, living legend Evander Holyfield will turn forty-four. His latest victory, last Friday night against Jeremy Bates of West Virginia, marked the beginning of yet another attempt to re-establish himself as the world’s undisputed heavyweight champion, a title he first won sixteen years ago. Reports suggest his next fight will take place in November, possibly against the very capable Sinan Samil Sam.

The manner in which Holyfield took care of Bates was as impressive as anyone could have expected from a man of 43 who is considered completely finished as a world-class fighter. Coming into this fight having lost his last three, and coming straight off a 19-month layoff, it would have come as no real surprise to see him struggle against even a mediocre fighter such as Bates. The two-round beating Evander Holyfield dished out on Jeremy Bates has at least shown that a gulf in class still exists between the aged former champion and the lower-rung journeymen of the division..

My first thoughts on hearing news of Holyfield’s latest win were mostly negative. His previous fight, a lop-sided points defeat to Larry Donald in November 2004, had led me to dismiss him categorically as a “shot” fighter. A win over Jeremy Bates can be dismissed as only a little more demonstrative and meaningful than a public work out - if one wishes to take the wholly negative viewpoint. Jeremy Bates is almost certainly the weakest opponent Holyfield has faced in the last twenty years - and that needs to be taken into account.

On first viewing footage of the fight I was a little disappointed, having read this was a far better Holyfield than we had seen in years. Despite my scepticism over those claims, and my calculated impression of the fight as (in unkind terms) a shot old fighter against a tomato can, part of me was at least a little excited over seeing how much truth there was in that assessment. I suppose I had read the somewhat flattering reports and subconsciously pictured a return to the vintage Holyfield, the fighter who destroyed Adilson Rodrigues in two rounds, and Buster Douglas in three. Of course that fighter is probably gone forever. Instead we have a older version of that fighter - a man who can still put together effective combinations but not in the same scintillating manner and with the same grace and poise as he had in his brilliant prime.

Having already written him off as “shot” I was not about to change my tune all of a sudden. The win over Bates tells us nothing regarding his chances against world-class opposition, and in fact it is still wise to go look at his defeat to Donald and the 9th round drubbing he suffered at the hands of James Toney in 2003 to help assess those chances. But to be fair to Holyfield, on watching the footage of the Bates fight for the second time, I must say that to label him “shot” was a premature judgment on my part. He is certainly an old fighter. But “shot” implies he has nothing left. I am now asking, how much has the old man got left ?

The Larry Donald fight suggested he had nothing left. My impression of that fight was that here was an Evander Holyfield devoid of his reflexes, a fighter who may still see the openings but unable to pull the trigger in time, his body completely out of synch with his instincts. I assumed the problem was some sort of irreversible neuro-muscular deterioration caused by the natural aging process. The James Toney fight, now almost three years ago, showed him to be a fighter who could still start strong but one who would run out of steam rather quickly. Getting beat up the way he did against Toney was a shocking result, considering his legendary reputation as a durable heavyweight. I assumed the problem was that his body, although still strong, was prone to tire quicker than it had in his youth, and was more vulnerable to the rigours of battle.

Holyfield himself has always maintained his poor performances in recent years were the result of injuries to his shoulder and back. Whereas before I would have dismissed those excuses as the words of a proud but deluded man, now I am more inclined to be more guarded with my criticisms of this great fighter. Being “too old”, “over-the-hill”, “washed up” or and just downright “shot” are in essence other ways of saying there is something physically or psychologically wrong with a fighter, something that is linked to the accumulative effects of a lengthy career or the passage of time. But it would be wrong to think that all problems caused over time cannot be cured over time. Some problems are clearly reversible.

In light of the win over Jeremy Bates, which is admittedly a relatively meaningless result, I cannot help but think perhaps I got it wrong about the Larry Donald fight. The irreversible problem I had imagined was hindering him against Donald - along with an additional nineteen months worth of ring rust and deterioration - would have prevented him from looking so superior to Bates last Friday. While on first viewing the Holyfield-Bates fight I stubbornly asserted that he had not necessarily improved on his form against Donald but had merely found a tomato can opponent to stand still for him, on watching it again I had to admit this was not a fighter with frazzled reflexes. The reason he had looked so bad against Larry Donald was probably injury-related.

Of course I will not ignore the fact that Larry Donald was a good fighter - tall, skilful and with good movement. He is a cut or two above the Jeremy Bates’s of this world. I have no reason yet to say Holyfield at this stage of his career could beat Donald or a fighter of that caliber and style over 12 rounds, if only for the fact that I am not convinced Holyfield’s injuries will not return. On the other hand, a Holyfield free of injury could prove to be a completely different animal to the one who lost to Donald.

If Evander Holyfield’s poor performances against Larry Donald (L12), James Toney (LTKO9) and Chris Byrd (L12) - in 2004, 2003 and 2002 respectively - really were the result of painful and mobility-restricting injuries that have now been cured, then it is impossible to gauge how much he can go on to do in boxing. His form prior to those fights was demonstrated in an impressive showing against Hasim Rahman, in a fight that ended unsatisfactorily (with Rahman being retired with a huge swelling after a clash of heads) but in which Holyfield seemed to be getting the upper hand. Although that fight took place over four years ago (in June 2002), it is worth remembering that he was already almost 40 at the time and had been combatting accusations of being “washed-up” for the best part of the previous decade. He did not look “too old” then, so it is not unfeasible that he is still not too old.

What I would find incredible is not that he could regain the form needed to defeat a genuine top 10 world-ranked fighter - or one of the so-called “world champions” - but that he could sustain that form through the handful of fights he would need to complete his personal mission of becoming the world’s undisputed heavyweight champion. If his next fight does turn out to be against Sinan Samil Sam, he will be facing a far stiffer test than the one Jeremy Bates presented.

Sam is a tough, rugged fighter - a genuine fringe contender - and will certainly be confident of beating an old Evander Holyfield. Stylistically though, I do not think Sam is a bad choice for Holyfield - he hits reasonably hard but is not an atomic puncher, and he is not a defensive genius likely to give the old man the slippery run around. Sam seems like the ideal test ; if Holyfield wins he can reasonably call for a shot at one of the “world” titles - or square off with one of the leading contenders - if he loses he should perhaps go back to fighting the likes of Jeremy Bates.

Evander Holyfield is and always has been an exceptional fighter and an exceptional human being. Other exceptional fighters, such as Bob Fitzsimmons, Archie Moore, Dick Tiger, George Foreman and Larry Holmes, have already proved that age in itself should not prove an insurmountable handicap to success in the boxing ring. I think we can be sure that Holyfield has not suffered any psychological wear and tear from his defeats. There can be no doubt that Holyfield possesses the same dedication, desire and mental discipline that he has possessed his entire career. This is where he differs from most of the fighters who became old and washed-up. His self-belief is remarkable.

Physically Evander Holyfield will always enter the ring in the best possible shape. He will always fight to the finish and he will never quit. His mentality demands so. But temporary injuries or chronic ailments may prevent him from doing what he believes he will do. He is confident that any such conditions are no longer present, but for how long that can remain so is another question. Holyfield may well be over-the-hill in the sense that his body will never again be capable of undergoing the demands put on it by the efforts required to achieve the goals set by his mind. But as long as he is capable of beating up lower-rung journeymen in the manner in which he beat up Jeremy Bates, I will refrain from writing him off as “shot” or “washed up”. And as long as there are holders of “world” titles out there who I do not think could have done a better job against those lower-rung journeymen, I will not mock his chances of becoming world champion.

Article posted on 22.08.2006



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