The CBZ Newswire

Unholy Feel: A Tribute to Evander Holyfield

by on Feb.01, 2010, under Guest Columnists

by Jason Keidel

Passing puberty does not keep a boy from collecting heroes. Children are indeed precious and precocious, but there’s an eternal misperception that once a male hits 21 he is fully developed, unable to daydream or construct an idol.

Evander Holyfield is one of mine. I adopted him in my 20s, when he was in his 30s. Physically perfect and perfectly humble, Holyfield won without the machismo, under the aegis of Jesus, a smile being the closest he came to boasting. His résumé is evident enough without a cut-and-paste on this page.

We have amply frowned upon “Warrior” (Holyfield’s moniker) as an athletic label. Too many limbless soldiers wheel their way back to American hospitals for us to lose perspective. Athletes of the highest order are performers, artists who keep score.

Art is an abstract expression, largely depictions of thought. Though art is very powerful, it doesn’t really happen, meaning that the expression itself is the ending. I enjoyed “Edge of Darkness,” but Mel Gibson didn’t really kill anyone in pursuit of his daughter’s killer.

Evander Holyfield really whipped Mike Tyson’s ass. That’s the thing. And he did it to the glee of a million boys and men who loathed Tyson and his avatar, men who walked with presumed dominance. Tyson admittedly mugged people for lunch money, at least until he found the one kid in school who punched back. Buster Douglas cracked the aura in 1990, and Holyfield shattered it in 1996.

Perhaps it was sweeter and purer than Clay beating Liston because there were too many political (and Cosa Nostra) components in 1964 and ’65. And while Ali was the greatest heavyweight in history, we know he was one to chat a bit.

If cynics observe Holyfield literally, he’ll be sketched a sanctimonious bible-thumper who has fathered a tribe out of wedlock. And he has. Despite this, I don’t doubt the sincerity of his religious beliefs. Only a higher purpose can explain Holyfield’s ascent with inferior talent. What did he do well other than take a punch?

Muhammad Ali, a carouser of comparable depth, fought for one deity, Holyfield for another. No, he does not have Ali’s boxing gifts or social gravitas. He instead quietly inspired a generation during an epoch of crotch-clutching, slam-dunking, home run posing, “SportsCenter” branded moves.

Approaching 50, Holyfield now fights under the dim lights of dementia, a sagging superstar as likely to drool on his gloves as bleed on them. He has lost five of his last nine bouts to names we’ll never know. And I was foolish to think there would be a different ending.

Defending his title several times after he whipped Tyson, Holyfield lost twice to Lennox Lewis (though the judges scored one a draw) in 1999, which should have been his last year of boxing. He is scheduled to fight Frans Botha this year, an entire decade being the bottleneck between his prime and his pasture.

Holyfield is halfway through his descent into mental and financial ruin. His mansions are being foreclosed, the mother of his children nipping at his knees for child support. His speech (never his strength) is slurring, each vowel lost to a slumbering tongue.

Ali indeed has Parkinson’s, but so does Michael J. Fox, and Fox can speak. Ali cannot because of innumerable concussions he suffered every fight after his thirtieth birthday, which could very well be in the hundreds. By contrast, football players have retired with fewer than ten concussions.

There are few beacons at the end of the boxing tunnel, as Holyfield is sure to learn, extending the irony that those who have accomplished the least at dawn often have the most colorful dusk.

Holyfield won more than a belt when he beat Tyson. He wore the largest symbolic crown: anti-bully. Most boys have met a Tyson in their youth. You were a freshman and he was a sophomore. He pushed you and your pals around with impunity. Mine was a guy I’ll call J.D.

One day J.D. came to class with his face pummeled, his eyes swollen like purple walnuts. He donned shades for a week, speaking little, his career as class thug over. I don’t know who did it and thus I never had a chance to thank him. So I thank Evander instead. 

Toward the end of the aforementioned film, a man asks about Gibson’s condition. Terminal, he was told. “We’re all terminal,” was his retort. That is a quintessential truth. I just wish my heroes were not in such a hurry.

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