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Holyfield Ignores the Lesson of King Canute

BY David Payne ON August 22, 2005
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Legend states that Viking King, Canute the Great, once sat on the medieval seashores of England, resplendently robed atop his thrown and commanded the rising tide to “go back.” As the waves lapped around his ankles, Canute, a wise king and astute politician, used the exercise to illustrate that though the deeds of kings may seem great to the minds of men, they were nothing in the face of God’s power.

In modern parlance, Canute knew when to quit.

A thousand years on, Evander Holyfield, a God-fearing man from a similarly combative world, is aiming, metaphorically at least, to take up King Canute’s challenge. Holyfield (42), with just two victories in his last nine contests, seeks to repel the tide, to defy the lunar cycle and, in short, freeze time. Hell, perhaps even turn it back a little.

Unlike the 11th century monarch who sought only to prove to his sycophantic courtiers that his achievements and wisdom offered him no special powers, Holyfield, a product of the tough Atlanta projects, stubbornly ignores the pleas of his own boxing court. In New York last week, a three man commission revoked his boxing license on the grounds of “diminished skills and performance” in the latest attempt to supposedly protect Holyfield from himself.

A former undisputed cruiserweight and four-time heavyweight champion, who has faced and beaten some of the sport’s hardest men, will need more than a faceless panel, no matter how well intended, to be deterred from what he believes to be his destiny – to lay claim to the heavyweight championship for the fifth time. With a battery of physical tests passed, he now appears more likely than ever to find a home for his crusade. It simply won’t be in New York.

In the all too cruel sport of boxing, there will be a healthy line of aspiring and tiring contenders willing to trample on the remnants of Holyfield’s once great legacy … turning Holyfield’s own insatiable appetite and pride against him to add his name, though tarnished, to their boxing resume. Amongst this collection there will not be a single man Holyfield, being Holyfield – the most indefatigable of men – will not believe he can beat.

Holyfield is a name these contenders crave for their ledgers because of a reputation and standing hewn from more than two decades at the pugilistic coal face, in a career that already ensures the father of ten, and youngest child of nine, boxing immortality. Holyfield has grown so synonymous with grit, heart and unswerving determination that his name spawned a brand – “Warrior” – and few fighters have a more befitting moniker.

The story of an ageing, at risk, faded Holyfield isn’t new. Lazarus-like career resurrections against all-time greats Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson and most recently the less celebrated former champion Hasim Rahman, sustain Holyfield despite a catalogue of recent failure, helping him keep the faith even though those around him have lost theirs and implore him to give up on his dream.

As long ago as 1994, Holyfield was considered finished and medically unfit to compete following a heart complaint that at least temporarily forced him to retire. Fans and writers feared for his safety on his return in 1995 following a miraculous, inexplicable recovery, when he faced a supposedly rejuvenated Mike Tyson in a fight in which some felt Holyfield could, literally, die. The rest, of course, is history.

So the story has done the rounds. We’ve been here before, but this time the reasoning seems illogical.

Boxing is clearly trying to appear to “do the right thing,” painting a shiny compassionate veneer on its beleaguered image. However, the sport’s insistence on targeting one of its most distinguished exponents, particularly on the entirely subjective grounds of “diminished skills and performances,” stinks of double standards. It isn’t fair to toy with Holyfield’s career simply for good PR.
 
Admittedly, only fools would claim that Holyfield hasn’t deteriorated as a fighter; losses to fleshy Puerto Rican John Ruiz, blown-up middleweight James Toney and, most depressing of all, a shutout loss to veteran fringe contender Larry Donald constitute compelling evidence of his decline. And it isn’t just the results; the nature of the performances have been hard to stomach for fans who remember Holyfield in his prime.

But in truth, is that really the issue? Since when did becoming a losing fighter urge boxing commissions to prevent fighters doing what they do best, which is fight? It seems Holyfield is being punished for his own success. If Holyfield is physically fit to compete, how can he be simultaneously barred from boxing simply because he’s no longer the fighter he once was?

This is the same sport that welcomed back Ray Mercer recently aged 44, right? Isn’t this the same sport that dreaded but embraced Thomas Hearns’ return too? Didn’t I read 47-year-old Tony Tubbs won a fight somewhere? Have these commissions not seen Garing Lane’s recent record? They know 48-year-old Marion Wilson is still allowed to duke it out with Oliver McCall, right? They know Larry Holmes didn’t retire in ’86, don’t they? And most telling of all, a fighter with whom Holyfield shares so much history, Riddick Bowe, was allowed to return following an eight year hiatus and proven cerebral degeneration.

So why is Evander Holyfield different? Why does Holyfield seemingly threaten the integrity of sport by carrying on?

Did nobody remind the various commissions and fans hell-bent on preventing Holyfield from fighting again that champions always fight beyond their prime? That they always stay too long? It always ends this way. The draw of the crowd is the drug, the attention, the competition, the adulation. Champions cannot leave it behind. It’s those same intangibles that will pitch Roy Jones Jr., knocked out in last two fights, back into the ring with his nemesis and undisputed champion Antonio Tarver.

Is someone telling me Jones isn’t suffering from “diminished skills and performance?” Five years ago he’d have beaten Tarver and Glengoffe Johnson in the same night and probably gone one-on-one with Charles Barkley between rounds.

So someone somewhere please enlighten me. Why is Evander Holyfield different? If he wants to fight, and no amount of medical testing can find a reason to prevent him doing so, let him.

Maybe one day he’ll feel the tide lapping at his ankles.

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