NEW YORK – Given the fact that New York is literally the only jurisdiction in the world in which he is not allowed to box, Evander Holyfield’s decision to announce his Nov. 10 bout against Fred Oquendo in the Big Apple smacked of one-upmanship – particularly since the former heavyweight champion’s appearance at Gallagher’s Steak House Thursday preceded, by a matter of hours, the first performance of Cherry’s Patch, a play by Ron Scott Stevens which debuted a bit further off Broadway, at the SoHo Playhouse, that same evening.
The playwright also happens to be the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, and in that role 22 months earlier he had suspended Holyfield’s boxing license after what Stevens deemed a “poor performance” indicative of deteriorating skills, in the wake of Holyfield’s losing effort against Larry Donald at Madison Square Garden in November of 2004.
That Holyfield would defiantly march into Stevens’ home turf to announce a fight taking place in San Antonio appeared, on the surface, to be a provocative, in-your-face gesture.
In any case, Stevens, who rarely misses a boxing press conference, skipped this one, and not just because he was preoccupied with Opening Night jitters.
“I didn’t think I needed to fuel the fire,” said Stevens. “There was no reason for me to be there.”
“I don’t want to see him, either,” said Holyfield with a shrug.
The Real Deal insisted that his presence in New York had nothing to do with Stevens or the residual bitterness over his suspension there.
“I’m not sending a message,” said Holyfield. “I didn’t ask to come here. They (promoters Murad Muhammad and Lou DiBella) chose to have the press conference here. I’m here because I was invited. If I hadn’t been invited I wouldn’t have come.”
Although he is prohibited from boxing throughout New York State, Holyfield appeared to be under the impression that he was unwelcome only in New York City.
“I kind of feel that if anybody doesn’t allow me to fight here, the city would have to make that decision themselves – to get rid of him (Stevens) if they want me to fight here,” said Holyfield. “I don’t want to be nowhere where I’m not welcome, anyway. If they don’t want me to be there then I won’t be there.”
The Donald fight represented Holyfield’s third loss on the trot – decisions to Chris Byrd and Donald, sandwiched around a TKO at the hands of James Toney.
“It appeared to me that Evander was unable to pull the trigger when he wanted to, and that he couldn’t adequately defend himself that night,” recalled Stevens. “I went home that night thinking about that fight. I kept thinking of Anthony Quinn and John Lithgow (the protagonists in the screen and stage versions of Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight) and the way they were stripped of their dignity. I was so upset to think of that happening to Evander.
“I contacted the other two commissioners and the Chief Medical Examiner, and they felt the same way. The decision was unanimous.”
The Donald fight had taken place on Nov. 11. On November 13, Stevens alerted FightFax that Holyfield had been placed on indefinite medical suspension, and within hours reporters were telephoning him from all over the country. According to the provisions of the Muhammad Ali Act, the suspension would have to be honored in all 50 states.
Holyfield accused Stevens of grandstanding by announcing the suspension at a press conference rather than confronting him directly.
“I’m not a kid. I’m an adult,” said Evander. “I respect anybody. I wouldn’t just come out and get you in front of the press and say ‘I don’t like what you said about me.’ If I didn’t like what you said I’d come to you in private and say ‘I don’t appreciate what you said about me,’ not wait till a press conference to make myself look good by telling somebody you can’t protect yourself and you got an ego.
“Look, if I had an ego I would have got on TV and told him how I felt,” continued Holyfield. “It’s not about egos. The point is that if you don’t respect me, you respect the next man. If you felt that I failed you should have come and asked me ‘What’s the problem?’ or even quietly said ‘We advise you to step down or we’re going to have to take your license.’
“In big major companies they still offer executives money to step down,” pointed out Holyfield. “They say ‘We want you to resign, because we don’t want to embarrass you by having to say we fired you.’ It’s just a point of respect. After all the things I’ve accomplished in the game of boxing you’ve got people who don’t care enough about me to ask me a question?”
Holyfield termed the New York action “disrespectful.”
“If you really care about me, you ought to come and ask me ‘What’s the problem?’” he said. “If they’d asked me, I’d have told them I’d had three surgeries. It’s just like a sprinter pulling a hamstring and people asking him ‘Why ain’t you running that 10-flat no more?’ A person don’t just stop overnight.
“It would be a different thing if I’d lived a rough life, but I haven’t lived a rough life. I live a decent life” pointed out the four-time champion. “My body ain’t just going to change overnight. People don’t just become old in one day. I think it’s disrespectful to embarrass a person by saying ‘You’re not smart enough to take care of yourself, so I have to take care of you.’
“I wouldn’t sit here and say ‘I’m not going to talk to you because I don’t like what you wrote,’” groused Holyfield. “I talk to you. But you need to show me some courtesy and respect and not try to make yourself look big ‘cause you’re helping Evander Holyfield.”
Stevens says that it was never his intent to embarrass Holyfield, and that he informed the ex-champion’s manager-of-record at the time before publicly announcing the suspension.
“But I didn’t want to delay it, either,” said the commissioner. “If we’d waited three or four days it might have appeared capricious.”
Holyfield, as anticipated, did not take the matter lightly. He fought back, and within a year of the suspension had undergone a battery of seven medical tests – six of which were taken in New York. He passed all of them.
New Yorklifted the ‘indefinite medical suspension,’ replacing it instead with an ‘administrative suspension,’ meaning that while Holyfield can still not box in New York, other states are not bound to honor the ban.
“I know what the tests showed, but I also know what I was able to see with my own eyes,” explained Stevens. “It was apparent to me that Evander’s skills have deteriorated to the point that I don’t think he should be allowed to fight. I’ve been around this business, as a matchmaker, promoter, and commissioner, for 25 years, so I think I know what I’m seeing. He thinks he knows what’s best, but I’m not sure he’s in a position to be as objective as we are.”
“If a state Athletic Commission is unable to protect boxers, what’s the point of having Athletic Commissions?” asked Stevens. “Are we supposed to just dole out licenses?”
“They lifted the ban for me to fight anywhere except New York,” noted Holyfield. “The person (his description of Stevens) said himself, ‘I don’t think he should be licensed.’ Here’s a man who set out for me to go get tested, and once I was tested and passed, he said he knew more than the doctors. He was bigger than the test itself.”
“And if Evander Holyfield suffers from pugilistica dementia in five or ten years down the road, everyone will be saying we ‘don’t take care of our own,’” said Stevens.
Ironically, the court of public opinion began to swing in Holyfield’s favor, not because of his ring activity, but because of his graceful performance on “Dancing With the Stars.”
At the very least, he didn’t dance like he was punch-drunk.
Licensed to box in Texas, he fought last month against Jeremy Bates, stopping him in two rounds. It had widely been assumed that Holyfield’s comeback would follow a path similar to the one George Foreman blazed two decades earlier, and that Jeremy Bates would be followed by Norman Bates. Instead, he has agreed to fight Oquendo, a man who could be dangerous even on a bad night.
“All fighters are dangerous,” said Holyfield. “The worst thing would be to get beat by somebody everyone thinks can’t fight.”
Eighteen years have elapsed since Holyfield’s professional debut, a win over Lionel Byarm at, ironically, Madison Square Garden. A legend who was 36-3 after beating Vaughn Bean eight years ago has gone 3-5-2 in the ten bouts since. The win over Bates was his first since he turned 40. He will celebrate his 44th birthday nine days after he meets Oquendo.
At the same time, Holyfield might have a point when he claims that he is being punished as much for who he was as for what he is.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of other people who are 22 and 23 who can’t do what I do, and have worse records,” said Holyfield.
Case in point: Last year New York granted a license to 37-year-old Mitchell Rose, whose record is 2-10-1 and who hasn’t won a fight since he beat Butterbean Esch in December of 1995.
If Holyfield were a career-long punching bag with a record of, say, 8-39-2 instead of 39-8-2, might Ron Scott Stevens view the matter in a different light?
“Absolutely not,” said the Commission chairman. “I have the utmost respect for Evander, but he’s not being compared to what he once was. Contrary to what he might choose to believe, there is no ‘vendetta’ against Evander Holyfield. Our decision was based solely upon his poor performance in New York, and in the two fights previous to that, both of which we viewed.”
“Sure, they feel sorry for Evander,” groused Holyfield. “They say ‘he can’t make a decision.’ Well, I can make a decision for myself. If you’re looking to save somebody, save somebody who need saving. Don’t try to save the guy who can swim.”
And to Ron Scott Stevens he might have added (though he didn’t), “Break a leg!”