CANASTOTA, N.Y. – He might have mentioned deceased mentors George Benton, Lou Duva and Dan Duva, as well as a few others who to one degree or another helped him along the way, as having had a positive influence on an illustrious career that landed him in the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017. And maybe Evander Holyfield would have done that, had his extemporaneous remarks here Sunday afternoon not been limited to the five minutes or so as prescribed by IBHOF officials, the better to keep the induction ceremony moving along at a semi-brisk pace.
But the only man ever to hold at least a version of the heavyweight championship four times was free to speak about whatever he had a mind to, and it was soon obvious to a standing-room-only crowd that his intent was to devote virtually all of his allotted time (which turned out to be a slightly extended 7 minutes, 24 seconds) to the one person most responsible for molding him into the high-principled man and much-admired fighter he ultimately became.
It might have been Benton and Lou Duva who sharpened his ring skills, and Lou’s son, Dan, who promoted him at the outset of a career in which he would go on to earn more than $200 million, but it was Annie Holyfield, Evander’s tough-love mother, who put the steel in his spine, the refusal to submit to adversity in his character and the unwavering devotion to God and family in his heart.
Exactly 28 days after Mother’s Day, Evander Holyfield ‘s keynote address (he had the plum assignment of speaking last) was basically a love letter to Annie, who was, is and forever shall be the most important influence in his life. No real surprise there; anyone who knows him even reasonably well is aware that the “Real Deal” is an unapologetic mama’s boy.
What wasn’t as widely known until Evander’s turn at the podium is that, at 54, he can tell tales of corporal punishment dished out by Annie and her eight older children that were at once poignant and standup-comedy-routine funny.
No doubt Annie would have applauded her youngest child’s bravura performance on the occasion of his being officially immortalized, had she been there to see it. But the woman who stressed to Evander that “a good attitude is better than talent” was 68 when she died on May 13, 1996, from head injuries she sustained in an automobile wreck several days earlier. Then again, life lessons ingrained early and reinforced often have a tendency to live on beyond the grave, provided the bond between teacher and student is strong enough.
Evander’s boxing journey might have ended before it began were it not for Annie, who agreed to let him join the Warren Boys Club in Atlanta, Ga., when he was eight.
“The coach told me I could be like Muhammad Ali,” Evander said. “I told the coach I was eight years old. He told me I wouldn’t always be eight. And I believed him, ’cause the next week I was gonna be nine.
“I told I had to ask my mama because regardless of what that man said, if my mama said I couldn’t be (a boxer), I couldn’t be it. So I went home and asked her. She said, `Do you know what they gonna do to you?’ I said, `Uh-uh.’ She said, `They gonna hit you.’ But I was the youngest in the family, I got hit all the time. I got three whuppings a day. I was used to getting hit.
“My mama told me I could hit (the other young boxers) back. And that’s how boxing started with me.”
Boxing, maybe, but this particular story had another round or two to go.
“My first fight, I fought a guy and my coach said, `You see that kid there?’ I said, `Yes, sir.’ He said, `(When) the bell ring, I want you to hit him right in the nose.’
“I looked at the kid and his coach was telling him to hit me in the nose. But there’s three things my mama taught me: listen, follow directions and don’t quit. So I got down in my stance, the bell ring, the kid ran out there and I ran out there. But he closed his eyes. I didn’t close my eyes. I hit him right in the nose. He started crying. The referee stopped the fight and my coach, Carter Morgan, who was about 70 years old, with the big stomach and eagles (tattoos) on his arms, was trying to get in there and got stuck in the ropes. He was so excited. When he got in there, he raised my hand and told me I took my first step to being the heavyweight champ of the world.”
Long story short, Evander went on to win a bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (it probably would have been a gold had he not received a horribly unjust disqualification in his semifinal match) and went on to post a 44-10-2 record, with 29 KOs, during a 27-year pro career, winning the undisputed cruiserweight championship as well as those four heavyweight titles, with victories over, among others, Dwight Muhammad Qawi (twice), Buster Douglas, Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson (twice) and Michael Moorer. Not too shabby for a mama’s boy.
Although the gone-but-not-forgotten Annie was there only in spirit, Evander – who had not previously been to Canastota – had a substantial cheering section. Three of his sisters were in attendance, as were six of his 11 children and Toi Irvin, who identified herself as his wife.
Joining Holyfield in the Class of 2017 were living inductees Marco Antonio Barrera (Modern), Steve Farhood and Barry Tompkins (Observer), Johnny Lewis and Jerry Roth (Non-Participant) and posthumous honorees Johnny Tapia (Modern), Jimmy Lennon Sr. (Non-Participant) and Eddie Booker (Old-Timer).
The 43-year-old Barrera, 67-7 with 44 KOs, is one of Mexico’s finest fighters and a world titlist in three weight classes. He said his IBHOF induction capped “the best week in my life because I am with the champions of now and the champions of before.”
Accepting for Tapia, who was 45 when he died of heart problems on May 27, 2012, was his widow and onetime manager, Teresa Tapia. Speaking as if her husband, who was 59-5-2 with 30 KOs, and the winner of five world championships in three weight classes, were still around, she said, “Today, Johnny, the fans and the boxing community have returned the love that you gave throughout your career. From this day forward, Johnny, you shall be immortalized with the greats that fought before you. Your name, memory and enormous heart will live on forever.”
Jimmy Lennon Jr., the Showtime ring announcer who preceded his father as an inductee into the IBHOF in 2013, praised him as “the greatest ring announcer of all time. My dad shattered the stereotype of a ring announcer at that time (the early stages of a career that spanned from 1943 to his death on April 20, 1992, at 79). I think boxing was considered something of an underbelly sport and ring announcers wore disheveled clothes, and maybe a cigar out of their mouths. My dad could not be any more different. He had a beautiful tuxedo and an elegance of flair and class to him, and a tenor-trained voice that was crystal-clear.”
Farhood, 60, and Tompkins, 76, for the past five years broadcast partners on ShoBox: The Next Generation, took somewhat different paths to having their plaques hung in the IBHOF. Farhood started out as a print journalist before transitioning to television, spending his entire career covering boxing. Tompkins was more a jack-of-all trades, serving as the voice of many sports but with a special fondness for the fight game.
“Over the years I’ve been asked why I have covered boxing and no other sports,” Farhood said. “My response to that question was, `Why would a journalist want to cover anything other than boxing?’ There is nothing quite as revealing, quite as invigorating, quite as electric, quite as magical as a great fight.”
Said Tompkins: “What makes this day so humbling is that it is an acknowledgment by my peers that maybe, over the course of 40-odd years, along the line I contributed a thing or two to this great sport that has survived since the Marquess of Queensberry decided that we couldn’t go eye-gouging any longer. And much as great fighters make great fights, great fights make great television. I’ve really been privileged to be a part of some pretty great fights.”
Lewis, 73, has been a trainer in his native Australia since he was 17, and among his proteges are Hall of Famers Jeff Fenech and Kostya Tszyu. Roth, 76, makes history as the first boxing judge to be enshrined, a distinction earned by his having officiated 225 world championship bouts in a career that spanned nearly 35 years at ringside. And Booker, who was 57 when he died on Jan. 26, 1975, earned the nickname “Black Dynamite” by posting a 66-5-8 record, with 34 KOs, from 1935 to ’44, with victories over, among others, Archie Moore, Holman Williams and Lloyd Marshall.
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