Holyfield is Still Tinkering as the Head of his own Promotional Company

This is the way it was: in a “historic” joint forum in Atlantic City several weeks in advance of an April 2006, card in Las Vegas which was to be co-promoted by longtime archrivals Don King and Bob Arum, the two aging representatives of old-school boxing promotion ostensibly met with the media to discuss the relative merits of their main-event fighters (Zab Judah for King, Floyd Mayweather for Arum). Perhaps more significantly, bombastic street-guy King and the Harvard-educated man he once had dubbed the “master of trickeration” also wanted to present a united front while they disparaged the notion that the individuals who actually threw punches in the ring had enough business acumen to manage themselves or to promote their own events.

“Recently, unfortunately, what’s happening in boxing, fighters – encouraged by various entities involved in the sport – felt that they could be fighters as well as their own promoters,” Arum said, an undisguised shot at his onetime star client Oscar De La Hoya, who had split from Top Rank to form his own company, Golden Boy Promotions. “Well, they can’t be, just as I can’t go in the ring and jab and throw left hooks and right crosses. Neither can a Swiss banker (that would be then-Golden Boy executive Richard Schaefer), who has no background in boxing and no background in meeting the public, call himself a promoter. But as long as networks encourage that type of action, we’re going to have a rough patch in boxing.”

This is the way it is now, or at least somewhat so: the compliant foot soldiers who once unhesitatingly accepted orders from the Kings, Arums and others of their ilk are getting bolder and more ambitious. To whatever extent they are capable, they want to run the show, to call their own shots, and let the chips fall where they may.

The most recent Audie Murphy determined to become a General MacArthur is four-time former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, 55, titular head of The Real Deal Boxing, who believes a lifetime of involvement in the sport has prepared him for the unique challenge of comfortably slipping into the role of a King or the late Dan Duva, who at various times promoted him during his and their Hall of Fame careers.

Holyfield – still looking as if he could go 12 hard rounds with some of the current ranked heavyweights – came to Philadelphia for the latest baby step in a progression he is convinced will eventually return him to the highest echelon of boxing, with a different set of foot soldiers, under contract to his company, winning the ring battles that over time will enable him to win his share of the promotional wars. Hey, if De La Hoya can do it, why not him?  Could it be any more challenging than going toe-to-toe with Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, George Foreman and so many other elite opponents he faced down with steely resolve and the absolute belief that he could overcome any obstacle put in front of him?

The ample turnout for the weigh-in for Friday night’s seven-bout card at the SugarHouse Casino – the main event of which is an eight-rounder pitting lightweight prospect and Philly native Steven Ortiz (7-0, 2 KOs), who fights under The Real Deal banner, against Joshua Davis (11-2, 5 KOs) – was reminiscent of the glory days of Spectrum Boxing in the 1970s, when big names and big crowds embellished the city’s now-fraying reputation as America’s best, most passionate boxing town. But many of the attendees were not there so much for the occasion’s stated purpose as to meet and greet Holyfield, who will be required to be his company’s star attraction until Ortiz or some other Real Deal fighter eclipses him in stature at some future point.

Among the questions fielded by Holyfield as he pressed the flesh with those seeking mini-audiences with the great man: Who does he think will win next week’s Super Bowl LII, pitting the hometown Philadelphia Eagles against the long-dominant New England Patriots?

“I want the Eagles to win because they’re from the NFC,” replied Holyfield, an Atlanta Falcons fan, a response sure to boost his popularity in a town that loves its NFL team more than cheesesteaks. “I have an affiliation with the NFC. My team is the Falcons, and after the Falcons it’s anyone from the NFC. The Eagles are like my second cousins. I don’t like the AFC. The Patriots are like Tyson (which is to say, always the favorite). The Eagles can do it. Don’t count out the underdog. They always have something to prove.”

Holyfield largely made his reputation as an underdog, a relatively undersized heavyweight who feared no one and fought with a certainty that he would emerge victorious against bigger, stronger and presumably more fearsome (think Tyson) foes who eventually would fall victim to his bottomless well of drive and resiliency.

“I never chose my fights,” he said of his previous incarnation as an acquiescent but forever willing member of someone else’s promotional stable. “My promoters (first Duva, later King) might have asked me, `Do you want to fight this guy?,’ and I would always say yes. I never said, `Oh, that guy has the wrong style for me,’ or something like that. To be the best, I thought I should be able to beat everybody. You should feel like you can beat everybody. I would never turn nobody down.”

As the late master of malaprops, Yogi Berra, once said, for Holyfield it’s now déjà vu all over again. Others now will be slinging punches in his stead, but if the right guys are selected and if they have sufficient talent and the gumption to follow the doggedly determined career path of their boss, they can represent a new era of little Davids slaying the Goliaths now toiling for such promotional giants as Top Rank (even at 86, Arum is still at or near the top of his game), Premier Boxing Champions, Matchroom Sport, DiBella Entertainment and, yes, Golden Boy, the philosophical predecessor to what The Real Deal Boxing now aspires to become.

Although Holyfield has ceded certain responsibilities to others with whom he works closely, such as Sal Musumeci, Eric Bentley and Dr. Steven Tuzinkiewicz, he is no mere figurehead, which may be the reason why other promotional launches made by such big-name fighters as Sugar Ray Leonard and Tyson began with much fanfare but soon fizzled.

“I’m very involved in that part of it because (his top advisers) know I know how to fight,” Holyfield said when asked how influential he was in filling out The Real Deal Boxing’s roster. “I did it. If somebody mentions a guy (who might be a good addition), I tell them, `I got to see him do something now. I’m not interested in somebody who used to be good, or never will be good. What is he doing now? How well does he take care of himself? By the time a fighter gets to be 24 or 25, you have a pretty good idea of how dedicated he is to his career, and what talent level he has. Getting to be a champ and doing what you need to stay the champ are not the same thing.”

A bronze medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Holyfield was one of six American Olympians to sign with Main Events. He was neither the biggest name nor the most promising of a group that included gold medalists Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Tyrell Biggs and silver medalist Virgil Hill. But Holyfield, whose never-quit work ethic was instilled at an early age by his mom, Annie Holyfield, surpassed his illustrious stablemates in nearly every quantifiable area, including career earnings of $250 million. Unlike, say, a human tornado like Tyson, whose forte was a remarkable gift for quickly demolishing everyone placed in his path, Holyfield’s stock in trade was an ability to wear them down. He was the embodiment of the tortoise in Aesop’s Fables, which made it to the finish line ahead of the speedy but nap- and detour-prone hare.

Perhaps Holyfield did sign off without resistance on whatever matchup was proposed to him, but that is not to say he wasn’t processing information and storing it for future reference. He evolved into one of the fight game’s most adventurous tinkerers, adhering not only to the dictums of his traditional trainers, most notably the late George Benton, but making the call on his own to add such out-of-the-box contributors as ballet instructor Marya Kennett and weightlifting supervisor Chasee Jordan.

“We have a lot of different elements,” Holyfield said of his fledgling operation, which includes Real Deal Sports and Entertainment and Real Deal Medical. “We got people who are responsible for doing different things. We made it into a team. Everybody specializes in what they do, and it all comes together.

“That’s pretty much how it was when I became who I was. I had George Benton who was strictly boxing, but I had a conditioning coach (Tim Hallmark), a stretching coach (Kennett). I was the one who told everybody they had to stay in their lane.”

So why did SRL Boxing (Sugar Ray Leonard’s now-defunct promotional company) and Iron Mike Promotions (Tyson’s) fail after ballyhooed beginnings?

“I don’t know what those guys did wrong,” Holyfield continued. “But one thing I do know is that you’re never going to be successful if you quit. At some point you have to determine what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, what you need to add and what you need to take away. You have to be flexible enough to make adjustments as necessary.

“The three things I always was told was to listen, follow directions and don’t quit. If you do those three things, you’re going to be successful. I’m sure they’re the same three things that work in every aspect of life. If you set goals and keep striving to achieve them, they let you know you’re moving. You always have to seep moving. Even when you do become the best, there’s always something you can add that will make you better. I always wanted to do more, not less.”

Holyfield thus is following his own blueprint, not even De La Hoya’s industry standard for fighters who take the bold step of staking their claim to the promotional hierarchy long preserved for the likes of King and Arum. K2 Promotions, the namesake of the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, remains a viable entity despite the retirement of both former heavyweight titlists, in no small part because of input from Los Angeles-based Tom Loeffler. Floyd Mayweather Jr., Miguel Cotto and Roy Jones Jr. also have dipped their big toes into the promotional pool, with varying degrees of success.

It is no sure thing that The Real Deal Boxing will make it to the top, be it as a moon rocket into the stratosphere or perilous climb up a mountain few sane individuals would even attempt to scale. Either way is acceptable to someone as patient as Evander Holyfield, so long as the destination is reached and the goal attained. Philadelphia is Holyfield’s fourth stop on a nationwide tour to introduce his operation to a fan base that apparently wants to believe in his vision, the others coming in New York City, Louisville, Ky. (Muhammad Ali’s hometown) and Atlanta, where Holyfield resides.

In addition to Ortiz, those who will represent The Real Deal Boxing at the SugarHouse Casino include welterweight Poindexter Knight (1-0, 1 KO), super middleweight Brandon Robinson (8-1, 6 KOs), middleweight Edgar Berlanga (6-0, 6 KOs) and Janelson Bocachica (8-0, 5 KOs). Perhaps the day will come when they will become champions and the focus of the boxing world’s attention instead of mere emissaries of a living legend whose recognizability factor, for now and maybe forever, towers above their own.

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