In the book “Boxing Scene” by Thomas Hauser, Lou Duva, a former trainer of Evander Holyfield, said, circa early 2007: “If he stops fighting now, he could be our greatest ambassador. But when he keeps fighting, it downgrades the sport. And God forbid something really bad should happen to him.”
In a Dec. 4 article, the satirical newspaper “The Onion” offered this headline: “Evander Holyfield Claims His Quest For Severe Brain Damage Keeps Him Fighting.”
Holyfield is fighting this weekend, again, at age 46, for a heavyweight title belt, this time against Nicolay Valuev. It’s a no-win situation for boxing, which is why I’d hesitated to even preview it. If Holyfield loses and is badly hurt, it will be a stain on the sport. If he loses but shows signs of life — as he did last year against Sultan Ibragimov in his most recent title fight — he’ll almost assuredly get another shot and continue his pitiful quest to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, exposing himself to greater health risk. And if he somehow wins, people who don’t follow boxing regularly will scoff, “Wow, how awful is the heavyweight division if a 46-year-old man who’s a shadow of his former self can beat a champion who looks like he belongs in a circus more than he does in a boxing ring?” (The odds that someone sees a Holyfield win as a genuine good news story strikes me as remote.)
That misunderstands a few things and underestimates Valuev — he’s neither particularly good nor as bad as his critics make him out to be — and hey, he’s trying to offset the whole circus thing with that turtleneck. But perception is, if not reality, a major part of the equation.
I don’t hold the opinion that this fight is more likely than not to complete Holyfield’s sarcastic “quest” for brain damage. He does indeed slur his words more than I’m comfortable with; his reflexes are terribly faded; even though his body may bear the look of a heavyweight champion, he no longer can fight well for meaningful stretches. He’s not the Holyfield anyone came to know and love; he’s merely a heavyweight good enough to lose landslide decisions to top-10 heavyweights that wouldn’t be top-10 heavyweights in nearly any other era and that he once would have had an easy time with in his prime. Ultimately, he passes his physical examinations, and I take the libertarian point of view based on his last two years of boxing that he should be allowed to continue to fight if he wants, so long as he passes those tests and there’s no funny business in said passage.
What bothers me about it is that everyone surely recognizes that there’s a very real risk that Holyfield could get hurt. And it’s a great deal more risk than there is for any average fighter. As such, what’s embarrassing is that, while Holyfield should be ALLOWED to fight, no one of note should WANT to be associated with a fight involving him. This being boxing, I suppose it’s too high a standard to want boxing promoters, managers and the fighters themselves to behave like anything other than vultures. A buck can be made off Holyfield’s name still. Whether it’s unsurprising or not, it is nonetheless shameful that Don King Productions, Sauerland Events and others are picking over his carcass searching for that buck. The fight may not be a total sham, but it’s one of the more distasteful major fights of 2008.
There is a case that some are making out there that Holyfield can and will beat Valuev. It goes as follows: Valuev, at 7′ and more than 300 pounds, is a lumbering giant who got pot-shotted by a smaller, more mobile heavyweight in Ruslan Chagaev into his first loss last year. Holyfield will surely be faster than Valuev, and at his best, he has been a pretty mobile heavyweight. Holyfield is, to say the least, the far more experienced of the two men, and that’s the argument he makes for why he will win. And everyone knows Holyfield doesn’t give up. It’s what made him a great heavyweight, it’s what keeps him fighting on in the face of a hopless bid to become the undisputed heavyweight champ, and there’s the odd chance that it helps propel him to victory Saturday night.
That gets us to some of the misunderstandings I mentioned. Valuev may look like a circus freak, but he can fight some. He’s good enough to be ranked #4 by Ring magazine, and it’s a legitimate number. He had a late start at boxing, but he’s shown considerable improvement from essentially the moment he burst onto the scene. He beat John Ruiz more definitively in the rematch than he did the first time. He’s toppled a few other pretty good (by today’s standards) heavyweights, like Sergei Liakhovich and Monte Barrett. His jab is a good weapon, and he’s seemingly become both more mobile and learned to deliver his shots with greater power over time.
If Holyfield beat him, he’d be beating a decent heavyweight, although, as I said, he’s not great. And if Holyfield beat him, he wouldn’t be the heavyweight champion. He’d merely be one of a few men who holds a heavyweight title belt from a sanctioning organization, which may be worth a little but isn’t the same as “heavyweight champion of the world.” Furthermore, while it would be something of an indictment of the heavies if Holyfield won, it wouldn’t change that the heavyweight division has been bad for many years now, and while there may be some promising developments ahead in 2009, bad is bad.
Despite the arguments from some pockets of the boxing world that Holyfield can win, actually doing so would be the final huge upset in a 2008 just loaded up with upsets. And Holyfield would become the oldest heavyweight champ of all time. Right now, that doesn’t sound like a scenario to celebrate very much. Maybe, if it happens, it will look better in the light of day. If Valuev wins, I guess he gets a win over one of history’s best, and people know his name a little better than they did the night before. But if you want to see it all unfold, you’ll have to pay $24.95 for the pay-per-view. I’m not that curious. I suspect this will be a fairly sad affair, all told.
My prediction: Valuev by landslide decision. I just don’t see Holyfield as being able to duplicate Chagaev’s winning routine, for a pair of reasons: 1. Holyfield at this point in his career is no Chagaev, and 2. Valuev has worked on his game so as to avoid getting beaten the same way he did by Chagaev. Valuev should be the busier of the two men, and Holyfield, never an amazing defensive fighter, is much easier to hit these days.
Confidence: 80%. A prediction of a Holyfield win isn’t psychotic, at least. I see the case. And my prediction record in the last few months is ridiculously bad.
My allegiance: I don’t want Holyfield to win, because I never want to see him in the ring with one of the Klitschko brothers, either of whom I would give a strong chance of causing permanent, frightening damage to him. I don’t think Valuev should be proud of himself for taking this fight (and frankly, don’t think he is). I wash my hands of them both.