LAS VEGAS -- The horrible moment lives on, as it will for the rest of his days, in the mind of Evander Holyfield.
"I thought it must be a nightmare, that if I woke up, it would just go away," he once said of that moment in the summer of 1984, when he was kicked out of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
In a semifinal bout of the light-heavyweight division, Holyfield was administering a beating to New Zealander Kevin Barry when, during an exchange, the Yugoslav referee, Bligorije Novicic, yelled, "Stop!"
Holyfield already had launched a left hook that landed on the side of Barry's head and knocked him out. A great roar went up when Novicic waved Holyfield away and it appeared as if he had won the fight. But Holyfield wasn't being designated the winner, he was being disqualified.
Only U.S. coach Pat Nappi, who was already on the ring apron and angrily shouting at Novicic, knew that Holyfield had been disqualified for a late blow. Slowly, the cheers of the 16,000 on hand turned to boos. Outrage ruled, particularly after replays showed that Holyfield couldn't possibly have stopped his punch at the command to do so.
The incident is remembered not only for the drama of the moment, but for the class and dignity Holyfield showed in his worst moment. There were no tantrums, no tears, no threats.
No one would have blamed him if he had gone back to the Olympic Village, packed up, and gone home to Atlanta. Instead, he showed up two days later on the victory stand, graciously accepting his bronze medal. A great ovation went up when the light-heavyweight gold medalist, Anton Josipovic, another Yugoslav, raised Holyfield's hand, a gesture that seemed to say he was the real champion.
In a professional sport where prickly personalities and childish // behavior are common, Evander Holyfield remains boxing's Mr. Class.
Thursday night at the Mirage in Las Vegas, Holyfield challenges Buster Douglas for the heavyweight championship. In the six years since his nightmare in Los Angeles, Holyfield may have more muscles, but class and dignity still define the man who is favored to beat Douglas.
Holyfield, for example, was at ringside last February in Tokyo, when Douglas upset Mike Tyson and took away Tyson's championship. Upon leaving Tokyo, he found that he was in the same first-class section of Tyson's flight home.
Both felt pain, for Tyson and Holyfield already had signed for a battle of unbeatens in June 1990, and all those millions had gone by the boards when Douglas knocked out Tyson.
"He left his seat and came over to me and said he felt bad for me, and asked if my eye would be OK," Tyson said a month later. "He's a nice guy, really."
Another example: Holyfield had a cold the week he fought Alex Stewart in Atlantic City, Nov. 4, 1989, and although he stopped Stewart on a cut, it was an extremely difficult fight for him. Several times, he seemed a punch or two away from being knocked down by Stewart.
"I didn't want him to fight that night," said George Benton, co-trainer of Holyfield, with Lou Duva. "I wanted to postpone the fight. But I'm not the manager, so I didn't speak up. I didn't even want to suggest it to Evander, because I didn't want that seed of doubt in his mind."
At the news conference after the fight, Duva raised the subject of Holyfield's cold, a secret before the fight.
"Evander wouldn't even discuss it, to anyone after the fight," DTC Benton said. "That's the kind of guy he is. When I asked him later about it, he told me he didn't want to take anything away from Stewart's effort."
OK, so he's a nice guy. Can he fight?
At 24-0, you figure he can fight at least a little bit. But he has been brought along carefully by promoter Dan Duva, Lou Duva's son. If you were putting together a list of fighters that you wouldn't want Holyfield -- or any other prospect -- to fight before he got a championship fight, Razor Ruddock, Riddick Bowe, Bruce Seldon, Tim Witherspoon and Michael Dokes might well )) be on it.
Of those, Holyfield has fought only Dokes. And March 11, 1989, at Caesars Palace, Holyfield wound up in the fight of his life
before he knocked out Dokes in the 10th round. It was viewed by many as the most exciting heavyweight fight of the 1980s.
But critics of Holyfield maintain it shouldn't have been an exciting fight, if Holyfield is of championship caliber. Dokes, it is always pointed out, was years past his prime and coming off drug rehabilitation.
A second knock on Holyfield is his size. At 6 feet 1, 210 to 212 pounds, he is a small, though powerfully built, heavyweight. In Douglas, 6-4 and 235 pounds, he meets the third-biggest heavyweight champion in history.
Said Douglas' trainer, J.D. McCauley: "You take Holyfield out of those weightlifting gyms where they've had him the last few years, and you've got a guy walkin' around at 195. Look at Holyfield's legs -- they're pop bottles."