Holyfield's undaunted nature is emotional rescue

November 12, 1992|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Undaunted, focused, fearless, unflappable -- these are the words his camp uses most often in describing heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.

And Holyfield appears as unruffled as ever in facing his biggest challenge to date in unbeaten Riddick Bowe tomorrow night.

"I'm not an emotional person," said Holyfield, 30, who also held the light heavyweight and cruiserweight title before flattening Buster Douglas in three rounds two years ago to claim the heavyweight crown. "It takes a lot to make me angry. The last time I lost my temper was when I got married."

Boxing historian Bert Sugar said Holyfield never will become a major sports figure making lucrative commercials because "he's got as much personality as Mount Rushmore."

But it is this stoic quality that first endeared Holyfield to the Duva clan -- Lou, the trainer; son Dan, the promoter; daughter-in-law Kathy, the fight publicist; and Shelly Finkel, the manager. Each found different reasons to believe Holyfield had the makings of a future champion.

"Go back to the Olympic trials in Las Vegas in 1984," said Finkel, who has helped the champion earn more than $80 million as a fighter. "No one really knew anything about Evander at the time. He was mostly in the Olympic camp to serve as a sparring partner for Ricky Womack, who was a publicized slugger from the Kronk gym in Detroit.

"Evander had to beat Womack twice in the box-offs to win an Olympic berth, but he did it convincingly."

Two months later in Los Angeles, Holyfield's chances of winning a gold medal ended when the referee disqualified him for hitting overmatched New Zealand rival Kevin Barry on the break. After losing an appeal, he settled for a bronze medal in the light heavyweight class, but won the affection of boxing fans for handling the unpopular decision with grace.

"The way Evander reacted under such intense pressure showed me he was an unusually mature individual," said Lou Duva. "He had knocked out all of his other Olympic opponents, and was probably on his way to being named the outstanding fighter. But he took it so philosophically, saying, 'Whatever will be, will be.' "

Duva said he saw another example of Holyfield's unusual poise in his most recent title defense last June against former champion Larry Holmes.

In the seventh round, an accidental elbow by Holmes opened an ugly gash alongside Holyfield's right eye that later would require stitches.

"He came back to the corner after the seventh round and asked me if he was cut," Duva said. "I told him, 'It's just a scratch.' And he never asked me about it again. This guy has got ice water in his veins.

"Because Evander is quiet and doesn't seek or create a lot of publicity outside the ring, people tend to shortchange him as a fighter," Duva said. "But the way he carries himself reminds me of [former champion] Ezzard Charles, who was a great fighter no one gave his due. Rocky Marciano once told me that Charles was the most underrated fighter of all time."

Just as Bowe's manager, Rock Newman, has tried to get under Holyfield's skin with claims that the champion's chiseled body is the result of steroid use, so did former light heavyweight champion Dwight Qawi when he challenged Holyfield for the 175-pound title five years ago.

"Rock was involved with Qawi at the time," Kathy Duva said, "and he told him to play mind games with Evander. Well, Qawi used every trick imaginable to upset him, even insulting Evander's mother. But, a couple of days before the fight, he grabbed Rock and said, 'Forget it. I can't get to this guy.' "

It is the same for Holyfield in the ring. The more he is tested, the better he responds. He was staggered in his fights against Michael Dokes, Adilson Rodrigues, George Foreman and Bert Cooper, but each time fought back gamely to win.

"Being the competitive guy he is definitely saved Evander against Cooper," said veteran head trainer George Benton. "I can teach a fighter all the tricks of the trade, but there comes a time in a fight when they have to be creative and find their own way.

"When Cooper had him rocking and rolling in Atlanta last year, my advice probably would have been for Evander to try to tie him up, box and buy time. If he'd done that, Cooper might have nailed him again and finished the job.

"But Evander responded instinctively by fighting back like hell, and took the fight right out of Cooper," said Benton. "Sometimes, you've just got to get right down to the nitty-gritty."

Unbeaten in 28 fights, Holyfield has failed to gain respect of boxing experts, who say his heavyweight title successes came at the expense of an overweight Douglas, an over-age Foreman and Larry Holmes and a journeyman Cooper.

"I've fought and licked everyone they've put in front of me," Holyfield said. "But, if I whip Bowe, I'll finally get the credit for fighting someone people feel is a legitimate contender.

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