Holyfield testifies: 'God pushed me ahead' Prayer, hard work get credit for Tyson loss

November 11, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS -- Believe.

That was all Evander Holyfield asked of the naysayers, some of whom even feared for his life when he entered the ring against Mike Tyson.

Believe that, with God's help, this strong-willed man from Georgia still had the spirit and strength to carry him to the heavyweight title a third time -- a feat accomplished only by Muhammad Ali.

And Saturday night in this city of sinful excesses, Holyfield made a world of converts. In a classic heavyweight fight that equaled the best of Ali-Frazier in fury and passion, he scored a shocking, 11th-round knockout of Tyson, who was left swaying helplessly on the ropes before referee Mitch Halpern saved him from further punishment.

"A lot of people told me not to talk about Jesus," said Holyfield outside the MGM Grand, while in a media tent suited for a revival meeting. "But I used all the doubts to fuel me, and God pushed me ahead.

"I prayed during training. I prayed when I got in the ring with Mike, and I still prayed when I was fighting because I knew what a great fighter I was facing.

"But praying without hard work doesn't work. Working hard is the key to success, and the prize has to be more than the pain."

Ring historians were quick to compare Holyfield's win for the World Boxing Association title with Tyson's upset by 40-1 underdog Buster Douglas in Tokyo six years ago.

But then Tyson was going through a messy divorce from actress Robin Givens and was under-trained and under-motivated. This time, there appeared to be no excuse. In fact, Tyson had seemed hellbent on destroying Holyfield, saying he had demeaned him by saying he would never fight a convicted rapist.

When this match was first proposed -- before Tyson spent three years in an Indiana prison -- it was considered a competitive bout, with Tyson no more than a 2-1 pick.

But Holyfield, now 34, lost his title to Michael Moorer in 1994, when he was diagnosed with heart problems, and then Holyfield showed signs of fatigue in being stopped by Riddick Bowe in their third encounter a year ago.

The Nevada Athletic Commission forced Holyfield to submit to a series of cardiac tests by the Mayo Clinic before renewing his license.

"That's why I got this title fight," Holyfield said. "They thought I was no longer a real threat."

But Team Tyson had a lot of company. The opening line a month ago made Holyfield a 25-1 underdog, and, of 50 boxing writers polled, only one picked him to win.

Even the cable television operators were offering rebates, fearing it could be another one-round walkover for Tyson. In recent months, Tyson had won two titles in less than four rounds by disposing of Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon.

But no one had accounted for Holyfield's heart or resolve. He had said that the only way to beat a bully was to fight back. And so he prepared for this match by having sparring partner Gary Bell imitate Tyson's bulldozing style.

"Bell and some of my other sparring partners were really putting a whupping on me, and it was very discouraging," Holyfield said. "If you can't get past your sparring partners, how are you going to beat a Mike Tyson?

"But I prayed and I got through it. And my trainers -- Donald Turner and Tommy Brooks -- kept saying I'd get better. I believed them.

"It didn't make any difference what everybody said I couldn't do. You can count me out, but I knew the only thing that would stop me is if I quit on myself."

Who could have imagined Holyfield's withstanding Tyson's initial assault, then knocking the champion on his butt on the sixth round, and winning every round on one judge's score card?

It was so thorough a whipping that Tyson said he was in sort of a twilight zone for most of the match, fighting strictly on instinct.

Several ringsiders were quick to criticize Tyson's advisers for failing to find a way out of the maze.

"When it came down to push and shove in the last rounds, Mike didn't have anyone in his corner to help him," said Shelly Finkel, Holyfield's former manager.

Turner, who had been a scapegoat when Holyfield lost to Moorer, had devised a plan for neutralizing Tyson.

Said Turner: "Mike is a great fighter, but he doesn't have great balance. He rushes straight at you and throws a lot of wide punches. Evander set him up with the jab and slowed him down with terrific shots to the liver and ribs."

By the late rounds, Tyson was losing every heated exchange while the sellout crowd of 16,325 at the MGM Grand Garden chanted, "Evander, Evander."

After shaking Holyfield's hand, Tyson said: "I have the greatest respect for you. I fought and gave it my best. But I really don't remember what happened after the third round."

No one could question Tyson's fighting heart. He took a barrage of nearly a dozen punches to close out the 10th round, but refused to fall.

By the 11th, he was reduced to a punching bag and Holyfield, who had failed to finish a rubber-legged Bowe last November, would not let the victory escape him again.

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