Holyfield never lost hope in retiring 'undisputed'

Few in boxing give Evander Holyfield much of a chance to regain a portion of the heavyweight title for the fifth time Saturday night. The Don Quixote of prize fighting is hardly offended by this.

At 44 and counting rather quickly (he'll be 45 next week), Holyfield is long past being offended by doubters. He has confounded them so many times he thinks they should know better by now. He doesn't bother to give the thought much more than a passing notice; the doubters have been there nearly as long as he has.

Certainly they've been Holyfield's constant companion for most of his time as a heavyweight.

First, they doubted he could even be a heavyweight after he unified the cruiserweight title at a very lean 186 pounds. Once he began to move up the heavyweight rankings, they doubted he could beat the best of the new breed of massive men in a division symbolized then by Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis. And they most certainly doubted he could ever survive a night with Mike Tyson.

Holyfield has proved those skeptics wrong time and again, however, and he believes that will not change when he slips between the ropes at Khodynka Arena in Moscow and trades punches with World Boxing Organization champion Sultan Ibragimov.

Ibragimov is a champion who will never be compared to Jack Dempsey or Joe Lewis. Nor will he ever be compared to Holyfield for that matter, regardless of how things play out between them.

Holyfield has made a career of such moments, winning when few thought possible, so the fact that he believes with the conviction of a fire-and-brimstone preacher that he has been put on Earth to retire as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world seems more than oddly fitting, nuts as it may sound to many folks. Holyfield is deaf to doubters, blind to critics, sure in a way few people who don't know him can understand that this is a Holy War he's involved in; a war with a final battle will not come Saturday night in the shadow of the Kremlin but later, with enough belts around his waist and across his chest to start his own haberdashery back home in Atlanta.

"If no one believes I can do this at 44, so what?" Holyfield said recently while relaxing at his Houston training camp. "They didn't believe I could do it at 24, either. It doesn't matter if anybody else believes in me. Everybody is saying I'm small and I ain't got youth and I never hit terribly hard, so how am I going to do it? But criticism is nothing new for me. I am who I am because I stuck with what the word of God says, not what people say. I don't waver, even with the things I don't do well. So why should I waver in boxing? Boxing is what I do well."

Certainly it was what Holyfield did well for a long time. He did it exceedingly well when he first defeated Dwight Muhammad Qawi in his 12th professional fight in what might have been the greatest cruiserweight title bout in boxing history. He did it well when he knocked Buster Douglas cold to first win the heavyweight title. He did it well when he beat Bowe back and beat Tyson up and beat down every challenger there was for the heavyweight title until the one great leveler, the calendar, began to conspire against him.

Holyfield always likes to point out that a man can't win a title four times without losing it three. In that way, he admits he's had his ups and downs, although he calls them trials and tests of his faith. The downs were never lower than the night three years ago when journeyman Larry Donald slapped him around so one-sidedly for 12 rounds that the New York State Athletic Commission indefinitely suspended Holyfield for, of all things, not being competitive. You can say a lot of things about Holyfield but not being competitive would be the least likely one for a guy who once forced a friend to bowl string after string at an Atlanta bowling alley until he finally beat him.

The two-year hiatus that followed seemed to mark his end but then he had a resurrection in the oddest of places. He had it on the dance floor, where he stunned the world with his smooth footwork in ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." In the odd way things happen in boxing, suddenly Evander Holyfield was back.

"After I did 'Dancing With the Stars,' they asked me to come back and take the [medical] tests," Holyfield said. "I passed but they still didn't want me in New York. That was fine. I didn't want to be in a place that didn't want me. I knew there were plenty of places I could fight again, so I kept training and eventually I got a license in Texas.

"It just so happened during the first day of sparring with Adam Richards, he tried to hit me. I ducked it. I hit him with a right followed by a left hook. Then I called [trainer] Ronnie Shields and said, 'I can hook again.' I hadn't been able to hook off the jab to save my soul. That got me thinking."

What he was thinking about was formulating a plan to get where he now is, back fighting for one of the four belts he needs to fulfill his final fistic dream.

"I'm going to retire undisputed," Holyfield (42-8-2, 27 KOs) tells anyone who'll listen and many people who'd rather not. "What I'm doing now isn't about money any more. It isn't about ego any more. It's not a fantasy any more. The important thing to me is: Did I honor my commitment to God? I believe God wants me to finish on top to glorify His name. All I have to do is what He wants me to do. Just show what kind of faith I have."

Although few believed it possible when he got into the ring with a club fighter named Jeremy Bates to begin this final quest, it has taken Holyfield only four wins over mediocre competition to receive what his faith knew was coming. A phone call.

"When they took my license away, I shadow-boxed for six months," Holyfield said. "I knew if they tested me they'd find there wasn't nothing wrong with me but a bad shoulder. I didn't realize how bad it was affecting me. My reflexes were gone and I was always off balance because I was favoring it so much, I got cramps in my back and my neck. I couldn't do anything.

"Now I'm healed from the shoulder surgeries I had. I'm no longer hindered by injuries. The recovery took some time but now I have fast hands, good movement and can punch just as good as the young people.

"I don't remember the exact day that it happened but I remember how it played out. Ibragimov was going to fight Shannon Briggs and my promoter told me we had a good chance [at a title fight] if Ibragimov wins.

"Ibragimov won and it looked like it was going to happen. Then I was told he was going to fight the WBA champion, and that's what it was. So I went ahead and fought Lou Saverese and I beat him [knocking him to the floor twice]. Then the WBA guy [Ruslan Chagaev] pulled out and Ibragimov [21-0-1, 17 KOs] decided to go ahead and fight. I was the next best opponent, so here I am."

It wasn't quite that simple, but Holyfield sees the world as a place without gray areas. That's why he laughs when asked how he can possibly hang around long enough to defeat three more champions while also avoiding the politics that hamstring fighters into illogical mandatory defenses rather than the kind of fights he needs to retire undisputed once again.

"Things will fall into place," Holyfield said. "There'll only be three champions soon. I believe I can beat all of them but maybe I'll only have to fight two times to be undisputed. After that, I'll retire. I'll have done what I'm supposed to do."

Holyfield insists his dream and goal of retiring undisputed is genuine and not just a pipe dream.

"I'm realistic in life," he said. "I think that if a person can make more money [fighting him], what are they going to do? They are going to shoot for the money.

"My career is storybook. I was barely 206 pounds when I first won the heavyweight title. My speed, my power, they weren't awesome. I was just the guy who was supposed to win."

Saturday night in Moscow, Evander Holyfield believes he'll be that guy again and he really doesn't care what you believe. More importantly, he doesn't care what Sultan Ibragimov believes, either.

Ron Borges, who has won numerous Boxing Writers Association of America awards, covers boxing for HBO.com and for Boxing Monthly.