Evander Holyfield became a boxing immortal thanks to a massive heart

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Evander Holyfield (L), shown during his epic 1992 fight with Riddick Bowe, will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on Sunday in Canastota, New York. (Getty Images)

Evander Holyfield boxed professionally for 27 years, and millions of words were written and spoken about him during that more than a quarter of a century in an attempt to capture what made him so unique.

Never, though, did nine words capture so expertly, so completely, what made Holyfield unique than those spoken by HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant during the 10th round of Holyfield’s title defense against Riddick Bowe.

Bowe-Holyfield I remains among the best heavyweight championship bouts ever. The 10th round of that fight, held at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, should be in the running for the best round ever.

Holyfield will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame Sunday in Canastota, New York, after a legendary career in which he won the cruiserweight title and held a version of the heavyweight belt on four separate occasions.

He was boxing’s “Holy Warrior,” a devoutly religious man who put on some of the fiercest and most memorable bouts ever. No fight epitomized who Evander Holyfield was as a boxer and no round typified the courage, the desire and the sheer guts he brought to every fight more than the 10th in Las Vegas on Nov. 13, 1992.

It was a fight for the ages that night, with Hall of Famers everywhere you turned. The trainers, Eddie Futch for Bowe and Georgie Benton and Lou Duva for Holyfield, are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Bowe was inducted last year and Holyfield is going in Sunday.

Referee Joe Cortez is a Hall of Famer and the three members of HBO Sports’ announce team for that fight, Jim Lampley, George Foreman and Merchant, are all inductees.

Evander Holyfield (L) was known for his resilience, which he displayed in his three fights with Riddick Bowe. (Getty Images)

When the ninth round ended, Holyfield was in trouble. His right eye was swollen shut from Bowe’s pounding, and Cortez walked over to the corner to inform Holyfield’s team he’d stop it if it got worse.

Early in the 10th, Bowe landed a perfect right uppercut that snapped Holyfield’s head back. Bowe, sensing a chance to finish Holyfield and claim the undisputed title that was at stake, pounced on him and for the next minute or so, unleashed a torrent of punches. Many of them were hard enough to crack a cinder block wall, and they left Holyfield reeling.

“Bowe, throwing and throwing,” Lampley exclaimed, as Bowe chased the finish. “Now [he] goes to the body. Holyfield, somehow standing up.”

As Lampley continued his dramatic call, Foreman began speaking to Cortez.

“Referee!” the big man said. “Referee!”

It was Foreman’s way of asking for the fight to be stopped.

“Joe Cortez is watching,” Lampley said in response. “Champion gets the benefit of the doubt.”

Bowe backed Holyfield into the ropes and appeared to be tired from throwing all this punches at a man who weighed 30 pounds less than he did that night.

Cortez broke them apart, as Holyfield’s back was to the ropes, and Bowe stepped back and took a deep breath.

There was one minute, 57 seconds left in the round.

And then, something no one could have imagined occurred. The beaten, fading, overwhelmed Holyfield was beaten no more. He came off the ropes and flung a right hand at Bowe. It landed and clearly got Bowe’s attention.

“Evander Holyfield’s incredible powers of recovery once again on display,” Lampley observed.

After the men battled for position, the clock wound down. There was a minute and 10 seconds left when Holyfield bent at the knees, twisted and then exploded into Bowe with a massive uppercut. Bowe, suddenly, was in danger and he staggered back to the ropes.

Holyfield threw several more punches and the crowd rose as one and let out a guttural roar that filled the arena.

“Evander Holyfield has got a heart,” said Foreman, who had fought Holyfield and knew full well what made the humble man who was born in Altmore, Alabama, so great.

And then, Merchant added perhaps the most apt description of Holyfield ever.

“If he weighs 205,” he said in response to Foreman, “his heart weighs about 204.”

Nothing was ever written or said that more accurately conveyed what Holyfield was about than that brief sentence.

Arch rival Mike Tyson (R) presented Holyfield for induction into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014. (Getty Images)

Holyfield is a Hall of Famer, and one of the most popular boxers who ever lived, because of the competitive spirit that burned so brightly inside of him. Hit him, he’d hit you back even harder, and more often.

He didn’t quit. He believed in himself thoroughly. Before he fought Mike Tyson in 1996, he was believed to be close to the end. Tyson opened as a 25-1 favorite and was back to being the fearsome, intimidating knockout artist he was prior to being exposed by Buster Douglas in 1990.

The headline in the New York Times on Nov. 13, 1992, in the newspaper’s fight preview written by the great Phil Berger read, “Bowe’s task is to prove his heart is in ring.” No one ever uttered such a word about Holyfield, because he proved that from the first time he pulled on gloves as a young boy.

He fought the best of his generation. He met Bowe three times in one of the great rivalries in history. He fought Tyson and Lennox Lewis twice apiece. He faced Michael Moorer twice and took on all comers in a remarkable career that redefined what it meant to be a gladiator.

At cruiserweight, he had a memorable battle with Dwight Muhammad Qawi, moved to heavyweight and less than a year-and-a-half later, defeated Michael Dokes in one of the best heavyweight fights you’ll ever see.

He won his first 28 fights before losing to Bowe, a 1988 Olympic silver medalist who had three inches in height and two-and-a-half inches in reach on Holyfield, not to mention 30 pounds or so.

Tyson did his best to intimidate him prior to their 1996 bout, but Holyfield just smiled until it was time to throw punches. Then, he decimated his more famous rival in a one-sided rout.

Tyson learned the hard way that there was no intimidating or backing down Holyfield.

As Merchant so aptly noted, it was that heart that was the difference. He couldn’t bring himself to surrender and had such an extraordinary desire to win that he’d seemingly walk through the fires of hell in pursuit of victory.

He’s not the most popular fighter in the Hall of Fame, nor the most talented. But anyone who saw him fight even once knows that there were few ever like him. Whatever his capacity on a given night was, he expended every drop of it in an effort to come out on top.

If all the boxers cared as much as Holyfield and tried as hard as he did to win, boxing would be hands down the most popular sport in the world.

He’s a Hall of Famer, though, because that is far easier to say than do.

He did it night after night in a 27-year career that is without comparison. He’ll forever be tied to rivals Tyson and Bowe, but when it comes to heart, Evander Holyfield stands alone.

The “Holy Warrior” became what most of us aspire to be.

George Foreman Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard and Evander Holyfield in 2014. (Getty Images)