CANASTOTA, N.Y. -- Evander Holyfield pulled hard, but his hand was stuck. He pulled again. Still stuck.
Here was one of the great boxers in history, standing on a stage in front of a few hundred people, adjacent to a building that houses the sport's Hall of Fame, beginning a weekend meant to celebrate his career, but his left hand was stuck in a bucket of hardened molding compound.
“I had my hand closed so tight that I had a hard time sliding it out,” Holyfield said later. He eventually contorted his hand enough to free himself.
He had just taken part in the traditional “fist casting” ceremony for new inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. A bronze replica of his left fist will sit in the museum that sits in this small, upstate New York village, about 270 miles from Madison Square Garden, where Holyfield won his first professional fight in 1984 at the age of 22.
Now, at 54 years old and six years removed from a career that included 44 wins and several championships, Holyfield will be inducted Sunday into the same Hall of Fame that includes his idol, Muhammad Ali. He chose his left hand for the casting because, “I thought they need to remember the hand that did the most work. I had a good jab, good uppercut, and if I caught you with a left hook I'll usually dropped you.”
Truth is, not a lot people would’ve believed this could happen.
He wasn’t supposed to make the Olympic team. He wasn’t supposed to succeed as a heavyweight. He wasn’t supposed to beat Riddick Bowe or Mike Tyson. He wasn’t supposed to be in the, “Is he in the top 10 of all time?” debate.
It wasn’t his left fist everybody underestimated. It was his heart.
Holyfield's desire was try to be the best, but he never assumed success, never thought about titles or weekends like this. Even after success came, he never visited the Hall of Fame.
"I’ve been invited, but I’ve never come," he said. "My thinking was if I made it, I wanted to come up here and see it for the first time and be happy for the event. I wanted to come here for the right reasons. My momma always told me patience is a virtue."
Holyfield quotes his late mother, Annie, frequently and she figures to be mentioned prominently in his induction speech. Holyfield, who will be joined by at least five of his 11 children, also is expected to touch on some of the highlights of his career, which included two wins over Mike Tyson and three battles with Bowe, who will be among those in attendance.
“I learned a lot from him,” said Bowe, a former sparring partner for Holyfield who went on to win the title from him, then lost it back. “Evander brought out the best in me. I had to get off the canvas against him. That man could take a beating, but he kept coming at you. He was determined. He never quit.”
Holyfield was a throwback of sorts. He was undersized for a heavyweight and an overachiever. He never traveled with an entourage. He obviously fought for money, but that never seemed to be his primary motivation.
“People throw around the expression ‘old school’ a lot,” longtime trainer Teddy Atlas said. “But with Evander it was really true. You go back to the ‘30s and ‘40s, and he’s like those guys. They were like Ezzard Charles, smaller but tough. It wasn’t just about the money. It was about consistency and reliability. That doesn’t exist as much today. It was about a hunger and an urgency a lot of fighters don't have. He was about always finding a way. When Evander was in the ring, the SOB, was always going to find a way.”
If there are three fights that stamped Hall of Fame on Holyfield's career, it’s these: a 15-round decision over then undisputed cruiserweight champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi that came in Holyfield’s 12th pro fight; the rematch win over Bowe when he reclaimed the title and defeated an opponent younger, taller and stronger; the win in the long-awaited first meeting with Tyson, which came at a time when Holyfield was 34 years old and seemingly at the end of his career
Holyfield recounted recently how his late mother had predicted he would defeat Tyson long before the two actually met. She believed Tyson wouldn’t be able to take the pressure and will “blow up," adding, "He’ll be the easy fight for you.”
Holyfield was never intimidated by any opponent, but especially Tyson. The two knew each other as amateurs. Former U.S. Olympic coach Pat Nappi begrudgingly agreed once to let the then-slight Holyfield spar with Tyson, but he had to break it up when the two went after each other as if it was a real fight.
Holyfield also understood that true acceptance by most -- and therefore his place in boxing history -- would not be secure until he fought Tyson.
"That was the fight everybody wanted to see. I never really chased Tyson because I was going after championships. But he was the champion.”
When the two met for the first time in 1996, Holyfield was a huge underdog, but stopped Tyson in the 11th round. He won the rematch seven months later when Tyson was disqualified after twice biting Holyfield’s ears in the third rounds.
Atlas, who as a youth lived in the same home with Tyson and legendary trainer Cus D'Amato, said, “Tyson didn’t face what he didn’t want. He would give in to temptations and then found a way to get excused from things. He never faced consequences. He didn’t have that strength. Holyfield faced things. The Tyson fight showed everything Evander was about. He was real. He had the right nickname, Real Deal. Tyson wasn't real. Tyson was like a comic book."
Jim Thomas, Holyfield’s longtime friend and attorney, has two vivid memories of the bite fight, both of which say a lot about Holyfield.
The first illustrated his ferocity in the ring. Tyson had just bitten off a piece of Holyfield’s ear, and referee Mills Lane was discussing with a ringside doctor whether to stop the fight.
“They went over to Evander and asked, ‘Can you continue?’" Thomas recalled. "Don Turner (Holyfield’s trainer) said, ‘Of course he can’t continue, look at him. There’s blood streaming down his face. He’s in agonizing pain.' Mills was inclined to disqualify Tyson. But then Evander said, ‘Put my mouth piece in. I’m going to knock him out.’”
He was on the way to doing that had the fight not been stopped.
Thomas’ other memory came amid the mayhem after the fight. Holyfield had Thomas ask everybody in his locker room to quiet down and called together camp members for a prayer.
"There were six of us, and Evander started to pray,” Thomas said. “He said, ‘Please Lord, take the bitterness out of my heart. I forgive him.’ I had tears streaming down my face.”
Not the way most boxing champions are remembered. A cast of his fist doesn't tell the whole story.
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