The year was 1996, and Mike Tyson was out of prison and destroying everyone who climbed in the ring with him. Evander Holyfield was up next, and a lot of people in boxing were worried not only that Holyfield might take a serious beating, but that he might even die.
Holyfield was an 18-1 underdog, worn down by years in the ring and brutal battles with fighters bigger than him. The year before he had been knocked out by Riddick Bowe, and his career appeared over after he was diagnosed with a heart condition that put him in the hospital.
His own promoter was quietly rooting for Tyson to score a quick knockout so that Holyfield wouldn't have to take too much damage.
Then Holyfield went out and shocked everyone, bullying the bully before finally stopping Tyson in the 11th round in a performance that no one except Holyfield saw coming. He won a piece of the heavyweight title in that fight, and would fight Tyson again in the infamous "bite fight'' before embarking on a mission to unify the heavyweight title.
Fifteen years later, Holyfield is still chasing that dream. He believes he can become the undisputed heavyweight champion and he's willing to fight anyone, anywhere, to make it happen.
And I, for one, am done worrying about him.
Holyfield fights Saturday night in an improbable place at an improbable age, taking on journeyman Sherman Williams before a black-tie crowd at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. He's 48 now, and I figure that if he wants to mumble even more in his old age than he does now he certainly has the right to do so.
Actually, I'm more worried about the people paying to see him. They're the ones in uncertain economic times paying a minimum of $500 to see what few reflexes Holyfield has left on display for what figures to be 10 very long rounds.
This isn't the Holyfield of old, far from it. This is just an old Holyfield.
He once intimidated the baddest man on the planet. Now he's hopelessly trapped in a fantasy he has no hope of fulfilling.
"I want to show people I'm just as good as I was at 38 or 28,'' said Holyfield, who obviously doesn't remember how good he once was at age 28 - the year he first became heavyweight champion by knocking out Buster Douglas.
I do, because I had a ringside seat for most of Holyfield's career. I first saw him at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, watched him in a brutal slugfest later with Michael Dokes and was there when he stopped Buster Douglas in the third round at the Mirage resort in Las Vegas.
I watched in admiration as he took on a much bigger Bowe in two memorable fights and rose to the occasion against Tyson. I was also there in his declining years to watch him struggle against John Ruiz and get stopped by James Toney.
Thankfully, I won't be in West Virginia to see the shadow of a once great warrior. Just listening to him talk about his future in the ring is painful enough.
"Once they see me fight a good fight people will start talking about me and get past this thing that he's old,'' Holyfield said Monday.
The problem is Holyfield hasn't had a good fight in years, unless you count his win over equally ancient Francois Botha last April a good fight. It wasn't, and there's no body of evidence in boxing that the older fighters get, the better they get.
It's the exact opposite, of course, as it is in all sports. But other sports don't involve getting hit repeatedly in the head.
The fighter who helped make the '90s a good time for the heavyweight division might be emboldened in his quest by the knowledge that the cupboard is painfully bare among boxing's big guys. Take away the Klitschko brothers and Britain's David Haye, and there's not a whole lot left in the division.
But Holyfield is never going to get a fight with the Klitschkos or Haye, much less beat them. He's stuck fighting guys like Williams and Brian Nielsen, who is coming out of a nine-year retirement to fight Holyfield in Denmark in March.
Still, he soldiers on, fighting for paydays a fraction of the $35 million he made to fight Tyson the second time around. He's had recent money issues and a payday is a payday, but listen to Holyfield talk and you get the feeling he really does think he can be heavyweight champion again.
Unfortunately, that's a dangerous thing for a 48-year-old who has been through way too many ring wars to think.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org
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