They are his id and his ego. I know they are his id because he has no control over them. I know they are his ego because, well, that is what he named one of them, a put-upon German shepherd who, when he finally gave up his ghost, earned his master's most dismissive epitaph: "Poor Ego never learned to stand up for his self." Evander Holyfield, the master—and the former heavyweight champion of the world—understandably places a certain amount of importance on one's willingness to stand up for oneself, whether one is human or canine. For instance, the first time I visited his 500-acre farm outside Atlanta to see his dogs, I didn't exhibit the proper determination to stand up for myself, and I wound up not standing at all. Two of his dogs swooped out of their kennels and met at the backs of my knees, and I went down without resistance, like some pug happy for a payday. I looked up at Holyfield, and he looked away. His shoulders were shaking, and from his compressed lips leaked a sound of suppressed mirth—kkkk, kkkkk, kkkkkk—and his complicity in the mischief of his beasts was clear.
Holyfield has, at present, seven dogs. They are Akitas, and in their willingness to stand up for themselves they have established, within the bucolic confines of Holyfield's farm, a world so completely lawless and Darwinian that their owner seems to have no choice but to comply with their wishes.
I have seen two of his females square off to fight, to Holyfield's apparent pleasure, and then come to such a protracted and bloody boil that Holyfield was moved to exclaim, "They gonna kill each other!" and to call in five members of his staff of 13 to separate them while he shouted, "Watch your hands! Watch your hands!" I have seen his prize male, a thickset blond named Ing, ignore Holyfield's commands with such extravagant gestures of disdain that I was embarrassed to be in Holyfield's presence, as though I were being forced to witness a cuckold's contretemps with a faithless spouse. Indeed, when I heard, on my most recent visit to the farm, that Ing had completed a course with a professional trainer, I wanted to give Holyfield the opportunity to display his mastery, and I asked him how Ing had responded to training.
"He did real good," Holyfield said. "He listens to his trainer real good. He just don't listen to me. I still can't get him to do nothin'." Then he brightened. "I can get him to do a trick, though." He walked over to the kennels where he keeps his dogs and stood in front of Ing, who grinned, jumped and wagged his tail in a frenzy of incomprehension. "Jump on top of the doghouse, Ing!" Holyfield commanded. "Jump on the doghouse! Jump on the doghouse...." Holyfield's voice trailed off, and he looked at me, a corner of his mouth clamped shut and his eyebrows raised in wistful resignation. "Well," he said, "I guess he don't want to jump on the doghouse."
It was a clear, cold winter's day, and Holyfield, in a black cap, blue sweatshirt, gray sweatpants and heavy black work boots, began to walk around the grounds of his farm. Since I'd seen him last, he'd lost his title to Michael Moorer; he'd lost his boxing license, which was suspended after he was found to have a heart ailment; and he'd lost Ego, the embattled German shepherd who exhibited a singular willingness to obey Holyfield's orders and perhaps as a result, endured a lifetime of insults from Ing and his Akita cronies.
Ego had gotten a fungus in his eye, Holyfield said, "and then he started to smell like he was rotten, like he was already dead." Holyfield had had him put to sleep three months before my visit, and in so doing he had finally surrendered to the anarchy of the Akitas. I asked him if he missed Ego, and he said no, not that much, because Ego was "a scaredy little dog. I don't know—he didn't have enough fire in him or something." Then, as Holyfield walked the grounds, he started talking about his comeback: about his visit to a faith healer who, with the power of God, cured Holyfield's ailing heart; about his trip to the Mayo Clinic, which pronounced him fit; about his intention to fight again and regain his title.
"People say, 'You got an ego; that's why you want to fight again,' " Holyfield said. "No, I don't got an ego. If I had an ego, I wouldn't want to fight again. For me to want to fight again, my ego had to die...."
We walked past some trees and came to a place from which we could see Holyfield's kennels. Ing was standing on top of his doghouse, wagging his tail. "There you go," said Holyfield. "He listens. He listens good"
Dogs are simultaneously tragic and comic creatures. They are tragic because they aspire to our—the human—condition, and they are comic because they reduce us to theirs. They bear approximately the same relation to us as we bear to God, and so they act as fun-house mirrors of our own humanity. A few years ago, when Mark Breland was the welterweight champion of the world, he would prepare for his fights by staring at his reflection in the mirror. He would keep staring until he had managed to transform his own image into that of his beloved Doberman, until his own nose sharpened into a snout and his own ears rose into points at the top of his head, and then he knew he was ready for battle.
It is always that way. We buy dogs to reflect us, and somehow we wind up reflecting them. They are the creatures who remind us that we are creatural. Bereft of language, they remind us that language is a conceit; reduced to gesture, they remind us that gesture is the most legitimate currency of communication. They humble us when we are exalted and exalt us when we are humbled, and that, I suppose, is why athletes love them so, why they collect dogs, surround themselves with them, in vast and sometimes absurd array.