The last time we looked in on Evander Holyfield, the WBA's latest junior heavyweight, or cruiserweight, champion, it was 1984 and he was in an Olympic ring in Los Angeles, learning how to play the Yugoslav version of three-card monte. The game goes like this: You knock down Kevin Barry of New Zealand in the semifinals—and then stand in shock as referee Gligorije Novicic counts you out for allegedly hitting after he has called for a break.
At least the youngster from Atlanta made history. Holyfield is the only Olympic fighter ever to beat all of his opponents and then have the authorities bend the rules so he could win so much as a bronze medal. It was just his bad luck that the only other light heavyweight remaining in contention was Anton Josipovic, by chance another Yugoslav, who wound up with a gift-wrapped gold medal. Even Barry made out better: When he got up they gave him the silver.
But there was no such nonsense in Holyfield's hometown last Saturday. After 15 grueling rounds fought at the pace of men much lighter, Holyfield, 23, became the first of the 1984 Olympians to win a world title, on a split decision over 33-year-old Dwight Muhammad Qawi.
The victory was all the more stunning considering that, until he faced the rugged, 5'7�" ex-con (and ex-Dwight Braxton) from Camden, N.J., Holyfield had never gone beyond eight rounds, and only that far once, against a guy named Tyrone Booze. In three fights this year Holyfield had stopped his opponents in Rounds 2, 3 and 5. Qawi's strong suit is relentless pressure, and when boxing savants factored that in with the 15-round distance, they decided that Holyfield's people had moved their man too fast.
Yet Holyfield went the distance in winning, bringing the 12 U.S. Olympians' professional record to 114-1-3, more or less what you would expect from a squad that won nine gold medals, a silver and a "bronzed" consolation prize. Their pace quickens: On July 20, Steve McCrory, the flyweight gold medalist who has an 11-0-1 record, fights Australia's Jeff Fenech for the IBF bantamweight title.
The first thing Holyfield did after turning pro late in 1984 was to tell his trainers, Lou Duva and Georgie Benton, that he didn't think he had the endurance to go three rounds. Even as an amateur, stamina had been a problem. "We had him training at Grossinger's, and one day he was hitting the heavy bag and he kept going slower," says Duva. "Finally he said he felt like he was going to pass out. I told him to go to his room to rest."
Duva followed the fighter to his room. "The place was full of junk food," Duva says. "Popcorn, peanuts, potato chips, all kinds of garbage. I put it all in a pail and set it outside the door. He said, 'But that's my food.' I said, 'Not any more.' Then I took him to a supermarket and told him to buy all the fruit he wanted."
Later Duva and Benton decided Holyfield's problem was more mental than physical. They set to work on his mind, as well as his body. First they had him spar three rounds.
"How's that now?" Benton asked.
"It was great," Holyfield said.