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Tuning Up for Tyson
Clive Gammon
December 14, 1987
Heavyweight-to-be Evander Holyfield paused in his new-wave training to defend his 190-pound title against Dwight Qawi
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December 14, 1987

Tuning Up For Tyson

Heavyweight-to-be Evander Holyfield paused in his new-wave training to defend his 190-pound title against Dwight Qawi

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Indeed Holyfield has, the most notable payment of all coming on Aug. 9, 1984, at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Fighting Kevin Barry of New Zealand in the semifinals of the Olympic light heavyweight competition, Holyfield knocked Barry out but was then disqualified by a Yugoslav referee for throwing the knockout punch on a break. (Another Yugoslav, Anton Josipovic, was awarded the gold because under amateur rules Barry was not permitted to fight again after having been KO'd.) Holyfield accepted that verdict with dignity, though bitterness still gnaws at him.

In Houston, at the start of his training for the Qawi fight in September, Holyfield had said: "I would have liked to have worn that medal. The history book won't say that Holyfield was the best boxer except that he got disqualified. It will say that he won a bronze medal, a loser's medal."

Holyfield was quite alone in Houston, except in his sessions with Hallmark, and that was how he wanted it. "I can think to myself, gather my thoughts," he said. "Sometimes you get steered away from your past, what got you here. You find yourself drifting away from your base. But on my own here, I have to take the initiative, be responsible for myself. I don't need anybody to call me to say, 'You got to get up.' George [Benton, his ring trainer] will only show up here four weeks before the fight."

Holyfield thinks little of the traditional champion's entourage but much about his past, his beloved hometown, Atlanta, and his heroes, like that city's mayor, Andrew Young. Holyfield is so serious, so gentlemanly, that if you wanted to be cynical you could say he lacks some of the essential qualifications of a champ. He didn't run with street gangs. He didn't qualify for reform school, though his upbringing was not the easiest. He was the youngest of eight, raised by his mother, Annie. When he's in town, Holyfield and his wife, Paulette, and their two children, Evander Jr., 3, and Ashley, 2, go to the same church as Annie does. The family has Sunday dinner together. And in the tone of one who mentions the exclusive school to which his family has sent him, he says proudly, "I never lacked for bus fare to the Warren Boys' Club."

That was where he developed into an Olympic fighter, though he almost didn't make it. Ironically Holyfield and Tyson trained together after losing matches in the Olympic trials. "He'd lost out to Henry Tillman, and I'd lost against Ricky Womack," Holyfield says. "But we had this one more chance to fight the winners. Both of us were trying to regain confidence, and we talked a lot. We spent a lot of time together, and he was a nice, very affectionate person, a warm person who loved to hug and all this. But if you don't really know him, I guess, if you just look at him, he's got this kind of aura about him, like he doesn't want to be bothered, that he's arrogant, that he might even rough you up. But he's a nice guy who sticks up for his friends."

Holyfield ponders for a moment, then says, "I guess he could be different now. I don't know him as well as I did a few years back." Tyson never made it to the Olympics; Holyfield beat Womack, only to fall to that questionable ruling. "It did put me on a special kind of plateau," he says of the disqualification. "People started to say, 'This guy deserved better than he got. He handled himself well.' So I got a kind of push towards proving myself again."

Less than two years after the Olympics, Holyfield had moved up from the light heavyweight division and, with an 11-0 record, was challenging for the WBA junior heavyweight title. But there were doubts about his stamina. His cornerman, Lou Duva, tells how he and Benton tried to psych Holyfield out of his self-doubts as far back as his first six-round pro fight. They faked him out, says Duva, training him on two-minute rounds and telling him that he was going three.

Holyfield says, "My first pro fight [against Lionel Byarm of Philadelphia] was for six rounds, but it felt as if I'd had six fights in one day." And, "When I fought for the title against Qawi, a lot of people said I wasn't ready for a 15-round championship fight, and I really didn't know myself whether to accept the bout or not. But I wanted to be the first [of the 1984 Olympians] to win that belt, even though it was only my 12th fight. And this is what this guy Hallmark did for me. He put me into that Qawi fight so good that I could work 15 rounds and throw 1,290 punches."

And, of course, be the winner over a notably tough opponent. Hallmark himself is not reticent about his contribution. "When Duva first brought him down here, I hadn't really worked with a boxer," Hallmark says. "Evander was a bit leery. He was looking at the biggest fight of his life. He was a good fighter, but it was no big secret that after about four rounds his skills went out the window. When he came to me, he was shaky and flat in the first few weeks, not sparring well, getting beat up. I had to tear him down. I worked him very hard, so I told George Benton to back off the boxing a bit, back off the hard sparring days. If you want to get to a high point, first you have to go into a slump. When Evander came down here, he was eating a lot of hamburgers, a lot of fried food. He was way short of body fluids."

If pain and prayer are of the greatest importance in the Hallmark-Holyfield plan, then not far behind comes a strict diet. And while Holyfield takes the toughest aerobic workouts without complaint, he can turn a touch rebellious when it comes to grease deprivation. On Saturday morning, before the weighin, Holyfield showed up clutching a quart bottle of Exceed, a fluid rich in vitamins, pink in color and tasting like something found in the automotive section of a K Mart. Upon seeing it, welterweight Mark Breland, Holyfield's most famous Olympic teammate, who was fighting on the undercard, asked to try it. "Have the bottle," said Holyfield. "I've got a bathroom full."

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