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Answered Prayers
Tom Junod
November 22, 1993
For Evander Holyfield, recapturing the heavyweight crown was a triumph of the spirit
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November 22, 1993

Answered Prayers

For Evander Holyfield, recapturing the heavyweight crown was a triumph of the spirit

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In a room in New York City the new heavyweight champion of the world is talking to himself. In a room in New York City the new heavyweight champion of the world—who not two weeks ago was the old heavyweight champion of the world—is preparing to scale the pinnacle of American celebrity by mastering the pronunciation of one word: "Regis. Regis. Regis. Regis...."

The new heavyweight champion of the world is, of course, Evander Holyfield, who on Nov. 6 regained the title he had lost a year ago to Riddick Bowe, and he's chanting this mantra because he's about to go on the Late Show with David Letter-man, and the Letterman people don't know exactly what to make of him. All afternoon they've been trying to think of something for Evander Holyfield to do when he is presented to Dave, and Dave presents him to the world. Dance? Could Holyfield dance for Dave? Well, that's an idea.... After all, Holyfield loves to dance and is a heck of a dancer. But, no, Holyfield doesn't want to dance; he didn't throw himself at the mercy of God, didn't make himself walk through fire, didn't reclaim the world heavyweight championship so that he could go on the David Letterman show and dance. O.K., O.K., what else? There are some funny stories about Holyfield in the old days, about the Olympics; maybe he could tell them, maybe they would make Dave laugh. No? Well, somebody better come up with something, because Dave is particular that way: By including them on his show he offers his guests their cultural coronation, but in return he wants them to do something for him, or at least say something funny, and he wants to know what they're going to do, or say, long before they sit next to him and the coronation begins.

Holyfield is already in his dressing room, in a beautiful chocolate-brown double-breasted suit, surrounded by his friends and handlers, when he learns that what they have finally come up with for him is a punch line, an ongoing gag: Regis. Regis? Holyfield doesn't even know who Regis is, but that doesn't matter. His p.r. person, Kathy Duva, explains that Letterman wants to squeeze some more laughs from his mock feud with Regis Philbin; that before Holyfield goes onstage he's going to meet Dave to tape a skit; that Dave is going to chomp on a mouthpiece and start sparring with him, and Holyfield is going to scowl and ask, "What's Regis's number?" Holyfield looks at Duva and says uncertainly, "Regis?" "Trust me," Duva answers, "it's very funny." Holyfield shrugs, closes his eyes and begins to practice, fervently. "Regis, Regis," he says again and again, and the words come off his lips like a prayer.

Oh, hell, the world has never known exactly what to make of Evander Holyfield, what to do with him, what it wants to hear him say. Does the world want to claim Evander Holyfield? Of course it does—the world always wants to claim its warriors. It needs them, needs them to fight, to suffer and to prevail, and in this Holyfield has been exemplary. Fight? Suffer? This man, every time he entered the ring, prayed to God for the strength to walk through fire, and until the first time he met Bowe, he did prevail. The world wasn't content with what he could do with his fists and his heart, though; the world is a hungry thing, and when Holyfield became the heavyweight champion for the first time, in 1990, the world wanted him to feed its imagination. It asked him to shape himself into a symbol, a paragon of menace or defiance or cool; it asked for his words as well as his flesh, and in this Holyfield has always been deficient, not because the words aren't there, but rather because the words that rush naturally to his lips are the words of prayer.

Holyfield is prodigious in prayer. That's what he does; that's what he's about; that's what defines and confines him. He prays, goes to church, reads the Bible, talks about God. Talk? If you want the man to talk, then indulge Holyfield's spirituality, his philosophy, and he'll talk as long as you want—two hours, three hours, forever. Take his theology away from him, though, as sportswriters tend naturally to do, and you might as well shear the hair from Samson: He becomes a lesser man. He becomes very polite, very nice and very—well, boring. Yes, from 1990, when Holyfield won the heavyweight title from Buster Douglas, until 1992, when he lost it to Bowe, that was what most people thought we had: a dutiful dullard—a small dutiful dullard as heavyweight champion.

The thing about Holyfield, though, is this: For a religious man, he loves the world and loves being its champion. He loves the celebrity, the people catering to him and calling him champ. It wore on him, this reputation for being boring, no matter how steadfastly he said it didn't. What more did he have to do to prove himself? What more did he have to do to shuck the shadow of Mike Tyson? He had done everything people wanted him to do. They wanted interviews, he gave them interviews; they wanted him to travel, he traveled; to please the world, he sacrificed his training, his time with his family and even—yes, if only a little—his time with his God. By the time he fought Bowe in 1992 he had begun to think that he had done all those things for nothing, that the world was still against him, that people "didn't want me to win," that "if this thing goes to a decision, they're going to rob me." A knockout—that was what he needed, that was what the world demanded of him. And when he didn't get it—when, in fact, he lost the decision and lost his title—he believed, as he told trainer Emanuel Steward some months later, that God had struck him down.

When Steward flew from Detroit to Atlanta to discuss for the first time the prospect of helping Holyfield regain his title, he "couldn't believe how small Evander was, for a heavyweight." It was as though Holyfield had been whittled down, and, indeed, that is precisely what had happened: He had become a small man searching desperately for the big man inside of him. After he lost to Bowe, Holyfield announced his retirement, then complained that the judges had robbed him. Then he split with the trainers who had nurtured his rise to the top, George Benton and Lou Duva; he bought a motorcycle, then got tired of riding it; he bought horses, then got tired of riding them; he praised God for relieving him of the title's great burden, then prayed to understand how God could sink him so low. Then he asked God if he should fight again, and then, when he discerned God's answer, begged the heavens for the courage to return to the ring. See, Holyfield didn't want to fight again; for the first time in his life he found himself searching for excuses, heard himself coming up with the reasons he should stay retired, until he realized that what he had been facing all along was fear—fear of "inadequacy," fear that he had started taking too many punches, fear that his doubters were right, fear of work, fear of pain—and it was that realization alone that led him to call Steward and return to the gym.

A slight, soft-spoken man with a medley of races running in his blood, Steward had trained a host of champions—Thomas Hearns most notable among them—out of his Kronk Gym in Detroit, but he had never taken a heavyweight to the title, and he was, in Holyfield's estimation, "hungry." Steward came to Holyfield's hometown of Atlanta and, after "getting inside Evander's head a little bit," he found the athlete of his dreams: an athlete who drew his strength—even his physical strength—from his faith and who saw his rematch with Bowe as an occasion for atonement. In all the dark nights that followed his dethroning, Holyfield had come to believe that God had intended him to be the heavyweight champion of the world—chosen him, selected him—and that by falling away from boxing he had fallen away from God. Well.... Steward is a godly man, but he is also a canny one, and what he did for Holyfield was this: He turned boxing itself into a form of prayer and his training camp into a form of worship, built around the dictates of church and family. Holyfield needed to work on his fundamentals'? He had to discipline himself to box Bowe? Well, then, fundamentals and discipline would become expressions of his faith. To jab was godly; to slug was ungodly. To stay on one's toes, to take one's shots and speed out of harm's way—godly; to stay in Bowe's range and get one's head taken off—ungodly.

Holyfield trained for a week and then "claimed victory." He was not bragging, he said; he was simply saying that God had given him the fight, and now all he had to do was take it. Everything had been foretold. In Las Vegas before the second Bowe fight, Holyfield spoke to a minister who told him to say, "Here I am, Lord, Thy will be done," as he entered the ring and to say, "It is done," every time he hit Bowe to the body. And in the fourth round of the fight, when Holyfield was coming on, that's exactly what he did: a shot to the body, a grunt, "It is done!"; a shot to the body, a grunt, "It is done!"

Yes, it had all been foretold, even the sight of the parachute coming down from the sky in the seventh round. Hadn't the minister told Holyfield that the devil would try to defeat him with a distraction? Hadn't the minister told him that sometime during the fight he would have to pray, to prevent the devil from sowing fear in his heart? Sure enough, during the 21-minute interruption of the seventh round, he sat in his corner and felt it, the little germ of fear, because he felt everything else, the ache in his arms, the knots in his head and neck, the cramping in his back, how much he hurt, how hard Bowe hit. Then he thanked Jesus—"for what I know, but let Your will be done"—and came back and rallied convincingly when the seventh round resumed, and the crowd started chanting, "Holy! Holy!" and Steward told him that all he had to do was keep winning rounds and "you can go to church in the morning," because that's all he wanted to do, fly right back to Atlanta and go to church with his mother.

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