Former undisputed world’s heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield visited East St. Louis last week to assist with the official dedication of Flash Boxing Gym, a training and tutoring facility established by former Olympian and three-time champion Arthur Johnson.
Holyfield was a national Golden Gloves champion and won a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics after a controversial disqualification in the semifinal bout against New Zealand’s Kevin Berry. He went on to become the undisputed cruiserweight and heavyweight champion and is the first boxer to earn four heavyweight titles.
His career also was marked by a bizarre title bout rematch in which Mike Tyson was disqualified for biting off a piece of his left ear.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
After working with some of the young fighters and mingling with donors at the gym in East St. Louis last Thursday, Holyfield, 56, leaned on the ropes of the full-size boxing ring and talked with Belleville News-Democrat Sports Editor Todd Eschman about his career, his upbringing in an Atlanta housing project, the influence of his mother and eight older siblings, and the importance of giving back.
Here’s a portion of that conversation:
ESCHMAN: So what brings you to East St. Louis?
HOLYFIELD: “When you talk about giving back, I’m that kid that was poor for real .... You have to appreciate what you’ve got and I’m only here because, the fact of the matter is, other people gave me an opportunity. If not for them, I would have never made it. My mama didn’t have no money. The things I can do for my son, she couldn’t have done. If it wasn’t for the people who had more than me, who came into my life, I never would have made it. What you take, you have to give back. That’s why I’m here.”
What’s the best advice you can give to these kids who come into this gym?
“Don’t quit. Don’t quit. My mama didn’t know anything about boxing, but she had enough common sense to know that boxing could open opportunities to me. She wouldn’t let me quit. Anybody that’s a Christian understands that you have to get the (fourth) commandment right — ‘honor your father and your mother.’ It doesn’t tell you how or what, God tells you to honor. I’m proof standing here that if you get that right, life is going to be great.”
You have a lot in common with some of the kids in here, in terms of the environment you grew up in. Does that add some weight to your message to them?
“I was a ghetto kid myself. I stressed-out people and how they talk to each other. You can bring each other down. But you have to make the decision not to join into that. I made the decision because my mama reminded me that she was my mother, and that all the other mothers who let their kids do whatever didn’t have no say in my life. When I was 16, my mama told me I wasn’t going to go to prom with my class because I was going to Canada for a tournament. I remember saying ‘but Mama, I’m 16 years old.’ And she’d say “And? You don’t have to do anything to go to prom except be in the 11th grade or the 12th grade and have somebody ask you. But who gets to go to Canada to box?’ You don’t turn down something that you worked for an you earned. Situations like that are the point of life. Some things require that you pay a price, but when you pay the price, you reap the reward. That’s why it’s so important for me to come back and be with these kids. I tell them don’t get into this wins-and-loses situation, because you only lose when you quit. If you don’t quit, you ain’t lost because it means you’ve held your ground and faced the challenge. The judges may say the other guy won the fight, but you ain’t lost nothing.”
Here’s an important question then? You’ve often told the story of Cecil Collins, the boxer who handed you your first defeat when you were an 11-year-old Boys Club fighter. You almost quit because of that. Whatever happened to Cecil Collins?
“Ha. In 1996, after I beat Tyson, I came home and the first person I saw was Cecil Collins. I said to him ‘Ceeee-cil Collins!” and people were like ‘Evander, you ain’t seen the man since you were 13 years old.’ I said ‘how could you ever forget the first white guy that beat you up?’ He beat me up twice. I looked at him and said ‘man, you didn’t even grow.’ We were 100 pounds then and weighs maybe 130 pounds now. He grew up real quick and then stopped growing. But he was a still star back home because he’d say ‘I beat up Holyfield twice, so I’m the man. Everybody knows I must be tough.’ He was, too. He’s coaching now, I think, and doing well.”
You hear a lot of sad stories about former boxers once they leave the ring. You’re here counting your blessings and giving something back to these kids.
“It is a blessing. If you do all the good things in life, those good things are going to catch up with you. You have a choice — good or bad. Whatever choice you make is going to catch up to you, going run into you again. My mama used to tell me ‘boy, I made the mistakes. If you don’t get into bad habits, you won’t have to worry about breaking them.’ I had a mother who lived a life and told me ‘son, you don’t want to be that way.’ I am who I am because I had someone who loved me enough that they wanted me to be better than them.”
What made you tougher? Growing up where you did, being the youngest of nine or living up to your mom’s expectations?
“All of it. I don’t know ... I think it’s my family. I actually would have gotten away with a lot of stuff if it wasn’t for my brothers and sisters. They knew that if I got into trouble that they were going to get the blame. So they didn’t let me do nothing that they did. They kept me in check. I have a brother who is two years older than me, but my oldest brother is 10 years older than me and I have a sister who is 20 years older than me. They were there. They were like another set of eyes on me.”
Considering the way you grew up, what was the best part of holding the greatest title in sports, World’s Heavyweight Champion?
“It’s like this: anywhere I went, they knew who I was before I got there. If they’d never seen a football player or anybody else, I was popular. It could be Russia, China, anywhere I go, people say ‘Evander Holyfield? Is that Holyfield?’ and I’m like ‘Yep, it’s Holyfield.’”
Was there ever somebody you walked into the ring against and thought “If I’m not sharp here, I can really get hurt?”
“That was with anybody. You have to learn that. If you don’t do the right thing, you’re probably going to get hurt anyway. I had a good mama who told me all the time ‘boy, you know what you’re supposed to do. If you let yourself down, who else is going to let you down?’ That’s called self responsibility. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do first. So you prepare for every fight the same way.”
But you didn’t seem intimidated by anybody, not even Mike Tyson. Tyson intimidated everybody.
“But you’ve got to understand that I had all those brothers and sisters. They tore me up. You’ve got to go through something to become something. There were times I’d get into a fight and I’d run home because I didn’t know if I could hold my own or not. Mama would run me out of the house and say ‘you go back and fight.’ Mama would say ‘a coward dies a thousand times.’ She had wit and common sense to know that a man sometimes has to stand up. You have to know, in all parts of life, that there is a time to speak up and a time to be quiet. And sometimes you have to stand up and fight.”
You’re known as a man of faith. How much faith did it take to forgive Mike Tyson for biting (your ear off in June 1997)? Or haven’t you forgiven him?
“Of course I have. That was nothing but the Lord because I was getting ready to bite him back. That’s what I was going to do. But it was by God’s grace. My grandmama is the one who told me ‘they always catch the second person ... He does it, than you do it, and you’re the one they’re going to get.’ I got so many whoopings because they always caught me second.”
For all you’ve done in your boxing career, what do you consider your greatest achievement?
“Making the U.S. Olympic team (in 1984). When I made the Olympic team, it was the first time in my lift and everybody hollered for me — the black, the white, the Latino, whatever. Whatever else you were, if you were an American, you hollered for me and the U.S. team. When I heard it the first time, I got chill bumps up and down my arms and thought ‘should I really fight now?’ Professionally, there is always somebody on the other side and when you walk into the ring, you hear the hecklers talking about what’s going to happen. You can’t get mad at them because everybody has a choice. But all I ever wanted was one day for everybody to be on my side, and being on the Olympic team was that day.”