The world gym, set back in a strip shopping center on the southwest side of Houston, is a vast expanse of chrome, mirrors and sweating, lycra-clad bodies. At 4:30 on a muggy late-March afternoon, the gym is filling with the after-work crowd—young men and women pumping iron and puffing away on various aerobic machines. No one seems to notice when the heavyweight champion of the world walks in. Evander Holyfield, wearing canary yellow sweatpants, a T-shirt emblazoned with a large picture of himself in action (EVANDER spelled out alongside) and a REAL DEAL baseball cap, is here for his afternoon weight workout. He has brought no entourage, only his brother Bo and his lifting coach, Chase Jordan. Bo carries a clipboard and pen with which to record the champion's program.
A few of his fellow patrons eye Holyfield discreetly as he begins to rip through his exercises. One or two say, "Hey, Champ," but there is no mad celebrity rush, and many seem not to recognize him. One man appears uncertain. He stands, a pair of dumbbells in his hands, and watches as Holyfield walks by. "You're right, that is him," the man whispers to a friend. "He's sure got the look."
Indeed. There are few athletes in any sport as imposing as the 6'2", 210-pound Holyfield, with his glowering yet handsome visage and his comic-book superhero's physique. But Holyfield has more than the look. He won the heavyweight championship last October in Las Vegas with a third-round knockout of James (Buster) Douglas. He is undefeated in his 25-bout professional career. And for power, technique and conditioning, he may be the most complete prizefighter in the world. The question, then, is, why aren't more people paying attention?
On April 19 Holyfield will defend his title against George Foreman in Atlantic City in a pay-per-view promotion that many expect to be the highest-grossing fight in boxing history. Holyfield will earn at least $20 million; Foreman, $12.5 million. But make no mistake. It is the 42-year-old, 240-pound Foreman, with his shaved head and his fast-food one-liners, who will lure the crowds and the media army. Don King has said repeatedly that the 28-year-old Holyfield "couldn't draw flies in a dump." Meanwhile, King's fighter Mike Tyson—fresh from his controversial March 18 TKO of Razor Ruddock, whom he will face again in June—commands the most attention among the heavies. In the minds of many it is only a matter of time before Tyson recaptures his title, from Holyfield or from Foreman.
Holyfield takes no offense at such attitudes. "It's good for the game of boxing," he says. "When one guy gets all the attention, it makes the sport boring. But when there's lots going on, people get interested in boxing again. They're always going to say, 'Who's the heavyweight champion?' And it'll always come back to me."
Maybe so, but it's also true that Holy-field lacks a feel for the limelight. "Evander is growing into his role," says Shelly Finkel, an adviser since the beginning of Holyfield's pro career and his new business manager. "At heart, though, he is still a working man."
A working man with unique pressures. Recently, he and his wife, Paulette, have filed for divorce—apparently amicably, though the split reportedly may cost him $10 million—and he has fired, rehired and finally replaced his longtime manager, Ken Sanders. All the while, Holyfield keeps saying, "You can't forget what got you there. And that's hard work."
Clearly, Holyfield has not forgotten. Having completed his third workout of the day (in the morning he ran, and later he sparred six rounds), Holyfield is seated in the World Gym's Fitness Cafe, partaking of a large turkey sandwich and a Hot Stuff power drink. At the moment, he seems mostly concerned with the evening's planned bowling expedition.
"These guys," says Holyfield in his rich Georgia accent, pointing to Bo and to Jordan, "try to work me to death so they can beat me at bowling. But I'm going to beat the daylights out of them anyway."
"This is a real loose camp," says Holy-field's co-trainer Lou Duva. "You think you'd ever see Mike Tyson out bowling with his sparring partners?"
The 68-year-old Duva is still recovering from an angioplasty performed only a week before. Surgeons used a balloon catheter to dilate his blocked coronary arteries. Duva seems not to have noticed. "They told me I may have to have a bypass," he says. "I said, 'I don't give a damn what you do. All I know is, I got a fight April 19!' "
With the previous night's bowling outing forgotten, Holyfield, who won some games and lost some, is sparring at the Heights Boxing gym, an old converted service station with grease spots on the concrete floor. There is a ring with a wrinkled blue canvas, and a pair of heavy bags hangs from the girders along with a blue-and-gold banner that reads YOUNG BEATS OLD. Neighborhood kids and businessmen in ties and shirtsleeves sit in two rows of folding metal chairs.
In an effort to prepare Holyfield for Foreman, Duva and co-trainer George Benton have collected a battery of jumbo-sized sparring partners and given them instructions to lean on, push and bull the champion. Holyfield has more than held his own. One sparring partner, Stan Ward, has already departed with a cracked rib.
The rest of the sparring crew has been taking its lumps as well. "He's getting stronger every day," says Tracy Thomas. Kimmuel Odum, a mountainous 250-pounder, is nursing a broken blood vessel in his left biceps, the result of a Holyfield right. His entire upper arm is purple. He shows it to Duva, who, in the spirit of a loose camp, immediately drops his pants to reveal the spectacular bruise left by the insertion of the angioplasty catheter into his groin. A startled Odum hurries off to lace on his gloves.
Duva and Benton, for all their old-school credentials, have been remarkably open to innovation in the training of Holyfield. More than five years ago they brought in Tim Hallmark, a Houston-based fitness consultant, who with high-tech weight training and diet has built Holyfield from a 182-pound cruiserweight into a full-fledged, awesomely muscled heavyweight. Hallmark has also dramatically increased Holyfield's endurance.
For the Foreman fight Hallmark has introduced his pupil to a device he calls the "reaction piece," designed and built by a California inventor especially for Holy-field. While Holyfield stands strapped to a platform so that his legs face constant resistance, Hallmark rapidly moves five thin, padded poles around him as Holyfield ducks, slips, blocks and counters, like a man battling some giant insect.
Holyfield's other secret weapon is ballet instructor Marya Kennett, enlisted to work on the fighter's flexibility. "I call her Tinker Bell," says Duva. Kennett works Holyfield over for 90 minutes in the morning and again in the evening. "I'm not a masseuse," says Kennett, who began working with Holyfield before the Douglas fight. "What I do hurts.'" Asked how Holyfield responds to the treatment, Kennett says, "He sings—spirituals, rock, soul; he has the most glorious voice."
On this day, Holyfield works eight sweaty rounds against three different opponents, while Duva, Benton, assistant trainer Ronnie Shields, Hallmark and Jordan watch from the ring apron. "The biggest problem has been getting him to bend and roll and body punch," says Duva. "Turned out the problem was in the lower back. We had Marya, Chase and Tim working on it, and it's clearing up."
Benton is eager to talk about Foreman. "We just want to keep him busy early," he says. "Stick him, stab him, pepper him up and make him miss. Keep him thinking. Start that mental tiredness."
Holyfield has thought a lot about what he needs to do to Foreman. "I don't see it any other way than him just coming out and flat trying to knock me out," Holy-field says. "If he doesn't, he's fighting a losing battle. I have to weather the storm and then use my quickness—hit him with four-, five-, six-punch combinations and get his respect. I have to convince him he's in the wrong ring."
The morning workout is over. The kids and the suits are gone. A light rain begins to fall as Holyfield slides into the backseat of his dark blue Mercedes sedan, parked in the rocky lot beside the gym. A young man named James Henderson, an aspiring rap artist and the brother of sparring partner Al Evans, approaches the car. After being introduced to Holyfield, Henderson, standing in the rain, performs a rap song he says he has just composed for the occasion. The words, staccato-quick and clear, are directed to Foreman and end with the lines: "When you wake up from the blow you felt/Evander Holyfield still got the heavyweight belt."
The champion throws back his head and laughs with delight. "That's all right," he says. "That's all right."
Even if Holyfield keeps his title, as he is favored to do, the Foreman fight may do little to dramatically change his image, which is essentially that of a quiet, workmanlike athlete not given to making speeches or even to indulging in the obligatory prefight hype. More than that, though, there is the perception that Holy-field is simply not the best heavyweight in the world and that he owns the championship belt by mere happenstance. Thus, fighting a 42-year-old man is a bit of a no-win situation.
Holyfield needs to beat Tyson to prove that he is not a pretender, but the Ruddock rematch makes a 1991 fight with Tyson unlikely. Holyfield says he is ready to fight Tyson, but King, who tried to have Holyfield stripped of the WBC portion of the championship for denying Tyson the first title defense, now says he thinks he'll make Holyfield wait.
Though Holyfield is outwardly unconcerned at this most recent turn of events, his critique of Tyson-Ruddock I shows his eagerness. "Tyson fights so reckless," says Holyfield. "He gets off-balance. It would be so easy to hit him with one shot and get him out of there."
Until that time, the heavyweight champion of the world will continue to work just as hard. "Every fight I have," says Holyfield, "I have to earn my respect."
Holyfield (center) asked his massive sparring partners to do their best Foreman imitations.
With the reaction piece, the champ can work at ducking, slipping, blocking and countering.