The Real Deal

"He reminds me of a true gladiator, a true warrior. Blood, sweat and tears, that's Evander Holyfield," says Sugar Ray Leonard on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

What Evander Holyfield lacks in punching power, he makes up for in tenacity and durability. A religious man who conducts revival meetings, he has made several revivals himself in the ring. The built-up cruiserweight is the only man to win the heavyweight crown four times.

He showed the heart of a champion when he regained the title from Riddick Bowe and he stunned the boxing world when he registered a technical knockout over the supposedly invincible Mike Tyson. And then he took Tyson's best bites to beat him a second time.

In a boxing era often dominated by empty flash and false bravado, Holyfield brings a quiet dignity to the sport. He's the Real Deal both in and out of the ring.

The youngest of nine children, he was born on Oct. 19, 1962, in Atmore, Ala., and moved to the Summerhill section of Atlanta before he started school. He began his boxing career at eight when he entered a peewee tournament.

Until he was 17, he says, "I was scared at everything I did, but especially boxing. I don't know how I got started, but I was scared. I don't know why I stayed. But I won a lot of fights, never got hurt, and as much torment as I was living in, I just assumed I would quit before I got to, say 18. I knew there came a time when you could get hurt, your nose would be bloody, your eye cut. I'd quit before that happened to me."

But, at 17, Holyfield overcame that fear. After being knocked groggy to the canvas, he remembered feeling a numbness, but not pain. "I was never afraid again," he says.

At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles he "wuz robbed," to use the boxing vernacular, in the semifinals in the light heavyweight division. As the referee gave his instruction to break, Holyfield unleashed a ferocious left hook, knocking out his opponent, Kevin Barry of New Zealand. Holyfield was disqualified amid much controversy. However, the International Olympic Committee virtually admitted the unfairness of the decision when it suspended its own rules to award Holyfield a bronze medal.

He turned pro later in 1984 and over the next eight years won all 28 of his bouts. In his 12th fight, Holyfield won the first of three cruiserweight titles by dominating the late rounds to earn a split 15-round decision over WBA champ Dwight Muhammad Qawi on July 20, 1986.

Four years later, he became heavyweight champ by dethroning a rotund Buster Douglas, who was making the first defense of the title he had taken from Tyson eight months earlier. Holyfield, who is 6-foot-2½ and weighed 208 (38 pounds lighter than Douglas), knocked out his opponent with a vicious right at 1:10 of the third round on Oct. 25, 1990.

In the next two years, Holyfield successfully defended his title three times. Two of his victories were less-than-impressive 12-round decisions over fortysomething former champions George Foreman and Larry Holmes. Holyfield was criticized for not being able to put away these members of the over-the-hill gang.

The favored Holyfield suffered his first defeat -- and with it his title -- when 6-foot-5, 235-pound Riddick Bowe scored a unanimous 12-round decision in their fast-paced bout on Nov. 13, 1992. Holyfield earned more respect in losing this bout -- the Fight of the Year, according to The Ring -- than he did in previous victories.

Fifty-one weeks later, Holyfield gained even more respect when, in another bruising battle with the bigger Bowe, he regained the WBA and IBF titles by taking a grueling 12-round decision. But the title lasted only until Holyfield stepped into the ring again, on April 22, 1994.

Holyfield appeared lethargic, which was unheard of for this finely tuned professional, and he was upset in a 12-round decision by undefeated Michael Moorer. Three days later, doctors told Holyfield that he had been boxing with a heart defect -- there was a hole in it. This led Holyfield to announce his retirement.

But six weeks after the original diagnosis, a laying-on-of-hands by a televangelist had, in Holyfield's mind, cured him. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic later found that the defect had never existed, clearing the way for a Holyfield comeback.

Thirteen months after the Moorer bout, Holyfield took a 10-round unanimous decision over Ray Mercer. Then it was Holyfield-Bowe III on Nov. 4, 1995 in the battle of former champions. A powerful left hook by Holyfield in the sixth round decked Bowe for the first time in his career. But he didn't follow-up and two rounds later, an exhausted Holyfield was floored twice and the referee stopped the fight, Bowe winning on a TKO.

It looked like Holyfield's career was shot. He was going to have to settle to being happy living in his new $15-million mansion in Atlanta, the one that is 54,000-square feet, including 17 bathrooms. When Holyfield signed to fight Tyson in September 1996, the odds were 25-1 against him. It appeared Holyfield had a better chance of landing in the outhouse than the penthouse.

But both the oddsmakers and Tyson underestimated the 34-year-old Holyfield, who controlled the fight from the outset, frustrating the WBA champion and not allowing him to unleash his notorious power shots. He floored Tyson with a left hook in the sixth round and battered him badly in the 10th round. Thirty-seven seconds into the 11th round, the fight was stopped -- and Holyfield had joined Muhammad Ali as the only three-time heavyweight champion.

For the much-anticipated rematch, on June 28, 1997, Holyfield was guaranteed a $35-million payday. After not being able to beat up Holyfield in the first fight, Tyson decided to try to eat him up this time. Late in the third round, Tyson got Holyfield in a clinch, rolled his head up and above Holyfield's shoulder, and spit out his mouthpiece. Then, to the amazement of all, he took a chunk of Holyfield's right ear before spitting it out.

After referee Mills Lane penalized Tyson two points, he let the fight continue. In another clinch, Tyson gave the public more food for thought when he took a chomp of Holyfield's left ear. Lane disqualified Tyson.

Holyfield went to a hospital for a 20-minute procedure to have his right ear repaired. A ring attendant had brought almost an inch of the ear to Holyfield's handlers after the bout.

On Nov. 8, 1997, Holyfield gave what he considered his best overall performance when he avenged his loss to Moorer by taking the IBF title from the southpaw. It took five knockdowns, but the oh-so-holy Holyfield, who spends as much time preaching as training, finally made a believer of Moorer. The ring doctor stopped the fight after the second knockdown in the eighth round.

In an attempt to unify the crown, Holyfield fought Lennox Lewis on March 13, 1999. Although Lewis appeared to dominate the 12-round fight, it was declared a draw. In the rematch eight months later, Holyfield lost his title, by unanimous decision.

After Lewis was stripped of the WBA belt, Holyfield regained it with a unanimous decision over John Ruiz on Aug. 12, 2000. But Holyfield lost the title to Ruiz on a 12-round decision seven months later and in their third fight, on Dec. 15, 2001, Ruiz retained the crown in a draw.

On June 1, 2002, Holyfield -- at 39 -- got back into the heavyweight picture when he defeated Hasim Rahman. The fight was stopped in the eighth round when Rahman's forehead grew to the size of a baseball after two unintentional head butts from Holyfield. The fight then went to the scorecards, and Holyfield gained a split decision.

But that was Holyfield's last win for more than three years. He lost his next three fights before registering a second-round TKO of Jeremy Bates in August 2006 in Dallas after a 21-month layoff. Then he won more three fights in Texas against undistinguished opponents to improve his record to 42-8-2.