Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How I Became A Lifer

by Lee Payton

Evander Holyfield has always been "too old" to me. By the time he was "Finally!" set to square off against Mike Tyson I was only 13 years old, and by that time the courageous former cruiser and heavyweight champion was thought to be physically worn out by nearly everyone. At 34 years old, he was to be a big name they could attach to posters and commercials in order to hype a big money event, but he wasn't there to stop the momentum "Iron" Mike Tyson had going when his was released from prison.

Mike was on a roll that brought back not only heavyweight gold, but his title of most dangerous man on the planet. Holyfield, on the other hand, looked like he was on a steady decline, and there was a feeling that this fight could be fatal for him.

I remember my dad talking about the fight in the days before November 9, 1996 and hearing how excited he was that it was going to take place after so many years, but he was also clearly worried for his man.

"If Holyfield was younger, Tyson wouldn't have a chance", he'd say.

I had been there with him for the second and third encounters with the skilled big man, Riddick Bowe, (my first boxing memories) and saw the way he reacted to the TKO loss in the mysterious final fight. Seeing him show so much emotion over anything, much less a sporting event, was something entirely new and shocking to me. That's when I realized just how much this fighter meant to him, but I didn't understand why just yet. All I knew was this was our guy now, so when the fight with Tyson was upon us, we were united in our rooting for the severe underdog.

On fight night I heard enough hype that I was actually afraid for Evander. Maybe it was because I was still a kid, or maybe it's because of the characters involved, but this seemed like way more than sport. I never had any fear that someone might get injured or die when I watched any of the other games out there. It just seemed like there was so much more on the line, given all of the dangerous elements at play, and I'll never forget that nervous feeling in my gut. It's a feeling I'm familiar with now, as most boxing fans are. It's that helpless "anything can happen" feeling that is somewhat special to boxing. I had already been given a taste of just how unpredictable boxing could be when I witnessed Holyfield beating Bowe handily only to fall apart out of nowhere, as well as the infamous Fan Man incident, but never was I as captivated by anything as I was for this main event.

In my mind it was clearly good vs. evil. Tyson was the street bully and convict who always seemed to be followed by hoardes of guys dressed like gangsters. My boxing knowlege had progressed enough to know that Tyson was Don king's man and in my father's house, King was a low-life criminal.

It was up to the humble, God-fearing, little worker to take down the evil empire of boxing.

When the bell rang to begin the fight, and Tyson exploded with a right hand bomb off the hero's shorn head, I thought our dream was through before it could even begin. Our guy was too old and too slow to keep the ferocious Tyson off of him, and it would be another one of those quiet nights.

But things changed quickly when not only did the old man stay upright, he came back to land some clean shots of his own and took the round. As excited as I was to see Holyfield in the fight I knew it could change at any moment. Mike could catch him with those cannon ball fists and it would be all over. However the stubborn over-achiever never backed down and was racking up early points, with my dad cheering him on from the counch behnd me, hunched in anticipation like Julio Cesar Chavez between rounds.

I couldn't even speak. The drama before my eyes had consumed me completely. I also didn't want to jinx Holyfield's work by celebrating prematurely. After the fifth round, when Tyson started to find the mark with brutal rights to the ribs and uppercuts to the jaw, I thought it was the beginning of the end. The warrior's old body just can't take this kind of punishment. It was nice while it lasted. If Holyfield was younger...

The minute between rounds 5 and 6 was completely silent as neither one of us wanted to say what we were thinking, but then Holyfield got that trademark bounce back and started really tearing into a bewildered Tyson. Everytime the champion tried to get something going, he was either hit or shoved back and it was clearly weighing heavy on his ill-prepared mind. Then, with about thirty seconds remaining, a desperate left hook attempt was countered beautifully by a short hook to the chest that put the baddest man on the planet flat on his shorts. Mike took the count and they went at it for the remainder of the round, but you got the feeling that Mike was simply fight back at this point.

We were still tense, but the "this could really happen" feeling crept closer with each round that our man didn't get knocked out. And was it my imagination, or was Tyson shrinking in there?

Round 10 was more of the same with the former champ manhandling a demoralized, but still swinging Tyson until a chopping right hand wobbled Mike's legs and had him looking to hold onto something. Holyfield tore into his dazed foe until seconds later he landed a perfect straight right on the chin that had Mike stumbling around on jelly legs eating bomb after bomb on the ropes, until the bell rang to end an unforgettable sequence. The house filled with screams of joy as Mike walked back to his corner, drunk. There would be no more sitting down for me.

The eleventh round was almost unnecessary. We all knew who the better man was on this night, but the bully did come out to take the tail end of his painful lesson. When some more classic Holyfield combinations had Tyson nearly turning his back in submission, referee Mitch Halpern wrapped his arms around the humbled, thoroughly punished combatant and called a halt to the fight.

"Wow. Now that was something. I want more!"

While my dad was busy cursing out Halpern for stopping the fight without Tyson laying flat on the canvas, I just stood there feeling something completely new. Maybe relieved, proud, amazed and deeply rewarded all at once. There have been times since where I've caught a taste of that kind of ultimate victory, but Holyfield's TKO of Tyson will always be special, as it was the beginning of my journey into the upside down world of professional boxing.

That crazy night is responsible for infecting me with the boxing disease. It's not something I'm likely to get over, nor is it a sickness that will have me out searching for a cure. I'm hooked for life thanks to Evander Holyfield.


Andy said...

Lee - Tyson/Holyfield in 1991, any different?

Lee Payton said...

Well, I personally don't think so. Mike may get stopped earlier. Holyfield was much faster in those days, but then again, he might not have been mature enough to follow a plan as completely as he did in '96, which could lead to getting caught in a slugfest where almost anything can happen.

That said, when Mike lost, he lost bad. You were either good enough of man enough to beat Mike and Evander was both too good and too much man.

Holyfield would always find a way to beat Tyson.

bloodtribe333 said...

What is your view or feelings about tyson taking that chunk out of the warriors ear?

Lee Payton said...

He was looking for a way out of another beating. It's basically man against boy. Like me against you.