King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Evander Holyfield, almost 44 and returning to the ring, is headed down a road that leads to nothing but tragedy.

Published August 18, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

Future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, 37, has been retired for about three days, and now he says he's going to go play for the New England Patriots.

Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, 43, is scheduled to climb through the ropes Friday night in Dallas to fight a 32-year-old insurance salesman from West Virginia by the name of Jeremy Bates.

I'd like to see Holyfield retire for three days. It'd be a start.

Holyfield, who is an all-time great, thinks I have no business telling him he should retire, and he's right. I believe as he does that this is a free country and if a guy wants to put himself at risk, that's his business.

Besides, I hate to get all paternalistic with my elders.

And Holyfield's got enough trouble without having to listen to some old guy like me trying to tell him what to do. Here's a picture of some old guy with white hair forcing him to yell uncle!

OK, that's a trainer helping him stretch. Still.

"We're in America, and we've all got an equal right to make a decision for ourselves," Holyfield told Thomas Gerbasi of MaxBoxing and "We understand that we'd like everybody to live a long time and all that, but they let people smoke if they want to when they reach a certain age, even though we know what the outcome of that is gonna be, but we let people take that risk.

"Now all of a sudden I become very popular, and people say, 'Well, I love you. We don't want you to get hurt' ... No, no, no. I live in America, and you can love me or not love me, but you're supposed to give me the opportunity to be the man that I am and be able to have choices."

This is one of many reasons I've said farewell to boxing, once my favorite sport, the sport to which all other sports aspire, to borrow George Foreman's phrase. Because I really don't have a good argument against what Holyfield's saying except to say that I've been down this road before, and there's nothing good at the end of it.

There's slurred speech, lost memories and managed care. And that's for the lucky ones.

Two of the fighters I saw a lot as a kid were brothers, Jerry and Mike Quarry. Jerry had graduated from the weekly televised fights at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles by the time I came along and settled in with my dad every Thursday night to watch them on Channel 13, the great Jim Healy at the mike.

But he was a top heavyweight contender for years. He was always on network TV and he was a local guy. Mike, a good light heavyweight, was a lesser figure, but also prominent. Like his brother, he fought for the title and lost.

They both suffered from dementia pugilistica after retirement. They both ended up unable to care for themselves. They both died in their mid-50s, Jerry in 1999, Mike two months ago.

But I'm happy to say their fights were really entertaining for me in the '70s.

And they were on free TV too. That's where Holyfield will be Friday, on free TV. Or at least on basic cable, which is the 21st century equivalent for boxing. It's the bottom, since broadcast TV won't even touch the sport anymore.

Holyfield, who has always been admirably humble and determined, says he doesn't mind having to show people that he can still fight before moving back into the higher-rent districts of HBO, Showtime and pay-per-view.

He had his license revoked by the state of New York after his last fight, a 12-round unanimous decision loss to Larry Donald at Madison Square Garden in November 2004. That was his third straight loss. The other two were to Chris Byrd, as light a puncher as Donald, and James Toney, a fine fighter but a 219-pound super middleweight.

His last meaningful win, over a fighter of any substance, was in 1997, a TKO of Michael Moorer. And Michael Moorer was only Michael Moorer, never a great fighter in my opinion, though he was a good one. Before that there were the two wins over an already-shot Mike Tyson, including the famous ear-munch fight.

I think that if I wanted to bother I could mount a compelling argument that the last time Evander Holyfield beat a top-notch fighter in his prime was in the second Riddick Bowe fight.

That was 13 years ago.

The paucity of competition has allowed Holyfield not only to stay in the game but to talk about regaining the heavyweight championship without sounding as crazy as Jerry Quarry sounded when, already clearly in trouble, he talked the same way before taking a pounding from some club fighter for a thousand bucks at the age of 47.

A comeback.

At least he's not being treated like a crazy person by the mainstream press. Calvin Watkins of MaxBoxing tells it like it is, at least for him: "After spending the last two weeks watching him train and speaking with him, Evander Holyfield is crazier than Mike Tyson." Considering Holyfield's title aspirations, Watkins writes, "Evander Holyfield is delusional."

Holyfield says he's healthy and the doctors agree. A pug can always find a sawbones to sign off on his health, but let's give the Real Deal the benefit of the doubt.

He still sounds like every other old fighter as he makes excuses for his recent losses. He had a shoulder injury that's all better now. He was sick one of those nights and shouldn't have fought. Everybody has off nights, he can still do it.

The guy inside the body is always the last to know that the body isn't the same. They all feel that way. They talk about how they just couldn't seem to get their punches off for some reason. They just didn't seem to have it on this night.

I know the feeling. I play pickup basketball, and sometimes there's a rebound for the taking and for some reason I just can't seem to get my legs to jump. Only I know the reason. It's because I'm old. I'm 43. I can recognize it because I didn't get used to my body responding brilliantly to everything I asked it to do for three decades.

It's a curse for great athletes that most can't seem to recognize when that brilliant response isn't there anymore. And it's a curse for boxers that in their sport, you have to decide for yourself that you're done. You can't get cut from the team.

And so they keep on fighting and keep on fighting. They go from casino arenas to basketball arenas to civic centers to hotel ballrooms to state fairs where there are no boxing commissions if they keep at it long enough. And except for a precious few, they pay and pay and pay for it for the rest of their lives.

It isn't that a 32-year-old insurance salesman from West Virginia named Jeremy Bates -- career record: 21-11-1; record since October 2001: 8-10 -- is going to endanger Holyfield's future by knocking him cold, though that might happen.

The problem is the accumulation of blows. All those years, all those hard fights, against Bowe and Lennox Lewis and Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Michael Dokes and others. All those years in the gym. Those shots count too. Your brain, oddly, doesn't know they don't mean anything on a scorecard, or at least it doesn't care.

I wouldn't presume to tell Evander Holyfield what to do. He has doctors and friends who say he's in his right mind and I believe he should be free to pursue his profession if he can show he's in condition to do so.

He's fond of pointing out that he's been hearing from doubters his whole fighting life, doubters who said he couldn't beat Qawi, couldn't move up from cruiserweight and win the heavyweight title, couldn't beat Bowe or Tyson, couldn't regain the championship.

He's proved them wrong just about every time. But that doesn't mean he'll prove them wrong this time. With seemingly endless reserves of heart and grit, Evander Holyfield will always be remembered for the way he battled back whenever he'd been hurt. He was as thrilling a fighter as you'd ever want to see, an inspiration, never out of a bout no matter how bad things seemed.

But there's one opponent that no boxer's ever beaten. That foe's got Holyfield cornered now. He'll turn 44 in two months. And the worst thing is, Holyfield's one of the few people who don't seem to realize what's going on.

That's an old saying about old boxers, you know. They're always the last to know.

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