Michael Rosenthal

Those who care about Holyfield worry about him

Evander Holyfield works out for his fight against Sherman Williams on Saturday on pay-per-view TV. Photo / Chris Cozzone-FightWireImages

Jim Thomas always told Evander Holyfield that he would never lie to him, regardless of the fallout.

So, with that in mind, the former heavyweight champion’s longtime advisor and close friend sat down with him two days after he was knocked out by James Toney in 2003 and told him it was time to retire.

Holyfield’s response? He severed his relationship with Thomas and fights to this day at 48 years old, a reality that saddens Thomas and others who care about the congenial fighter.

Holyfield is scheduled to fight journeyman Sherman “The Tank” Williams on Saturday at a resort in West Virginia on pay-per-view television.

“I told him, ‘If, as you say, the only reason you’re fighting is to become undisputed heavyweight champion in the world again, that’s not going to happen. That’s not going to happen for anyone, in my opinion. There are four (sanctioning) organizations now. I didn’t see that happening because of the politics. I just didn’t think it was worth continuing to fight after all he’d accomplished. He was risking his legacy, his health, for something that wasn’t worth the risk.

“… I told him after the Toney fight that it was a good time to retire. He said, ‘If you don’t believe I can be the undisputed heavyweight champion again, then you can’t stay with me.’”

The two haven’t had a relationship since.

“It was extremely painful,” Thomas said of the split. “I had one brother in my life and he died. I had an emotional attachment to Evander like he was a younger brother. I felt I did everything I could to take care of him, putting him ahead of everything else in my life many times. To have it suddenly end … it was a big loss.”

Thomas said he doesn’t see from a distance overt signs of brain deterioration that others have cited, such as slurred speech or impaired movement. Still, the impact of continuous blows to the head are worrisome.

Holyfield has fought professionally –- with no significant breaks -– since 1984, 26 years ago. And, of course, he began fighting as an amateur long before that.

Even at 48, he remains competitive with the type of opponents he has been facing, Francois Botha, Williams and 45-year-old Brian Nielsen in a bout scheduled for March 5 in Denmark. He even fought Nikolai Valuev on even terms in his most-recent bid for a title.

Thomas is concerned not only about long-term impact on the brain but what might follow the Nielsen fight.

“Let’s say he beats this guy on Saturday,” he said. “Then he beats another dinosaur, Nielsen. Then one of the Klitschkos decides to fight him. That scares me.”

Kathy Duva of Main Events, which handled much of Holyfield’s career, feels the same way.

She said Holyfield has always been “his own man,” the type to do what he wants to do regardless of criticism. She admires that. At the same time, she said, it’s crucial that he know when enough is enough.

“I worry about him every fight,” said Duva, who promoted his title-fight loss to Sultan Ibragimov in 2007. “And it’s not just his age; it’s how long he’s been doing it. George Foreman had a long time off in the middle of his career. He was in his 40s but suffered no damage for a lot of years. Evander has been fighting consistently. Of course, I’m going to worry.

“I admire him on some level, to have the strength to try to do something no one thinks he can do. That’s what made him what he is. His greatest strength could be his greatest weakness, though. That’s what might be happening now. I have to say that 48 is pushing it.”

The presumption that Holyfield continues to fight primarily because he needs the money makes his story even more disturbing.

The undisputed heavyweight champion (and undisputed cruiserweight champ) has made in the neighborhood of $200 million in the ring. Most of it is gone. He has 11 children from a reported eight mothers, which translates to an enormous cost in terms of divorce and child support. And he made bad investments.

Neither Thomas nor Duva wanted to speculate about the exact state of Holyfield’s finances but they can’t ignore the obvious.

“He made so much money in his life but unfortunately there are so many ways of spending it,” Duva said. “Divorce settlements, I think, were probably the biggest thing. You think that lifestyle will go on forever but it’s hard to maintain it. It’s a shame because it didn’t have to happen, but it did.”

Thomas was asked whether he believes Holyfield ultimately will be remembered for his accomplishments rather than the image of an old man trying to hang on.

He said he hopes so but isn’t convinced.

“I still remember Willie Mays stumbling around in the Mets outfield,” he said. “I can’t get rid of that image. It never should’ve happened. I shouldn’t remember him that way. And I remember (Muhammad) Ali at the end. That wasn’t Ali. I wish he hadn’t done that. If I had my way, in 2003, we would’ve done a world tour of exhibition bouts with the national champion of every country. Then people would’ve seen him when he was still great.

“I don’t know how we’ll remember him. I just hope we don’t remember him getting carried out of the ring on a stretcher. That’s what I worry about.”

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