Evander Holyfield at Rest

Boxing legend Evander Holyfield is making a new, quieter life in Fort Lauderdale

By: 

Erik Petersen

Photo By: 

ADEPT STUDIOS

Published date: 

Dec. 28, 2016

Evander Holyfield is lost, and he’s sorry.

He was expected more than half an hour ago, but he got turned around. He meant to be at a studio near Commercial Boulevard and Powerline Road, but instead he’s on the phone, apologizing and trying to figure out where he is.

"Well Evander, what are you near?"

There’s a pause, and you can almost hear him looking around. "Walker Elementary."

Right. That would be the school just off Powerline – and between Broward and Sistrunk. Directions are given that amount to “Drive north for a bit,” and everybody waits.

It’s tough to get mad at Evander Holyfield. Outside of the ring, the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world is known for his terrible sense of direction. (Inside the ring, his fist rarely needed a map to an opponent’s chin.) And anyway, Fort Lauderdale’s still new to him. He’s settling into a new city – something he’s not really had to do before.

When he arrives, he’s all smiles and apologies. It’s a shy smile, embarrassed, from a man who seems like he’d struggle to fake sincerity. Being late is rude, and Evander Holyfield’s mother didn’t raise him to be rude. So he’s sorry.

Evander Holyfield loves his mother. Annie Laura Holyfield is no longer with us, but her famous youngest child is doing his part to keep her memory alive. Mike Tyson once said of his great rival, “This guy doesn’t talk.” But get Holyfield away from bright lights and shouty press conferences and a kind, natural storyteller emerges. A storyteller who unfailingly returns the story to his mother, whom made him what he is and who he misses every day. 

His hometown? Well now, that’s a different matter. “I grew up in Atlanta,” he says. “I didn’t ever think I would leave Atlanta." Leaving, he felt, meant deserting.

But in recent years, living in his hometown, surrounded by family he loves and that comes to him with needs and problems, became a burden. 

“When you come from a big family and you’re the only successful person in the family, it can be difficult,” he says.

It’s not an uncommon story among current and former professional athletes who don’t come from money. Former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar has recounted how at one point, he was financially responsible for more than two dozen people in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. Athletes talk of family members being more familiar with when their paydays are than they are.

That, and so many other things, happened to Holyfield as well. This story, like so many stories he tells, leads back to his mother. She shielded him and guided him – shooing away other family members at times, and deciding which ones needed help. Without her, that system fell apart.

“When my mother passed, I lost that protection,” he says. “I wasn’t able to say ‘no.’”

The next part of the story was fairly well reported at the time.evander-holyfield-photography-0699_2.jpg

“Evander Holyfield” is one of those names that you know even if you don’t know boxing. It’s a short list of names. Muhammad Ali is there, obviously, as is Holyfield’s great anti-hero rival, Mike Tyson. Unlike them, Holyfield’s in-the-ring success was never matched by a larger-than-life personality. He smiled in interviews, thanked Jesus and went home to Atlanta. Wrote David Remnick in The New Yorker: “He was likeable enough. But he was dull copy.”

He won fights, though. Holyfield made his professional debut in the mid-1980s, moved from cruiserweight to heavyweight in the late 1980s and spent the 1990s battling it out with a handful of other big men for world supremacy. Holyfield, Tyson, Riddick Bowe and later Britain’s Lennox Lewis helped provide spectacle at what was perhaps boxing’s last big moment in the American spotlight. Most infamous was Holyfield’s 1997 win by disqualification after Tyson bit off part of Holyfield’s ear. But Holyfield’s career deserves to be remembered for more than another man’s bizarre moment. He won, lost and won back the major heavyweight titles. In 57 professional fights, he won 41 times, 29 by knockout. And that record would be better if he hadn’t fought some frankly ill-advised fights near the end of his career.

Of course, by then he needed the money. That’s the other well-known part of the story.

“My kids know I’ve been successful,” he says. “But I want [them] to know that I’ve made mistakes [they don’t] have to make.

“The fact of the matter: I thought money covered everything.”

By “my kids,” he means all 11 of them. There are six different mothers. There was a lot of child support. That was fine when he was getting paid millions for each time he stepped in the ring. Also fine was the generosity – stories abound of Christmas presents to poor kids in Atlanta, checks given to people having hard times, often when there were no cameras or reporters around. The Evander Holyfield Foundation doled out college scholarships. He tithed, giving millions to the megachurch of Atlanta pastor and televangelist Creflo Dollar. He also invested.

When the story of the professional athlete gets to the point where he invests lots of his money, it’s not always a happy turn. There were gyms, casinos, a music studio. There were losses. The bank first looked into taking his house in 2008. 

His final fight came in May 2011 against a man from Copenhagen nicknamed The Danish Pastry. The fight earned him about half a million dollars – nothing compared to what he used to get, but money he very much needed. In 2012, he was forced to sell the house, a 54,000-square-foot mansion on Evander Holyfield Highway, at auction. (A bank bought it, and Rick Ross picked it up in 2014.) That year, a British newspaper reported that though he had made more than $500m over the years, he was now broke. 

After that, well, he was available. In 2014, he appeared in British reality show Celebrity Big Brother. Last year he competed in an Argentinian dance reality show. (He was voted off third.)  And in September 2015, he visited Broward.

It was meant to be a quick stop for an event at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Hard Rock Live brought in more than 20 former heavyweight champions including Holyfield, Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe and Larry Holmes. Holyfield enjoyed the weekend – and he enjoyed the place. He also got talking to people who suggested that if he was looking to make a move, well, perhaps this would be the place.

As it happened, Holyfield was looking to make a move.

Holyfield didn’t meet his father, a physically powerful man who signed his name with an X, until he was an adult. When he was in trouble, there was just one place to go.

“My mother was the only one; I didn’t have a father,” he says. “My momma corrected me at a young age.” 

She was stern, making sure he avoided the pitfalls and distractions other family members failed to avoid. And the way he describes it, she probably landed more blows on her son than more than two decades worth of professional fighters would. “I didn’t see nobody else get all the whuppings,” he says, “but I got all the whuppings.”

As a boy, he didn’t always understand why he alone seemed to feel his mother’s wrath. He recalls his older siblings having fewer rules, running free while he was stuck in the house. He wasn’t allowed to hang out with them. His mother’s reasons for that were blunt. “’She said, ‘No, they’ve given up.’”

There were times when young Evander felt like giving up as well, particularly at school. He excelled on the sports fields, but reading was a different story. “I told her I don’t want to go to school no more because they’re laughing at me,” he says. His mother wasn’t having it.

“It was sold to me as a kid – ‘the mistakes I made, you don’t have to make.’ My mother could have said ‘I dropped out of school at sixth grade, your father didn’t go to school, you don’t have to go'.”

Instead she told him," Evander, you are going to go to school. You are going to learn to read."

At school, he lived in fear that his mother would show up. She dipped snuff and picked fights, and he knew that if she showed up, she’d argue with the teachers.

“I was always afraid for my momma to go up to the school,” he says. “I was always scared that if my momma showed up, there would be a fight.”

Back then, he admits, he sometimes got embarrassed. Today, his mother’s been gone 20 years and he thinks about her every day.

He also tries to pass along some of the same lessons to his 11 kids. They lead very different lives from the one led by the shy, protected youngest of nine  growing up poor in Fayetteville, Ga. One, Elijah, is a running back for the University of Georgia Bulldogs. Another, Evan, is an amateur boxer. As a rule, Holyfield’s kids go far in their educations. He tries to help with whatever he can.

“You have to be that step they need to step out to the next level,” he says. “I don’t want to be the one who makes them fall.”

He lives more simply now, but well. Finances have stabilized. He has time for his kids when they need him. He can reflect. “I’m at the age, I like to sit down and be relaxed,” he says.

For Evander Holyfield, living in this new place, free from the obligations of the old – that brings peace.

“Moving here gave me a new lease on life,” he says. “Ever since I’ve been here, it’s been peaceful. It’s been quiet.”