He sat against a dressing-room wall, his eyes puffed, his scar tissue soft and swollen. His legs were elevated and his head was slumped and it seemed as if lifting his arms was out of the question. This is often the way boxers look in the drained moments after losing it all, their title, their championship, their belts, their fame. Like you could leave them there to rot. This was Evander Holyfield Friday night.

A shame. I long ago stopped caring about boxing. Too much slime. Too many pretenders. And yet, I felt empty and sad when Holyfield lost to young loudmouth Riddick Bowe in that 12-round heavyweight championship in Las Vegas, a fight that pushed both men to the front porch of hell. Holyfield, three inches smaller and 30 pounds lighter, took an enormous beating, especially in a 10th round that ranks with the most furious in recent memory. He should have hit the canvas several times, taking hooks and uppercuts from Bowe’s powerful, lineman-like form. At one point, the champ was so dazed by punches that he half- turned his back to the challenger, who quickly lowered the boom to the backside of his head. Holyfield wobbled, hung on the ropes, he was over, finished.

But he would not go down.

There are moments that define a boxer, and in that moment, Hoyfield woozy and blurred, yet still commanding his legs to move, his arms to box, somehow returning from the singing of angels to throw his own punches, not only throw them but land them, and stun the kid one last time — where was he getting the strength to do this? — in that moment we learned Holyfield was indeed a champion, with a champion’s heart.

We may never have known this in the two years and 19 days he held the title.

We had three minutes to appreciate it.

And his reign was over. Family and God

There goes the gentleman champion. People complained about Holyfield being
“too boring,” but these people think boxing should be one promoter with electrified hair yelling at another promoter wearing a sports coat with no shirt underneath — or one boxer with a neck full of gold chains taunting another boxer in a sequined jump suit.

You want that? You can have it. I liked Holyfield. I never heard him swear at anyone. Never heard him harass a challenger by saying “I’m gonna make you kiss me like a woman,” as Mike Tyson once did. I never read about Holyfield arrested with his car wrapped around a telephone pole. Never saw him leap across a craps table to throw a punch.

He didn’t smoke. He didn’t do drugs. He never insulted a former champion by saying, “He couldn’t carry my jockstrap.” (Do you remember when Larry Holmes said that about Rocky Marciano?)

Holyfield never got fat. He looked like an athlete should look, ready to go, all the time. He talked about family and God. He was in church every Sunday, even in Reno, Nev., and I didn’t know that was possible. He shrugged and looked away when others tried to taunt him. And while his list of opponents during his championship reign wasn’t exactly a who’s-who of great heavyweights (hey, Tyson was in jail), they were pretty much all he had. He fought them, he never came out of shape, flabby, or disinterested. He gave you a performance. He took the sport seriously.

Aren’t those the things you want in a champion? Or do you want this: Bowe, just minutes after winning the crown, grabbing the microphone and screaming at his critics “YOU NEVER SHOULDA DOUBTED ME!” then challenging the next contender, Lennox Lewis, to “knock me down right now, come on, knock me down.”

Some folks think this is great stuff. They probably like Wrestlemania. Others say this hearkens the tradition of Muhammad Ali. Come on. When will boxers stop trying to imitate the man? Ali was a black champion at a time of racial upheaval. When he shouted, he shook our consciousness.

These guys today just make noise. His gutsiest fight

So maybe with Bowe we have poems and boasts and sound bites. And maybe the soap-opera lovers can get back into the heavyweight scene.

Me? I’m gonna miss Holyfield. He gave an honest glaze to a slab of a sport that one day, when we come to our senses, will be abolished. In the meantime, he treated it with respect. And when he was dethroned — and, he says, retired — he said only this of his challenger: “I wanted it, but he wanted it more. He fought a great fight. I take off my hat to him.”

He said this without the strength to take a hat off a shelf. He said this with his eyes puffed to the point of closing. He said this with his shoulders dead, his head aching, and his gutsiest fight, the fight that proved his mettle, just minutes behind him.

You know what he showed us? Honor. I, for one, am going to miss that from the loser, and no longer champion, Evander Holyfield.

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