Tough Guys Do Dance

updated 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Riddick Bowe may present Holyfield with his biggest challenge

HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING CHAMPION EVANDER HOLYFIELD WAS crossing his Houston gym recently when he slipped on a slick of water. "Everybody just froze, afraid he'd hurt himself," says Mary a Kennett, 72, a ballet teacher in Holyfield's camp. "When he fell, Evander did a side split, but I just told him, 'Get up!' And he was fine."

It's nice to know the champ is OK, but...whoa! Ballet teacher? The heavyweight champion of the world—traditionally the "meanest SOB on the planet"—has been spicing his footwork with pliés?

Actually ballet teacher Kennett serves Holyfield as a flexibility coach. But no matter. Holyfield, 30, who will be making his fourth title defense, on Friday night against Riddick Bowe in Las Vegas, has been redrawing the heavyweight composite since he took the crown from Buster Douglas in October 1990. A drop of golden sun to Mike Tyson's dark side of the moon, Holyfield is a fervently religious, gospel-singing man who seems to take no visceral pleasure in dismantling his opponents and never stoops to "dissing" them beforehand. He is also—and this is the part that troubles the boxing crowd—a major overachiever.

To date, Holyfield has made $80 million and will earn $20 million more on Friday night, more money than any athlete has ever made from competing in his sport. But his critics argue that the 6'2", 208-lb. Holyfield, who fought in the 1984 Olympics at 178 lbs., is a "blown-up" heavyweight. They say that after a diet of old men (George Foreman and Larry Holmes), Holyfield will be encountering in the 25-year-old, 6'5", 235-lb. Bowe the first challenger young enough and big enough and maybe even skilled enough to take his title away. To this, Evander says, "You can't argue with someone else's opinion. You just have to work harder to change it."

Holyfield learned about hard work from his mother. The youngest of Annie Holyfield's eight kids, Evander grew up without a father in a housing project in southeast Atlanta. Annie was a 12-hour-a-day cook at an Atlanta hotel until she had a heart attack when Evander was in fourth grade. A proud woman, Annie was angry at moving onto the welfare rolls, but her being home all day proved a blessing for Evander, whom she schooled in the work ethic he would one day carry into the ring. "If I had to wash the dishes," says Evander, "and forgot to wash a fork, I'd have to wash all the dishes again on account of that one fork."

Despite living in the ghetto, Evander grew up in a kind of cocoon. To protect him from the predations of the street, Annie sent Evander to a nearby boys club. There he came under the wing of a crusty old leather-pusher named Carter Morgan. "I had a 60-year-old boxing coach who treated me like I was his grandson," says Holyfield, laughing. "Once he got to know my mama, that was it. MY mama told him, 'If he do wrong, you tear his behind up and then tell me, and I'll tear up his behind again.' I was really fighting for him at first.

"See, I was always out there to please a man," continues Holyfield, "because I didn't have a male role model at home. When Mr. Morgan told me, 'One day you're going to be champion of the world,' I was like, 'Well, I guess I will be champion of the world.' Because with him, everything he told me, I believed."

When Evander was 16, the unbelievable happened: Carter Morgan died of emphysema. "I missed him," says Evander. "But all of a sudden, I thought, "I don't have to box anymore because I ain't got nobody to please.' "

Three months later, Holyfield decided to please himself. While he resumed training with Morgan's son, Ted, he went looking for work. "My sole purpose when I got out of high school was to move out of the project," says Evander, who took on several jobs at once—as a maintenance man, as a concessionaire at Atlanta Braves games and as a lifeguard at the city pool (where he met Paulette Bowens, whom he married in 1985).

At 19, he says, he had a revelation. He was working at an airfield refueling planes when he happened to glimpse the paycheck of a 15-year veteran of the job. "I was shocked," says Holyfield, recalling how little the worker made, "because I thought if you worked hard, you could get ahead." Depressed but motivated, Holyfield decided he would either make it to the '84 Olympics or quit boxing and enter the service to learn a trade.

In April 1984, Holyfield was training with the Olympic team in Colorado Springs when Paulette gave birth to Evander Jr. Four months later in Los Angeles, in one of the more bizarre results in Olympic history, he was forced to accept the bronze medal when, during a light heavy weight semifinal match, he knocked out New Zealand fighter Kevin Barry an instant after the referee gave him a command to stop.

Holyfield has not lost a fight since. But when he put on 30 lbs. and moved up to heavyweight, people said he failed to bring his punch with him. When he kayoed Buster Douglas, they said Douglas was made of Jell-O. A win over Tyson could have changed the tune, but Tyson's energies steered him to other venues.

A composed and generous soul, Holyfield doesn't waste much time over his ranking among the greats. Boxing has not only enabled him to get clear of the projects but to buy a ranch on 104 acres outside Atlanta featuring a pool, fitness center, boxing ring and stables—as well as a luxurious home in Houston. He has also been able to buy a large home nearby for Annie and another for Paulette—they were divorced in 1991—and their four kids, Evander Jr., 8, Ashley, 7, Ebonné, 4, and Ewin, 2.

Evander refuses to talk about new women in his life except to say, "I'm going to get it right next time." Indeed, the heavyweight can be quite the romantic. "I love ballads and love songs," he says. "Barry While, Luther Vandross, guys with heavy masculine voices."

Yet before each fight, his taste in music turns to the inspirational. Alone in his hotel room 30 minutes before his trainers come for him, he listens to gospel songs by the Williams Brothers and prays. His eyes well up with tears as he sings, "I Surrender."

"After that," he says, "I feel the pressures inside me being released. I get so relaxed, I start to fall asleep."

And then the bell rings.

WILLIAM PLUMMER
ANNE MAIER and MARK DONALD in Houston

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