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Holy Smoke!

updated 12/02/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

'I thank the Lord for using me as his vessel'

EVANDER HOLYFIELD AND HIS NEW wife, Janice, were alone in his Las Vegas hotel room two hours before his Nov. 9 heavyweight championship showdown with Mike Tyson, and the weight of the moment was finally upon him. Holyfield, a 7-to-l underdog, was thinking about how hard Tyson punches and worrying about being embarrassed before millions of people. That's when he shared his fears with his bride. "I said things to her that I never told anybody," says Holyfield. Next thing he knew, Janice, a medical doctor from Chicago, had him up on his feet dancing to the gospel song "Mighty Man of War" and reminding him that David danced before he faced Goliath, "Dance," she said, "to the word of God."

What worked for David hadn't lost its punch in the interim. No one had given Holyfield, who was 4-3 in his last seven bouts, a chance against this generation's Goliath. Yet he had Tyson on the canvas in the sixth round and finished him in the 11th in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. "People didn't believe it could happen," says Holyfield, 34. "You can tell them knowledge is power, but they don't really believe it. That's what God sent me to do—show you that with God's power you can do all things."

A fervent born-again Christian, Holyfield can see God's fingerprints on every part of his life, especially his marriage to Janice, 34. In a way, the relationship started two years ago, after he lost his heavyweight title to Michael Moorer. He was attending a revival meeting in Philadelphia when evangelist Benny Hinn announced to the audience that Evander's future wife was sitting somewhere among them. For months afterward, says Holyfield, "I had all these women calling, writing, telling me why they were going to be my wife. It was awkward."

Present, but not one of his pursuers, was Janice Itson, who did volunteer work for Hinn. "It was strange, because I noticed Janice before anybody else," says Holyfield, who thought she wouldn't be right for him because she was a doctor with her own career. But soon he was calling her on the phone. "We talked and we talked, about the Bible," he says. "She was the first woman I'd met who was stronger in the Word than I was. I felt good about that, but I didn't have that infatuation, that 'in love' thing."

Holyfield introduced Janice to his children—he has six with four women. (Of those, he was married briefly to one, Paulette, and divorced in 1991.) "My kids fell in love with her," he says. "But through it all, I still didn't have any feelings."

The relationship still lacked heat a few months back when Holyfield, beginning training for the Tyson fight, asked Janice to take care of the kids he had living with him in Fairburn, Ga. When she declined, says Janice, "he sounded so disappointed, I thought he was going to cry. I thought he really needed me." She relented, and the distance between them began melting away. They were married in a Fayetteville, Ga., wedding chapel on Oct. 4. "When it hit me, it hit me," Holyfield told The New York Times.

These days the Holyfields are enjoying the peace that follows war. After Christmas, they expect to move into a $10 million mansion Evander had built next to his present home. Janice, who wants children of her own, is not sure she will resume her medical practice. Nor is Evander certain there will be a Tyson rematch. What they are sure of is their marriage. "I always thought I wouldn't want to be married again until after I stopped boxing," says Holyfield. "But the way that God wanted it turned out right."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
KRISTA REESE in Atlanta

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