Familiar signs suggest time is up for Holyfield

BEATING up the elderly is an especially ugly crime, but James `Lights Out' Toney was paid to do it, and the victim isn't complaining.


James Toney (right) was at his aggressive best against Evander Holyfield during their heavyweight fight at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Toney defeated Holyfield in the ninth round by TKO. — Pic. AFP-

BEATING up the elderly is an especially ugly crime, but James `Lights Out' Toney was paid to do it, and the victim isn't complaining.

"I'm sorry I had to do that to him," was Toney's apology for battering Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas. If valour and persistence mean anything in sport, Holyfield, now 41, must go down as one of the great heavyweight champions. He fought Riddick Bowe three times, and Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson twice. The only person he's hurting now, though, is himself.

The `Real Deal' has entered the awkward realm of pity. Not that he asks for our sympathy. The fusillade of punches that put this devout Christian down in the ninth round delivered a savage truth. Holyfield is now in his late-Muhammad Ali period. In 1981, the Nevada State Athletic Commission brushed aside medical evidence suggesting that Ali was in no shape to fight Larry Holmes. Looking back through the files, there is a strong echo of what Holyfield went through on this day.

"Larry didn't want to fight Ali. He knew Ali had nothing left; he knew it would be a horror," said Richie Giachetti, who was in Holmes's corner that night. Sylvester Stallone described the bout as "like watching an autopsy on a man who's still alive." The Holmes method was to "get 'em drunk, then take 'em out." But he took no pleasure in removing Ali from heavyweight boxing's saloon.

Here, we come to the hard part. In a perfect ring there would be a health line which no prize-fighter was allowed to cross. But where to draw it? Number of fights, quantity of punches taken, millions of dollars earned, number of ear-bashings from a concerned wife?

One of boxing's strongest self-justifications is that the combatants choose to fight. They exercise free will. American law tends to enshrine individual liberty. In the absence of clear medical evidence to show that Holyfield should be refused a licence to part the ropes, who will rise from a ringside seat to tell him his fighting days are over?

A common mistake is to assume that boxers go on too long only because they need the money. Holyfield fights because he's been doing it since he was eight years old and can imagine no other life. The psychological disintegration of Frank Bruno is at least partly attributable to the loss of purpose and routine that came with his retirement. The Faustian pact some make is to sign away their health in later life in exchange for a few more rounds beneath the burning lights.

It would astound me to hear anyone who likes boxing argue that Holyfield should "go back to the drawing board" after becoming Toney's 66th victim. He should go back to the drawing room instead. But if you defend a boxer's right to fight in the first place, you have to respect his right to choose a date for his own retirement. Ali never blamed anyone else for what happened to him, and I doubt whether Holyfield will either. If he thinks God is telling him not to quit, though, he should check his aerial.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003