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Excerpt: 'Becoming Holyfield'

Book Cover: Becoming Holyfield


Atlanta, 1978

The kid's name was Stevie Kirwood, and he wasn't bad at all: a quick left hand, light on his feet and a couple of years of ring savvy so that the usual tricks you can play on a rookie wouldn't work.

Try as I might, I couldn't put Stevie down; his reflexes were too good and he was reading me too well. So even though I landed a lot of punches, not many were good solid hits. Stevie would see them coming, and while he couldn't get completely out of the way, he'd duck or twist or sidestep enough to keep himself from getting too hurt.

On the other hand, he was spending nearly all his time protecting himself and hardly laid a glove on me. I was getting a nice workout while racking up points with the judges and could coast to an easy victory, but that's not how I liked to do things. I threw everything I could against Stevie, but he was still standing when the bell signaled the end of the third round, which is as far as amateur fights go. Barely standing, anyway: He was completely exhausted and hardly had the strength to come to the middle of the ring for the decision.

With the ref between us, a hand on each of our arms, we waited for the official announcement. I knew the standard language and lip-synced it in my head along with the announcer: "The winner, by decision...Stevie Kirwood!"

Wait a minute. Who? Stevie Kirwood?

I turned to the ref, my eyes wide and my jaw hanging open. Was he kidding? Had he gotten our names mixed up? But there was Stevie, arms raised high, dancing away toward his smiling corner men. Someone who'd never seen a boxing match in his entire life and had watched this fight from half a mile away through dark glasses would know I'd won, and they gave it to Stevie?

I screamed at the judges and spat on them. I grabbed the ref, picked him up and threw him out of the ring and into the third row of chairs. I climbed up onto the ropes, raised my arms and yelled to the audience that I'd won the fight, and then I went on television and wrote letters to every sportswriter in Atlanta.

Actually, I didn't do any of those things. I just stood there for a second, fighting to keep the pain and humiliation from my face, and then walked back to my corner to get my gloves unlaced. I didn't do anything because Stevie Kirwood was white, and one thing a black fighter in the Deep South learns early on is that knockouts — clean knockouts — are the only way to guarantee a victory against a white kid. Anything else is a crapshoot. So when the decision went to Stevie I did what I'd done before on those rare occasions when I'd lost a decision to someone I was sure I'd beaten: I did nothing.

Later in my career sportswriters liked to talk about my polite manners and what a good sport I was in defeat, as well as in victory. I didn't get angry when unfair stuff happened, and I didn't prance around or go all show-offy when I won. But it's not because I'm such a saintly guy — Lord knows I'm not — it's just how I was brought up. I was taught to behave that way, and near as I'm able to figure, it was because of three things: my mama, a boxing coach named Carter Morgan, and old-fashioned southern racism.

Mama — and her mother as well — had some mighty strong beliefs about how kids were supposed to behave, and a lot of it came from the Bible, although Mama liked to frost that cake with a little of her own icing. Pride being a mortal sin wasn't just a slogan for Mama; it was God telling us how to live. Pridefulness to her wasn't just about bragging or showing off, it was about going nuts when things went sour, as though you were too good to suffer a little injustice once in a while. She thought it was a waste of energy to fight things you had no hope of changing, and that you were better off directing your efforts to making sure it didn't happen again, or at least being smart enough to avoid the same situation in the future altogether. One of the things she knew it was useless to fight was someone in authority who'd already made up his mind, especially if you were black and poor and living in the South. Arguing would only get you into more trouble, so the only reason left to argue was pride, and that was no kind of reason at all.

When I was about four I was playing in the front yard with my older brother Bernard and our beautiful collie, Lassie. That dog was an overgrown pussycat who'd never hurt anybody, but when a mean drunk wandered into the yard and began harassing her, throwing stuff at her and laughing when she got hit, she broke her chain and chased him away.

About an hour later the drunk showed up with the sheriff and pointed to Lassie. The sheriff came into the yard and said, "This guy filed a complaint so I gotta shoot your dog."

Me and Bernard figured he was just kidding, or putting on a show to calm the drunk down, but our older sister Annette saw what was going on, ran out and pulled us inside. Lassie scooted under the house, which she always did when we let her loose in the middle of the day because it was nice and cool down there.

We watched through the window as the sheriff pulled a shotgun out of the squad car and walked up to the house. He looked back at the drunk standing by the car, then leaned down where we couldn't see him anymore. A couple of seconds later the whole house shook as he fired off the shotgun. Then he stood up, rested the barrel on his shoulder and walked back to the car, like all he'd done was shoot a can off a fence or something. The drunk guy saw us looking through the window and laughed, then grabbed at the car door handle three or four times before he finally managed to get it open and fall into the car.

Annette wouldn't let us move while the sheriff was still there. "He din't do nothin'," Bernard said to me, and shook his head, hard. "Just makin' that drunk fool think he did." He was trying to convince himself as much as me.

When the car was finally out of sight my brother and I ran out the door. Usually when the front door opened Lassie would come flying out from under the house so fast she was at the bottom of the porch stairs before we were, but this time we didn't see her at all, and when we looked under the house there was blood and fur all over the place.

No hearing, no due process...a cop just up and killed our dog. "What're we gonna do?" I asked Bernard.

"Nothing," Annette said behind us.

Later that night when Mama got home she said the same thing as Annette. I asked her how that could happen, that some guy could shoot our dog and there was nothing we could do about it.

"Didn't say it was right," she answered. "Just said there's no use trying to do something about it because you can't. And that policeman, he knows you can't. That's why he done it." And she went on to tell us that if we tried to do something about it, things would only get worse, not better, so we shouldn't waste time on it. "You let it be."

I didn't do anything when treated unfairly by a teacher, either. All I had to do was watch other kids try to argue, the teacher getting madder and madder and the situation just getting worse for the kid. I learned to keep my public hurts private, and after I became better known in the larger world and had other people to go to bat for me, I knew better than to carry on like an overgrown brat.

I didn't get angry and make a scene the first time a bad decision went to a white kid, even though I was fixing to, because Carter Morgan saw me and caught my eye just in time. He stared at me with a frown and shook his head. Not a lot, just a little, but in a way that let me know that I was to settle down and get hold of myself.

When I ran up to him after leaving the ring, I hadn't gotten a word out before he pumped his hands at me, palm down, and said, "I know. I know."

"But I walloped that kid!" I said, nearly in tears. "I had him down in the first — "

"I know!" Carter said more forcefully. Then he took me into the locker room, sat me down and explained. "People around here, they don't like to see black kids beating white kids. A close decision can — "

"But it wasn't close!"

"Yeah." He scratched the back of his head. "And you can go back and argue it. But you want to fight again, don't you?"

I shot him a look: Of course I do.

"Then hush up and let it go. That's all there is to it."

"But it ain't right!" I insisted. How could that be all there was to it? "You tellin' me there's nothin' I can do about it?"

Carter shrugged. "There's one thing you can do..." he began.

"Yeah?" I jumped at the small bit of hope he held out. "What? What can I do?"

"You can knock guys out," he answered. "There's nothing they can do when you knock guys out. They don't like it, but there's nothing they can do. So if you want to win, what you gotta do, you gotta knock 'em out."

Which is what I spent the rest of my career trying to do. By the time my amateur career ended following the 1984 Olympics, I'd won by knockout seventy-five times. I don't want to brag, just make a point, but something Howard Cosell would later tell me during the Olympics was really true: In amateur fights, which only went three rounds back then (many are four now) and where safety is everything, knockouts are few and far between and going for them is risky. For an amateur to win by KO as many times as I did was awfully rare, and now you know why it was so important to me. Don't get me wrong — knockouts are important to every fighter — but to me they had special meaning. They're how I protected my wins.

But I didn't win all the time. Sometimes it was because I'd been outfought, and I could handle that. But sometimes it was a loss by unfair decision. When that happened, I did what I could, based on what was in the rules: file a protest, ask for a hearing, "proper channel" things like that. And if it didn't work and there was nothing else to be done, I dropped it.

Understand, this had nothing to do with meekly swallowing whatever was dished out to me. Far from it. When it was appropriate to fight, I fought. But I made good and sure there was a reason to fight other than foolish pride. I made sure there was something to be gained, because from the time I started boxing at the age of eight I always had my eye on a larger goal, and Mama and Carter helped me to see that sometimes you had to make sacrifices and grit your teeth without complaining if it meant getting closer to that bigger goal. And even if it didn't, there was no excuse in the world for behaving badly.

I hung around outside Carter's roped-off training area for months trying to get into the boxing program. Kids made fun of me, because of how small and scrawny I was, but I didn't make trouble and I didn't let them push me away. I took whatever they dished out because it wasn't important to defend my pride to them; it was important to get into that program. If I acted up and caused a fuss, Carter wouldn't have stood for it and I wouldn't have had a prayer of getting past the door. So I took the small hurts and the teasing because anything else would have moved me farther from my goal rather than closer.

Did it bother me standing there in silence while a bad decision was announced? Of course it did. It was awful being humiliated and robbed like that. But I wanted to keep fighting and Carter taught me to solve the problem a better way than storming around and complaining and feeling sorry for myself. I got stronger and more skillful so I could whup opponents to the point where it was impossible for anybody to rob me of victories.

Those lessons drummed into me by Mama and Carter Morgan paid off throughout my whole life, in more places than just the ring, and they continue to pay off today. My upbringing made me who I am, and I feel I have a calling to inspire people to be the very best that they can be. I wanted to write this book so that others can benefit from what I learned, and maybe avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way.

But just preaching about stuff isn't what I'm about, and I doubt it's anything you want to read. What I'd rather do is tell you some stories about my life. Even though they're stories you might already have read about in newspapers or magazines, you haven't heard my side yet, what really happened the way I lived it. And to me they're not just individual stories, even though some might be pretty interesting or exciting or funny. They're all part of how I got to be who I am, and I'm hoping that reading about them might touch you in a way that helps you put your own life in perspective and makes it just a little bit better. Or, if not your life, then maybe your children's.

Copyright © 2008 by Real Deal Events, LLC

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Evander Holyfield with Lee Gruenfeld