4-Time Champ Holyfield Fights On, And On . . .

By Michael Hirsley
Updated: October 28, 2006

CHICAGO — Chicago heavyweight Fres Oquendo has fought his way to the mountaintop twice, unable to get a foothold either time.

Evander Holyfield has stood at the top more often than most can remember, winning the heavyweight boxing title four times and losing it four times.

Also, in a feat almost incomprehensible in this era of four heavyweight champions who aren’t fighting each other to unify the crown, Holyfield has held all the major belts at the same time.

Not surprisingly, Oquendo, having lost two title bouts, is hungry for another chance.

More surprisingly, Holyfield is also hungry, refusing to rest on laurels that should be enough to put him in boxing’s Hall of Fame.

On Nov. 10, they will stand in each other’s way as opponents in San Antonio’s Alamodome.

Last week, they stood beside each other at RiNo Bar, 343 W. Erie St., to promote the bout.

“Right now, this is more prestigious than a title fight to me,” Oquendo said, noting his opponent’s lofty credentials. “I think he is the biggest name in boxing. They can’t ignore the winner.

“This is my championship,” he declared, adding optimistically, “The winner should get a title fight.”

Holyfield, who turned 44 on Oct. 19, said, “I want to show people that I haven’t gone anywhere.”

Observers who have seen him go down to defeat three times in his last four fights since 2002, when he lost to Chris Byrd in his last title fight, worry that he has not exited into retirement.

After his one-sided loss to Larry Donald two years ago, the New York Athletic Commission suspended Holyfield’s boxing license.

“A lot of people keep talking about my age. . . . They say I’m too old,” Holyfield conceded.

But he chooses not to listen. He has another voice in his head. It tells him that the current crop of heavyweight champions is a vulnerable bunch, that he can compete in that crowd, that he was hampered in recent bouts not by age but injuries, and that he is a more popular attraction than any of the rest.

“I’m the draw,” he declared. If he beats Oquendo, he added, “my winning would make a big money fight for the champion.”

He fortified that contention in June, when some 10,000 fans showed up at Dallas’ American Airlines Center to watch him stop journeyman Jeremy Bates in two rounds.

I asked the Alamodome headliners how the Nov. 10 outcome would affect their futures. Oquendo, a full decade younger than Holyfield, saw the need for victory as more critical.

“If I lose this fight, maybe it’s time to stay away from boxing,” he said. Victory is imperative, “and not just to win regular, win impressively, to get my just due.

“I’m training like this is the fight of my life, which it is.”

Many felt Oquendo beat International Boxing Federation champion Byrd in a 2003 title bout that all three judges scored for Byrd. In 2004, Oquendo and World Boxing Association champion John Ruiz were locked in a close but dull matchup until Oquendo was wobbled by a flurry and referee Wayne Kelly stopped the bout, giving Ruiz a technical knockout victory in the 11th round.

While Holyfield realizes he has a lot to prove and “I don’t see myself losing, I can’t refocus my mind to think about losing,” he insisted retirement is also not part of his thinking.

In response to a direct question, he said there was a time when he would have considered retiring: “If I had beaten Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas for the undisputed championship, I wouldn’t be here today.”

But he lost that 1999 bout by unanimous decision. And so, he was at RiNo last week, preparing to fight again. He looked to be in fine physical condition. The New York suspension kept him inactive for nearly two years. But he kept working with trainer Ronnie Shields, who insists that without the back and shoulder problems that hampered Holyfield’s effort against Donald, “Evander can throw punches in combinations like he hasn’t done in years.”

What happens if that isn’t enough to beat Oquendo? Shields responded cautiously: “If he loses every round (as he nearly did against Donald) when he’s at his best, of course I’d say he should think about retirement.

“But if he wins impressively, I’d say he deserves a title fight.”

As far away as his title-holding days have become, and as tiny as the distant glimmer of again holding all the title belts may be, Holyfield stays the course. Whenever he has lost, he said, “Whether it was fair or right didn’t matter, I got back in line.”

And Fres Oquendo still sees him as the biggest guy in queue, the most impressive guy to leapfrog.