As a child growing up in Atmore in the 1960s, the youngest of nine children and, as he phrased it on Friday, “just a little fella,” the horizons did not seem broad for Evander Holyfield.
“I wasn’t supposed to leave the yard, so I couldn’t get into much,” Holyfield said.
In the summers, though, there was one exception — still a vivid memory for Holyfield, who was inducted into the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame in a ceremony Friday at the Tuscaloosa River Market.
“Every day, those trucks would come,” Holyfield recalled. “You know, the ones that they use to spray for mosquitoes. At least it seemed like every day. So I’d run after ’em, right in that cloud. Shouldn’t have, but I did. That was our fun.
“Sometimes the cloud was so thick that I’d get lost in it.”
That could have been Holyfield’s future, lost in a noxious haze, even after his family moved from Atmore to the tough housing projects of Atlanta, an atmosphere that could have been even more toxic than that thick insecticide.
But the young Holyfield found a way out.
“I was 12 years old or so, and I am watching TV and I saw the Spinks brothers (Leon and Michael) fighting,” Holyfield recalled. “They were poor. They didn’t talk so good. They were a lot like me. But they were champions.
“That’s when I figured it out. If they could do it, then I could do it.”
Holyfield went into boxing and was never lost in a cloud again. He went on the Olympics, winning a bronze medal. He was a four-time champion in the cruiserweight and heavyweight divisions, a fighter who earned millions and the owner of the most famous mutilated ear since Vincent Van Gogh. There are no lingering Mike Tyson tooth marks, although one can’t help but sneak a quick peek just to see.
Holyfield said it was “an honor” to come to Tuscaloosa for the induction, but he also came with a message.
“We need to help the amateur programs,” he said. “When I was coming up, we had great amateur programs. Now we don’t. Kids don’t see boxing.”
Holyfield said he had no problems with multimillion dollar championship fights, like the possible (but still unsigned) unification fight between Tuscaloosa’s Deontay Wilder, the WBC Champion, and England’s Anthony Joshua, who holds the other three major belts.
“Those are great for the sport,” Holyfield said. “They create a lot of interest. But a lot of kids who are drawn to boxing, let’s face it, they are poor. They can’t afford a pay-per-view … so we need amateur programs.”
Holyfield said Wilder was a rare example of a late bloomer in the sport: “He went into boxing to help his daughter. But how many people are going to do that, to transform a basketball body and work on their skills? Not many.
“And he’s still getting better,” Holyfield added. “I think he’s hitting harder now.”
There was a little diplomacy on both sides. Holyfield’s son, Elijah, is a running back with the Georgia Bulldogs, but no one mentioned second-and-26, perhaps because Holyfield still looks like he could hit harder than a steam engine with faulty brakes.
For his part, Holyfield graciously sidestepped a question about how he would fare in a match with Wilder.
“It’s different generations, man,” he said. “You can’t compare. People used to ask me if I could have beat (Muhammad) Ali. That’s not what it’s about. I learned from Ali. That’s what is important. That’s the job of the older guys, to teach the younger guys. That’s my job now.
“That way, the little guys will always be ready to grow, to step up,” said the man who rose from rural Alabama and stepped out of the cloud into the brightest spotlight.
“That’s what we need.”