Time Out: Why boxers need to be saved from themselves in 'exhibition' era

Evander Holyfield celebrates being evicted from the Celebrity Big Brother house after his ill-fated appearance on the show in 2014. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

FOR an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother not to be the greatest indignity in a once glorious career takes a bit of doing.

In 2014, Evander Holyfield wore the hangdog expression of a man KO’d by life as he was called forward by Davina McCall, the mooted cheer on this chilly January night an indication that none of those present had the faintest clue who he was.

Here stood a former undisputed world cruiser and heavyweight champion, a first pick Hall of Famer, a man who went toe-to-toe with – and defeated – Mike Tyson twice, having part of his ear bitten off in the process. Here stood one of the very best of a stacked generation, a man good enough to grace any era.

But nobody cared. Nobody was there for him. They were there for Lionel Blair. Give us a wee dance Lionel. For Jim Davidson. Go on Jim, push those boundaries of taste and decency one last time. For Ollie Locke... no, me either.

High pitched squeals pierced the air as Lee from Blue strutted along the catwalk and down the steps. He would spend his entire three week stint in the house slobbering over a combination of glamour model Casey Batchelor and ‘US media personality’ Jasmine Waltz.

The diary room chair should consider itself lucky not to have got a touch at some stage.

Mercifully, Holyfield was the first to be evicted eight days in - but not before he had spent 72 hours handcuffed to Apprentice melt Luisa Zuissman, sleeping four feet away from the bed where Casey Batchelor and Lee from Blue thrilled a nation each night.

Sitting on the sofa, largely silent when not offering the kind of outdated world views that might make even Davidson blush, Holyfield was lost. Clearly in need of the cash, this was little more than an endurance test. Although mannerly in the main, he had no desire to endear himself to his house-mates, or the viewing public. It was strictly business.

Fast-forward seven years, and Evander Holyfield turns 59 later this month. He has 11 children to six different partners (any wonder he needs the money) and countless grandchildren. The last time he fought professionally was in 2011. Even that, 27 years after his debut, was verging on the ridiculous.

Yet less than three weeks ago, he was back in the ring – though not for long. Eighty-one seconds was all it took for ex-MMA star Vitor Belfort to dump ‘The Real Deal’ onto the canvas twice before the referee eventually called a halt to the horror show.

Sitting there on the stage he once owned, where speed, heart and sheer force of will saw him thrive in the land of giants, Holyfield looked bewildered. Confused. Old.

It was a sorry sight though, sadly, not an unfamiliar one. Big Brother is one thing, but luring former boxers back between the ropes for ‘exhibition’ bouts must surely spell disaster down the track.

Where will those promotional companies and TV executives be if somebody ends up seriously injured, or worse, as a consequence of their greed?

Having the likes of celebrity president Donald Trump, or Snoop Dogg, commentate on these bouts is a sickening and disingenuous attempt to make light of old men being brought into an arena where unnecessary damage could be sustained.

Look at Riddick Bowe. Twice ‘Big Daddy’ went to war with Holyfield at his peak, but anybody who has seen or listened to Riddick Bowe over the last 10 years knows he should never be allowed near a ring again.

Yet still a showdown with ex-basketball player Lamar Odom was due to take place tomorrow night, until Celebrity Boxing pulled the plug at the last minute – the organisation blaming Bowe’s management company for hiding the true extent of his condition after worrying footage emerged of the former world champion training.

Would it still have gone ahead had there not been such a furore around Holyfield’s demise? I dread to think.

Even before he signed on the dotted line to share the ring with Belfort, Holyfield had agreed a match up with Kevin McBride.

When we spoke four years ago, ‘The Clones Colossus’ seemed at peace having battled alcoholism at times during and after boxing. He did not sound like somebody who would, or should, be allowed to fight again.

The man who beat Tyson in the last chapter of his career – surely that is legacy enough for anybody? Unfortunately legacy doesn’t pay the bills.

That is what makes these men vulnerable, though there can be other motivation at play too.

Despite a controversial split decision defeat to Chris Eubank in 1994, a year after they had fought out a draw in Glasgow, the stock of super-middleweight contender Ray Close had never been so high.

The Belfast man was on the cusp of a world title shot when a failed brain scan saw his British licence revoked, effectively bringing a promising career to an end at 28. That sense of injustice can be hard to shake.

“I’m still dealing with it,” he told me in 2018, 21 years on his last fight.

“If they gave me three months to train, to get back to 12 stone and get fit and sharp, I’d get back straight away. No problem.

“I’d love to box again. If you retire on your own merits, okay, but when you’re told ‘that’s it’, it’s harder to deal with. It was never my decision.”

In the same interview, Eubank – no stranger to reality TV since hanging up the gloves - offered a typically thoughtful response, calling on a 1927 prose poem by American writer Max Ehrmann.

“Does it pull at me? Okay… of course it does but when you are using your intelligence, you are weighing things up and if you weigh them correctly, then you always do the sensible thing and the dignified thing.

“The great sages, the men of experience, they point these truths out. If we think of Desiderata, there is a line in it that goes as follows: ‘Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth’.”

For so many, that remains easier said than done, especially when a cheque is dangled before their faces. Sure they’re big enough and ugly enough to make their own decisions? Right?

Maybe so, but if there’s one thing history has shown us, it’s that boxers – even some of the greatest to ever lace up gloves – often need saved from themselves.

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