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Deal With Him

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took him a while, he says with a soft laugh, but Evander Holyfield has found his moment, and he is not letting go of it now, maybe not for years.

Mike Tyson tried to take it away from him once, and left the ring stumbling, without his World Boxing Assn. heavyweight title, and with dents in his reputation and his forehead.

This is his era, Holyfield says; four years since the first calls for his retirement boomed across this sport, this is his time.

So why be shy about it now?

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“I’m in shape, and there’s just no way I can lose,” Holyfield said Tuesday, pointing toward Saturday’s mega-rematch at the MGM Grand Garden arena against Tyson, whom Holyfield shocked in an 11th-round knockout last November.

“It’s impossible for it not to go my way.”

Everybody around Holyfield, the evangelist with heavy fists, says he’s stronger than ever, happier, and as confident as a preacher standing before the multitudes.

He’s earning $35 million for this fight, after receiving a relatively low $11-million purse in November. He’s 34, recently remarried, deeply devoted to his Christian beliefs and absolutely luxuriating in his return to glory.

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“The guy’s head is in the right place,” co-trainer Tommy Brooks said after Holyfield’s victory proclamation. “He’s at such peace with himself and with his belief in God, belief can move mountains. He knows he’s done what he’s supposed to do.”

A few weeks ago, as he was winding down his training in Houston, Holyfield chomped down breakfast after an early morning workout and casually spoke about his place in history.

Judging his various rises and falls, from his defeat of Buster Douglas in 1990 to his two losses to Riddick Bowe to his brief retirement after losing to Michael Moorer in 1994 to his incredible victory over Tyson, Holyfield said he is certain his career has and will continue to define this period of boxing.

“It’s important for me to be the best of this era,” Holyfield said. “That’s why I’m in it.

“I became the heavyweight champion of the world in 1990. I had the title in 1992, then I lost it, came back in 1993, lost it, now I’m champ again in ’97. You look in that seven-year stretch, I was better than anybody. And I’ll take it all the way to the year 2000.

“People have got to be accustomed to me being champion. You better treat me nice. They’re going to be looking at this face a lot longer than they expected.”

Tyson and his camp have implied that Holyfield is somebody they can’t wait to get rid of, a nuisance that cropped up along Tyson’s path.

Since the defeat, Tyson has said he was mentally unprepared for Holyfield’s assault, that he underestimated Holyfield after Holyfield’s knockout loss to Bowe in November 1995, and a mediocre victory over Bobby Czyz.

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Which is the easiest way to raise a bristle in Holyfield.

“He can’t diminish me,” Holyfield said of Tyson. “The only thing a person can do is diminish himself. What he’s saying is, ‘I’m denying the fact that I got whupped.’ When a person denies the fact of what happened, that means it can happen again.

“Realistically, when people don’t admit to the truth, the truth will still sting you. They can close their eyes, but when they open their eyes, the truth is still there.

“To hear him say that, I realize he hasn’t gotten over the first one. That first defeat is still there with him. It’s too much for him.”

Sitting at his kitchen table, with streaks of the morning sun flushing into the room, Holyfield sounds a little rote and rehearsed at times, but drops into a deep pause when he’s asked to compare Tyson to himself.

Again and again, with justification but also with a dose of arrogance, Holyfield describes himself first and foremost as a winner, as someone who works to fulfill what God has instilled inside him.

So, he is asked, could Mike Tyson be a winner? Can this convicted rapist and continuous center of controversy be redeemed?

“He could be,” Holyfield said slowly. “You can’t answer who’s a winner until life is over. . . .

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“But you could say the way this guy’s headed, it doesn’t look like he’s going to a prosperous situation. You don’t say, ‘Well, he’s successful,’ if at 45, he’s broke.

“I figure, unless he recovers some kind of way, he’s going to have a hard life. The man’s only 30; you’ve got a long life ahead of you. And if you haven’t got plans and security built up, hey . . . you’re heading for disaster.

“He could say, ‘I was the heavyweight champion of the world. I had all this money, now I don’t have that.’ And then, people will say he was a failure in life.

“He was successful at boxing, but in life itself, he was a failure.”

And for Holyfield, what will post-boxing life be?

Holyfield says he doesn’t know when his athletic career will end, but he is fairly certain of what he’ll be doing when it does.

The man who admits he can be shy, the man who says he is most irritated when he sees a reflection of his own reserved nature in his teenage son, Evander Jr., the man who has been called the blandest heavyweight champion in history . . . this man wants to preach.

“I’m sure I’ll be ministering,” said Holyfield, who has traveled frequently in the last few years to speak at various churches. “I’ll be more of an evangelist, going to different countries, touching peoples’ lives and spreading the good news, the word of God.

“I truly believe that the connection is that the pull I have on people will allow them to pay heed to what I say and not look at it as a given.

“They see a lot of ministers come and say things, but they think that the minister is only doing it for himself. And what they see with me is this man is heavyweight champ of the world, this man here has a lot of money, this man has a lot of fame. . . . They see he’s not looking for fame, he’s not looking for money, he’s not looking for pity, because he can do anything he wants to do.

“Why is this man trying to convince us and trying to let us know that God is good and all that? People tend to listen to a winner.”

Though Holyfield repeatedly says he knows he can’t control the opinions of others, his conversation returns again and again to the respect he feels he deserves--and that has been denied to him over the ups and downs of his long career.

In November, Holyfield was a decided underdog and was treated mostly as a plucky overachiever heading into a slaughter.

For the rematch, Holyfield is still an underdog (2-1 by the latest Las Vegas odds), but measured by the dozens of reporters who have made the trek to his Houston camp and the scores of fans who turned out for his 6 a.m. training sessions and group prayers, Holyfield is the focus of tremendous fascination.

“I’m getting more attention than I even thought I would,” Holyfield said. “The exposure I’m getting this time I think is what I was looking for the first time.”

Without the overwhelming odds to overcome this time, without the sense of having to prove himself all over again after the Bowe loss and the Czyz performance, against a dangerous opponent looking for revenge, could Holyfield perhaps be lacking in motivation?

“The motivation I had the last time, that’s pretty much gone,” Holyfield said. “But it’s not like every time you go for a battle you use the same plan. God always gives you a different battle.

“This time, it’s about consistency. It’s not so much the same battle plan. It has to be a lot better than the last time. The plan here is so much different. . . . If he’s looking for the guy he fought last time, he’s going to be in trouble.”

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Fight at a Glance

* What: Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson for the WBA heavyweight championship.

* When: Saturday.

* Where: MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas.

* TV: Live on pay-per-view beginning at 6 p.m.


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