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Holyfield Shares Who Deserves Most Credit For Making Him A Boxing Legend

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He was 14 then, and already knew what he was, to an extent, and what he was not.

School isn’t really my thing, Evander Holyfield realized. I will not be attending Harvard, and I speak a certain way, with an accent, and maybe my vocabulary isn’t the finest.

I’m not going to be a nuclear physicist when I grow up.

But I know I have skills! I know I have worth! I have a work ethic, and strength, and character.

My mom and my grandma and others, I appreciate how they have brought me up, and dammit, I’m going to make them proud of me!

But how?

It was 1976, and people in America were looking to be in a celebratory mood. They wanted to wash off the Vietnam stink, shake the Nixon flame-out malaise. But it wasn’t easy to be upbeat. Unemployment had climbed to 12% by 1974, inflation was chewing up your paycheck if you had a job. Saigon fell in April 1975, in September of 1975 President Ford survived another assassination attempt, and by spring of 1976, we saw a further entrenchment of some of the trends that made our citizens weaker. People followed the Patty Hearst trial like it was sporting event, and they passed too much of their time looking to divert themselves from painful reality by digging into salacious “news.”

But in July of 1976, into August, the summer Olympics unfolded, and offered more righteous and decent entertainment. Especially for American boxing fans…if Ali was on the downside, then things were looking up in the near future, with Sugar Ray Leonard’s toothy charm, and flurrying style promised the sport wouldn’t nose-dive when Ali finally stayed true to another promise to retire.

A teen in Georgia was glued to the TV, taking in the fisticuffs in Montreal, hearing that guy who used words like “truculent” describe the character and exploits of persons who young Evander thought sounded a bit like him. Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, they didn’t talk fancy, didn’t have that Leonard brashness. But they had skills, talent and an obvious path forward. One that wouldn’t involved living in an ivy covered building on a fancy pants campus.

“I always like to tell the young people out there that I became the person I am seeing Leon and Michael Spinks in the 1976 Olympics, and I see Howard Cosell and he interviewed them, and they kind of represented my family,” Holyfield said on the most recent Everlast “Talkbox” podcast. “The fact of the matter was, they didn’t speak terribly well but they won! They won gold medals! And that’s the thing that allowed me confidence (that I could succeed). I think “Rocky” (the film starring Sylvester Stallone, released on Nov. 21, 1976) had just come out, and I was running, and they told me I couldn’t be Rocky, because I was black. But when I seen the Spinks’ win gold medals..

..I realized I could make the Olympic team.” He did indeed; Holyfield won bronze at the 1984 Games.

“If it wasn’t for that television, me seeing them guys… When I came up, anybody getting on TV was important! You mean to tell me, when I turn 17, I could be on TV!? It was my goal to get on TV! I did it, at 19. My one top role model? It was my mom. I tell people she really was “The Real Deal. She just didn’t know. I became what I am because I did what she asked me to do!”

Again, to repeat something I say all the time. Boxing is a net positive for this planet, because it offers a path away to success in a world that likes to set up impediments. You don’t have to believe me, may as well take it from “The Real Deal.”

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About Michael Woods

Editor/publisher Michael Woods became addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the fearsome Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and numerous other organizations.

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