The King of Skid Row: Holyfield won (and lost) a £150m fortune as champion of world… now he’s helping to feed the homeless in Manchester with Hatton
A blanket of Manchester drizzle falls as an audience of 25 homeless people and passers-by watch the broad-shouldered man squeeze his 6ft 2in frame through the narrow doorway between a fried chicken shop and a Middle Eastern takeaway.
‘He’s the guy who bit off Mike Tyson’s ear, isn’t he?’ says one watcher. An older man, dressed in filthy jeans and a tattered beanie hat, has more accurate memories. ‘No, it was the other way round,’ he says. ‘Hell, I remember him fighting Riddick Bowe, man!’
It is a poignant reminder of the glory days for Evander Holyfield, when his rivalry with Tyson was the most exciting in sport and the ebb and flow of his trilogy against Bowe was electrifying.
Memories have faded and the bright lights of Las Vegas, where Holyfield twice dazzled and defeated Tyson in the professional ring, are a world away. Most of Holyfield’s £150million career earnings are gone, frittered away on gambling, funding three expensive divorces and maintenance payments for some of his 11 children.
For the past month, Holyfield’s life has consisted of visits to homeless centres and soup kitchens across the UK, from Gateshead to Burnley, Huddersfield to Hull, volunteering his time ‘to give back to those who helped my mother feed me as a child’.
Then he hosts ‘an evening with Evander Holyfield,’ at hotels and conference centres on the outskirts of town as he tries to claw back some of his lost fortune.
Now a grandfather who will be 50 in 13 days’ time, Holyfield says he was preyed on by ‘parasites and leeches’ who took advantage of him to grab a slice of his fortune.
‘I think it was my lack of education,’ he says in his Alabama drawl. ‘You make a lot of money but you don’t know how money works, you don’t know how to calculate. I gave more than I should have. I gave, gave, gave. People talk you into doing things that you’re not accustomed to doing.
‘My mother didn’t read, my father didn’t read. They worked. If you told them to do something, they did it. Nobody told me I had to ask questions. Boxers are smarter today, though, nobody gonna rip off the Klitschkos.’
A year ago, Holyfield still hankered to get into the ring with one of the Klitschko brothers, Vitaly and Wladimir. Both refused, not wishing to destroy one of their heroes and the boxing world released a sigh of relief.
Wladimir Klitschko defended his four heavyweight titles against former Olympic champion Alexander Povetkin in Moscow.
Despite a £21m purse, it was a contest holding little interest outside eastern Europe, the challenger a virtual unknown and Klitschko unable to captivate the public in the same way that Holyfield and Tyson once did, with all their foibles.
Holyfield spent the evening in Bury on the latest stop of his speaking tour, telling the rollicking and cautionary tale of his life to an audience who had paid £70 each to hear it. The price of the ticket included dinner and a comedian. Holyfield’s story has many punchlines, but few of them are funny.
He grew up in Alabama when the Deep South was still riddled with racism and poverty. He was the youngest of nine children, with an absent father and a disabled mother who relied on hand-outs to feed her brood.
Holyfield won the world heavyweight championship a record four times — in addition to ruling the world at cruiserweight — and became unimaginably wealthy. But he has now come almost full circle.
When the money ran out, he sold his 109-room Atlanta mansion for $7.5m despite the fact that he still owed almost twice that on its purchase. Jewellery, furniture and his world title belts were auctioned off last year to cover more debts.
So, is he devastated to have lost his treasured memorabilia? ‘In life you work hard to get it and somebody works just as hard to take it from you,’ says Holyfield, shifting in his seat.
‘But Yank Barry came into my life, said it had happened to Muhammad Ali and that he’d help me to get back on my feet.’
Barry is a smooth-talking Canadian with gleamingly white teeth. He is something of an enigma. A former Sixties pop musician, he made money from record production and composing advertising jingles before becoming a food entrepreneur.
He refers to himself as a ‘philanthropist’ and says he has been nominated — twice — for the Nobel peace prize.
He is also a convicted criminal, who was sentenced to six years in prison in 1982 for extorting $82,000 from a business partner.
In 2008 Barry was acquitted of bribery, conspiracy and money-laundering after previously being convicted for paying a prison executive $20,000 to secure his business, VitaPro — manufacturers of a soy-based meat alternative — a multi-million-dollar contract with the Texas prison system.
Barry befriended Ali by going to every one of his fights from 1971 onwards and they co-founded the Global Village Foundation Champions, a non-profit organisation which claims to have provided nearly a billion meals for the homeless.
Holyfield has replaced Ali as the celebrity face of GVFC and last week he found himself in Manchester on a dreary autumn afternoon, signing autographs for homeless men who had come to the Barnabus Centre for respite from the wind and rain and a lunch of sausage and beans.
Local boy and former world welterweight champion Ricky Hatton has been recruited by Barry as one of the GVFC ambassadors and, wearing a black bucket hat, he helped to unload tins of corned beef and vats of curry sauce from the van.
Barry appears to have some influence in Holyfield’s business affairs and claims the boxer will go to court this week to win back his heavyweight championship belts.
‘We managed to get an injunction and save his belts,’ says Barry.
If nothing else, he is helping Holyfield exploit the fascination that still remains into his rivalry with Tyson. Their careers are intertwined.
‘He came from a bad background just like me,’ says Holyfield. ‘He was from New York and me from the South but we came up together and we fought hard. The only difference is I had a mother who really loved me and taught me about the word of God.
‘I never had anything against Mike, I just wanted to be the heavyweight champion of the world. I wasn’t chasing Mike, I was chasing the belt. When Mike came round in 1996, I beat him and, in the rematch in 1997, he trained hard and he saw that it wasn’t going his way and so he bit me.’
Holyfield’s famous wound, the remainder of the right ear which Tyson feasted on, is now his meal ticket and Holyfield is savvy enough to recognise its value. ‘I get paid off my residue,’ says Holyfield proudly, ‘I get paid talking about what I did, I don’t sweat no more, I don’t feel the shots, I just live it up with the people.
‘I forgave Mike because God spoke to me and said, “You fought as an amateur for 12 years for free. Now you’ve done three rounds and taken $35million. That’s enough money to forgive anybody”. How many people can say that they had two fights that were so important to the world that you both made more than $60m?’
The cartilage which Tyson chewed and spat across the ring is still missing. It was put on ice and left in a bag in Holyfield’s dressing room but when the plastic surgeon arrived, only the skin remained.
The rumour is that someone from Holyfield’s camp sold it to a stockbroker for $25,000. ‘I see a lot of people say they have it but I’ve no idea where it is. I ain’t upset no more, I just laugh about it. I even take pictures with people with their mouths open trying to bite off my ear,’ he says, tugging his ear lobe and baring his teeth.
‘Mike and I have come together and realised we are both the “real deal”. I supported Mike’s one-man show and he helped promote my barbecue sauce and when my son (Evan) was boxing, Mike came down and rallied behind him.’
Of his children, who range in age from eight to 29, only Evan has followed his father into the ring.
‘I’m constantly letting all my kids know that I’m the first generation of my family that got out of the ghetto,’ says Holyfield. ‘I boxed to give them the opportunity to choose something that they loved. Boxing suited me because of the things I had to go through, I had that fighting spirit.
‘I say to my son, who’s 15, “Now you don’t get to do everything that normal people do. You’ve got to take care of your body, your company is your body”. You don’t get to say, “I’ll have a beer”. You have to pay the price for what you wanna be in life.
‘I let him know “you’re the one who’s taking the punches, you’re the one who’s got to run, you’re the one who’s got to be different”. I ain’t taking the punches no more.’