Last we looked, Evander Holyfield was still insisting on his right to fight for the undisputed heavyweight title. This is, as is most of boxing when you think about it, against all logic. Forget his age, which is beyond simply "advanced" at 41. Focus on this: The once splendid warrior can no longer defeat anybody who's not a heavyweight champion. He lost to James Toney in October, capping an eight-fight streak over four years during which he won just twice. Included were losses to Chris Byrd and John Ruiz, never mind Lennox Lewis. Holyfield has become, unbeknownst to himself, an opponent.
This is, almost always, how it ends. Unlike every other sport, boxing does not celebrate transition, offer farewell tours or otherwise pension off its greats. Remember when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did his victory lap with the Los Angeles Lakers and every road trip was Christmas? Motorcycles, rocking chairs—teams outdid each other in successive appreciation. Well, that doesn't happen in boxing. Rather, instead of an artificial send-off, there is the singular indignity of the fighter's trainer throwing in a towel.
Holyfield suffered that exact discouragement in the Toney fight, when his trainer, Don Turner, stepped up to stop it. But Holyfield does not recognize that move as a call for retirement. He remains determined to regain all the belts that he has held intermittently during his 19-year career and establish once and for all that heart matters beyond all else.
Because his heart matters so much (we have watched him, washed up, bounce back again and again), we have been generous in that grace period, the time during which futility is grimly suffered. But it has now become impossible to imagine his providing any more miracles—no more upsets of Mike Tyson for one example—and the pursuit of old glories is pointless at best, tragic at worst.
A fighter could, presumably, quit at the top, husband his fortune and fame, and enjoy a long and comfortable retirement. Few do, because such a fighter would need to suddenly ignore a competitive and combative urge that is disproportionately large, even for a sportsman, and that's just not possible. Holyfield, who has more fortune and fame than all but a few athletes in modern history, may be addicted to ambition. That's how he got where he is, and that's why he's going where he's going.
And so we are reluctant to count him out—though we know in good conscience we must—because the example of his striving has been so instructive over the years. It was Holyfield's foolish pride (he's a blown-up cruiserweight, for God's sake) that got him his fame and fortune in the first place. The lesson being, no pride is entirely foolish. More of us could probably take that to heart.
In the year to come there will be, no doubt, an announcement of his next fight. The marquee value of his name assures the wincing patience we'll permit for his assault on the undisputed championship. Is it silly? Is it tragic? Oh, sure! It ought to be illegal. But there is also something about watching a man conduct his life without the smallest compromise, fighting to the very end, not satisfied for a minute with motorcycles, rocking chairs, a pension. There must be something there we could take to heart as well.