ATHENS — Should anyone ask, Evander Holyfield has some advice for Georgia as it prepares for a fight the world believes it has little hope of winning.
Who better than Elijah Holyfield’s father to speak on the secrets to defying odds, beating the baddest dude on the block, and turning expectation inside-out?
“My favorite quote was what my mom used to tell me,” the former heavyweight champion begins. He quotes the late Annie Holyfield often. The older he becomes, the smarter she gets.
“My mom didn’t fight, didn’t do nothing (athletically). She said, ‘Son, don’t get beat by a reputation. They beat somebody else, they didn’t beat you. Until they beat you, you don’t give into it.
“Please don’t get beat by a reputation. A lot of people lose because of what somebody told them.’”
In this corner for Saturday’s SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (TV:4 p.m., CBS; Radio: News 95.5 and AM-750 WSB), the Alabama Crimson Tide, destroyer of worlds. Twenty-two years ago, there was a personification such fearsome dominance. His name was Mike Tyson.
And in the other corner, the Georgia Bulldogs, big underdog with a big heart. That would be Evander Holyfield on a certain night two decades ago.
The two teams meet Saturday for the SEC championship. The Bulldogs, whose second-leading rusher is Holyfield’s son, are nearly a two-touchdown underdog to the unbeaten Crimson Tide in the cold eyes of the betting public.
The two men met in late 1996, nearly two years before Elijah Holyfield was born. When the betting lines opened, Evander Holyfield was a massive 25-to-1 underdog to Tyson (that was bet down to 5-to-1 by the time the fight went off).
Holyfield won on an 11th-round TKO, with Tyson helpless against the ropes, completing one of boxing’s more memorable upsets. The results of the SEC championship are pending.
The example set that long-ago night in Las Vegas might be useful to the next-gen Holyfield and his Bulldogs.
Although, in terms of sheer confidence, the kid sounds in need of little support. Strong and self-possessed are adjectives that attach themselves to both father and son. Have you seen the kid run? He’s the hammer and the defender’s the nail. And that’s how dad fought.
Asked if his father has tried to apply the lessons of the Tyson fight to the coming game with Alabama, Elijah said, “My dad doesn’t really look at me as an underdog, so he doesn’t think we’re underdogs. So, he hasn’t said anything about it.”
“It didn’t matter if I was supposed to win or supposed to lose, I thought I could beat everybody anyway,” Evander said. “My momma told me, if you’re looking at how big the person is and all that, you shouldn’t even go out there then. You have to have the right attitude to go out there to go out and compete.”
Yeah, attitude. This shocking the world thing all starts with attitude. Evander took a quiet, special pleasure in making disbelievers eat their doubts.
“My advice is always the same: If you don’t believe it, you ain’t gonna do it. You can’t get yourself in position to believe what somebody else is saying,” Evander said.
Woven throughout the two events are all kinds of helpful parallels between the vanquishing of Tyson and an upcoming championship game matching another Holyfield against long odds.
You think Georgia is being overlooked? There were so many questions about Evander’s fitness in 1996 – he had “retired” once with a supposed heart issue and had looked slow and old in a previous fight against the forgettable Bobby Czyz – that the Las Vegas boxing commission ordered him to undergo a separate, special series of medical tests at the Mayo Clinic.
Tyson, meanwhile, in his comeback from a prison sentence and an earlier loss to Buster Douglas had waded through four tomato cans, dispatching them in fewer than eight rounds, combined.
At the time, former fighter/trainer Mickey Duff told Boxing News: “It’s an easy fight for Tyson and will last a maximum of four rounds, probably less. There’s no contest. It’s a complete and total mismatch.” Venerable trainer Eddie Futch feared for Holyfield’s safety.
But Holyfield took some valuable first-hand experience into the ring with him on fight night, experience that dated back to when both fighters were rising amateurs in the ranks of USA Boxing.
“I knew something that nobody knew – I sparred with him before,” Holyfield said. “(Tyson) was 17, I was 21. When people compete against each other they don’t forget. I realized I was still stronger than him. I realized when we sparred I felt like I got the best of him. He was knocking everybody out and I wasn’t afraid to get knocked out. People who are afraid to lose, lot of them don’t take a chance to win.”
And yes, for the Bulldogs there also exists a useful familiarity. You’ll recall how Alabama and Georgia met only about 11 months ago, the Bulldogs leading by as many as 13 points before losing the national championship in overtime. The memory of standing toe-to-toe with Bama is still fresh.
Georgia will pore over plenty of game film leading into Saturday. It wouldn’t hurt if the Bulldogs also took a little time to watch a replay of Holyfield-Tyson I. “I have watched it before,” Elijah said, laughing. “It was a good fight.”
It was before that fight that Tyson uttered one of his more famous quotes, one that actually formed the core of Holyfield’s fight strategy: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The bully doesn’t know what to do when he is the one being bullied, when he is the one punched in the mouth. That certainly was the case in the rematch, when a frustrated Tyson was disqualified for biting off a piece of Holyfield’s ear. In the original, Holyfield simply seized every physical advantage – he was the stronger man, a fact overlooked by his opponent – while shrugging off Tyson’s fearsome reputation.
It was far from a beautiful fight. There was clinching and arm-twisting and head-butting. A bloodied Tyson was dropped by a left hook in the sixth round. By the 11th, he was finished, absorbing one unanswered punch after another until the ref stepped in to rescue him.
The lesson, Bulldogs: “If a person is too afraid that he’s going to make mistakes, they aren’t going to win the big ones,” Evander said.
And: “My momma used to tell me, son, 99 percent of the time you outwork someone, you’re going to be the best. You can’t let the person out-work you.
And, one more: “Jump offsides, do something wrong, you help the other team. The person who minimizes mistakes, the person who works hard, the one who’s thinking about what he has to do and not so much about what somebody else is doing – those are the things that allowed me to be world heavyweight champion four times.”
So, you ask Evander Holyfield if this apparently unbeatable Alabama Crimson Tide can be beaten, what do you think he’s going to say?
“Of course, they can.”
“They’re not the only ones (on earth) who don’t make mistakes,” he said. “The mistakes they’ve made just haven’t cost them yet.”
— Staff writer Tim Tucker contributed to this article.
DawgNation Alabama stories from Tuscaloosa