Holyfield needs to follow lead of others and go home

FORMER HEAVYWEIGHT champions Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis, members of one of boxing's more exclusive fraternities, will be at ringside tomorrow night to support four-time former heavyweight titlist Evander Holyfield in his latest attempt to thwart Father Time, that most daunting of opponents for fighters on the shadowy side of 40.

The 48-year-old Holyfield (43-10-2, 28 KOs) takes on journeyman Sherman "Tank" Williams (34-11-2, 19 KOs) in a scheduled 10-round, pay-per-view bout at The Greenbrier, a resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Promoters are billing it as "Redemption: The Journey Begins," the journey purportedly Holyfield's lottery-longshot quest to win not only a fifth legitimate heavyweight crown, but to unify all the championships before he turns 50.

But a catchphrase can't encapsulate the essence of Holyfield, a sure Hall of Famer once he becomes eligible for induction following the retirement he is so loath to announce. Holyfield doesn't require redemption, nor is his "journey" beginning. In fact, it should have ended years ago, before the man from Georgia with an indomitable will and a mule's stubbornness exposed his legacy and health to the ravages of advancing age.

The presence of Holmes and Lewis is a testament to the code of the warrior, those who have bled and sacrificed so much to sip the nectar from boxing's cup of glory. But their perspectives of what is about to transpire should be markedly different. Holmes, the most famous resident of Easton, retired and unretired as often as Sugar Ray Leonard, another legend who kept convincing himself that he was somehow immune to the natural laws of diminishing returns. Holmes' last bout was in 2002, when he was 52, and if someone offered him a chance to mix it up with George Foreman, who is 62, Holmes would probably go into training.

Lewis, now 45, had a different take on his own boxing mortality. He still had more than a little left in the tank in his final fight, in which he retained his WBC championship on a sixth-round stoppage of a badly bleeding Vitali Klitschko in 2003. But Lewis absorbed nearly as much punishment as he dished out, and he came to realize that the ring is no country for old men. He walked away and stayed away, despite multimillion-dollar offers to lace up the gloves again.

Holyfield, who outpointed Holmes in 1992 and was 0-1-1 in a pair of bouts with Lewis in 1999, looks in the mirror these days and sees the face of a larger version of Bernard Hopkins, the 46-year-old Philadelphian who, amazingly, remains one of boxing's top pound-for-pound practitioners.

So, how long has Holyfield been urged to get out while the getting's good?

"At least since 1994, when I lost to Michael Moorer and doctors misdiagnosed my heart problems and forced me into retirement," Holyfield told Polish journalist Przemek Garczarczyk in a recent interview. "When they finally decided that there was nothing wrong with me, I had to prove myself in the ring. And I did, beating Mike Tyson twice, fighting Lennox Lewis, winning the championship again."

But that tale of actual redemption was a decade-and-a-half ago. Holyfield did get a fairly recent shot at a recognized world title, and acquitted himself well in losing a disputed majority decision to then-WBA champion Nikolay Valuev, a 7-foot, 310-pound Russian, on Dec. 20, 2008. But Valuev has rudimentary skills and the mobility of a statue. Immense size alone does not a great fighter make, as evidenced by the success of such smallish heavyweights as Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier and Tyson, and the lack of such by the immense but pedestrian likes of 6-10, 285-pound Mike "The Giant" White and 7-1, 290-pound Julius "Towering Inferno" Long.

Holyfield is so confident of victory over Williams that he has already booked a March 5 fight in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he would defend his virtually worthless WBF title against Brian Nielsen. Nielsen is 45 and has been retired since 2002.

It's not that Holyfield is exactly a lounge act. The Greenbrier is historic and stately, a place William Howard Taft visited when he was waging his winning campaign for the presidency in 1908. But Holyfield used to light up boxing's biggest stages, like Madison Square Garden, Boardwalk Hall and Vegas.

Holyfield always says that he looks ahead, not behind. Maybe he should steal a peek over his shoulder, though, to remind himself of what he was and can never be again. Valiant fighters don't quit in the ring, but smart ones know when it's time to walk away.

Walk away, Evander. Nothing you do, in a professional sense, can add or detract to what you've already accomplished. You've earned your rest. Enjoy it. *

Send e-mail to fernanb@phillynews.com