Muhammad Ali was Holyfield’s inspiration from time he started

Muhammad Ali retired from boxing in 1981. A decade later, he greeted then-heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield of Atlanta during an awards dinner in New York. (AJC file photo)

Muhammad Ali retired from boxing in 1981. A decade later, he greeted then-heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield of Atlanta during an awards dinner in New York. (AP photo)

After learning Friday that Muhammad Ali unfortunately wouldn’t be with us much longer, I phoned Evander Holyfield, knowing the impact Ali had on him from long before his career started. I shared a special memory of Holyfield’s from the 1996 Olympic touch lighting, as well as my own reflections and my contact with Ali, in a full column on MyAJC.com, which is linked here.

Ali and Holyfield were different in many ways, both in boxing styles and their personalities outside the ring. But they were alike in that both competed as light heavyweights in the Olympics and were widely viewed as undersized for the heavyweight division as professionals. Both also had the toughness and determination to succeed regardless.

“I just remember going to the Boys Club and it took so long for the boxing coach to even come up to me,” Holyfield said. “But he saw how tough I was and he came up to talk to me and he said, ‘You know, you can be like Muhammad Ali.’  And I said, ‘I’m only eight years old.’ He told me, ‘You won’t always be eight,’ and that’s how it started. He asked me, ‘Do you know who Muhammad Ali is?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I know Muhammad Ali and I know Jackie Robinson because I learned about them in Black History Week.’ And then he told me again I can be Muhammad Ali and I ran home and I said, ‘Momma, this white man said I can be Muhammad Ali!’ and she started laughing.”

Holyfield, of course, went on to become the heavyweight champion of the world. The first time he could remember meeting Ali was shortly after competing in the 1984 Olympics, when Ali and promoter Don King came to Atlanta for a boxing event in conjunction with Martin Luther King’s birthday.

“He was always very playful, always telling jokes,” Holyfield said. “He’d put his hand up in the air and then pretend to pull something out of your ear like a magic trick.”

The last time Holyfield saw him?

“Three years ago. I would go to the event they would have every year for Parkinson’s and he was there. You could tell he wasn’t doing too well.”

Few athletes will leave as deep of an imprint on history as Ali, for as much of what he meant to people outside the ring as his successes inside of it. For more on that, click here.

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2 comments
Stuttering Erick
Stuttering Erick

Luckovich's cartoon depicted Ali going to heaven. Imagine that. Just like every single other death drawing he's ever done.

tneck
tneck

Muhammad  Ali was a draft dodger.  A Muslim.  A racist and many other things that made him nothing but a thug.  What good did he do?  Did he bring races together?  Did he give any money to help veterans and other downtrodden individuals?  Quit nominating him for man of the year.