Fight Club

The first rule about Evander Holyfield's age is that you do not talk about Evander Holyfield's age

They kicked his ass out of New York, muttering about "deteriorated skills."

So we red-carpeted his assets to Dallas, longing for a good fight.

Evander Holyfield's second-round technical knockout of Jeremy Bates last Friday at American Airlines Center will someday lead to his unprecedented fifth heavyweight boxing championship. More important, the 43-year-old landed a six-minute reminder that our soft city built on glass and silicone sometimes craves a straight-up shot of blood and guts.

"Dallas was great to me," Holyfield says after pounding Bates senseless 2:56 into the second round. "You don't hear it mentioned a lot in boxing circles. But the people here came out and supported me. They didn't care if I was 43 or 23, they just wanted to see a good fight. I'm happy I was able to give it to them."

For one night, Dallas' devotion to the Bible Belt oozed into lust for a title belt.

They arrive in limos, most wearing their Sunday best on a Friday night. Stars such as former Dallas Cowboys Deion Sanders and Drew Pearson, never-weres such as obscure former Texas Tech quarterback Sonny Cumbie and legendary has-beens such as Roberto Duran, who, strangely, finds himself standing at a urinal next to a certain columnist. (As Duran finishes first and zips up, I thought to myself, "No mas?")

Almost 10,000 converge on AAC, some paying $200 for ringside seats. Apparently Dallas has been pining for a pummeling.

Maybe it's because the last good fight we witnessed was Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan giving noogies to Robin Ventura's noggin in 1993. Perhaps we're agitated by triple-digit heat, still stinging from the Dallas Mavericks' NBA Finals face-plant and impatient about the Christmas release of Rocky VI. We've lost the Cowboys and soon maybe the Cotton Bowl and even Texas-OU. That's not summer smog hanging over downtown; it's a smothering quilt of pent-up aggression.

"Dallas fans have wanted big-time boxing for a long time," said fight promoter Lester Bedford, who persuaded Holyfield to kick-start his latest comeback in Texas. "It's just taken a while to finally match up a big name with a big arena."

Holyfield's appearance in Dallas shows just how far he's tumbled. Not unlike the great Egyptian King Ramses, whose mummified body made a peculiar pit stop in Fair Park back in '94.

Holyfield, boxing's only four-time heavyweight champ, is two months from 44 and one punch from retirement. With his record and reputation in tatters and his long-term usefulness as bleak as TV Guide, the man accustomed to eight-figure paydays arrived in Dallas hoping to net $250,000. He's lost his last three fights, and after an embarrassing '04 defeat to a mannequin named Larry Donald, the state of New York revoked his boxing license because of "deteriorated skills" and "poor performance."

In his best T.O. impersonation, however, the "Real Deal" has transformed the snub into a career-climaxing crusade.

"I didn't become the person I am by quitting," Holyfield says at a press conference before the fight. "People don't understand. I love me more than they do."

So a specialist for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations tattoos Holyfield with a clean bill of health. He shoves the quirky appearance on Dancing With the Stars, the hilarious ESPN commercials stalking Charley Steiner and the cardboard cameo as the object of George Costanza's awkward lust into his personnel folder and returns to doing what he does best. Considering this is only the second time since 1960 that no U.S. boxer is recognized as a heavyweight champ, Holyfield is reincarnated as America's favorite fighter even before his first sparring session.

But before taking on his critics, Holyfield must first slap around an unknown in an untapped town.

Dallas' last champion was middleweight Quincy Taylor in '95, and its last televised bout--featuring Arlington's Kirk Johnson in '03--took place in a parking lot along the Tollway. The city's only flirtation with a heavyweight champ was Muhammad Ali's four-round exhibition in SMU's Moody Coliseum in '73. Boxing? Our fans are more likely to know the name of the hot dog-eating champ (Takeru Kobayashi) than the heavyweight champ (Wladimir Klitschko) and are convinced Clubber Lang was a boxer and George Foreman is a chef.

Surprised to learn that Holyfield isn't, in fact, a Little League park just outside Jerusalem, Dallas seems about as equipped to host a fight as an Iditarod. To Holyfield, however, this naïveté is nirvana.

"I'm honored to fight in Dallas," Holyfield says at the Thursday weigh-in. "It's a fresh start for me. I found a place where the people really appreciate me and all that I've accomplished."

Though the Las Vegas sports books don't even place odds on the mismatch, Dallas is all a-twitter about The Washed-Up Old Man vs. The West Virginia Insurance Salesman. And just a couple nights after eating at Pappadeaux with Michael Irvin's old posse, it doesn't take Holyfield long to back up his box-office appeal with boxing skill. The dude did whip Mike Tyson in his prime. Twice.

Shortly after entering the ring to Yolanda Adams' gospel hit "Victory" and the National Anthem as performed by only three members of the group 4 Shades, Holyfield shocks the Platinum Club crowd and Fox Sports Net TV viewers with a violent assault usually reserved for Deep Ellum around 2:30 a.m. Determined merely to survive for a $25,000 payday, the 32-year-old Bates demonstrates all the skills that led to his pathetic 21-12-1 record. That is to say, Bill Bates hit harder.

Holyfield, who by my unofficial count landed 104 punches to Bates' 1, almost scored a knockout near the end of the first round. With Bates on the verge of Lettttt's Get Ready to Stummmmmblllle!, the inevitable end comes four seconds before the bell in Round 2 just as Holyfield begins landing punches like Southwest lands planes. As the crazed crowd roars, it's clear that Bates' pain is Dallas' gain.

"I wasn't supposed to win it four times, and now I'm not supposed to do it a fifth time," says Holyfield, who improves to 39-8-2 and will next fight No. 5-ranked Sinan Samil overseas this fall. "But it's my destiny. Somebody else telling me I can't do it is just more motivation. Man, age ain't nothing but a number."

In 2008 Holyfield will again become the world's heavyweight champ, ending a heroic journey that started humbly in Dallas. In a pretty-boy town that has for too long treated scars with plastic surgery instead of respect, celebrate the occasion by slugging your buddy in the face.

A bloody lip could do us some good.

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