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Holyfield insists he's not a sideshow

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

ZURICH, Switzerland – It is either an inspirational tale of a legend trying to beat Father Time or the saddest road show in sports.

Evander Holyfield would have us believe the former storyline best represents his latest decision to pull out his passport and journey to Europe in a unique interpretation of festive fun.

Holyfield has spent most of this week waxing emotionally about how his contest with 7-foot Russian giant Nikolai Valuev isn’t about money or desperation, but is instead a courageous quest to conquer history by capturing the heavyweight crown for a record fifth time.

Few are fooled into believing that at 46-years-old and with nine defeats now littering his record, this is anything other than a ghost of the "Real Deal" who warred with Riddick Bowe and tamed Mike Tyson.

Saturday night’s event in the Hallenstadion will therefore stand on its own two feet. Only the fight itself can lend the occasion credibility.

If Holyfield, as expected, proves to be no match for his enormous opponent (WBA heavyweioght champ Valuev may enter the ring around 100 pounds heavier than his foe) then the night will drift sadly into boxing time as a freak show of a bout that was made for the wrong reasons.

The only way to convince a mightily skeptical boxing public of the contest’s worth would be if Holyfield can somehow conjure a bit of the old magic and conquer the lumbering beast that is the WBA champion.

Maybe he can. Lest we forget, Bernard Hopkins is still one of the finest pound-for-pound fighters on the planet and is only three years younger than Holyfield.

But the man from Georgia has not aged anywhere near as well as Hopkins and is unrecognizable from the warrior of his younger years.

The critics of this fight have been savage, with boxing figures falling over themselves to pour liberal doses of scorn.

British promoter Frank Maloney, who managed Lennox Lewis in his two fights against Holyfield and also gave Valuev his nickname of the ‘Beast from the East’, predicted a “sad” occasion and claimed the WBA should be “ashamed of itself” for sanctioning the fight.

Bernd Boente, manager of heavyweight brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, was even more scathing. “For the sport, this is a disaster,” said Boente. “The fight….can only be a farce.”

For the Swiss public, it doesn’t really matter. They only remember the Holyfield of yesteryear; the way he cut down Tyson in 1996 and his manic jumps after Iron Mike treated his ear like jerky in the rematch.

Holyfield has responded to the warmth of the locals. Here there is none of the pity and the slow shakes of the head. Here, he is among people glad he is still a fighter – and delighted he has come to their country.

Whether it is difficulty in obtaining an American license or fiscal hardship that put him in danger of foreclosing on his spectacular mansion, it matters little on the frosty streets of Zurich’s ancient and picturesque city center.

Zurich is regularly named as the wealthiest city in Europe, as well as that with the highest quality of life for its inhabitants.

A few years back, Holyfield would probably have felt right at home here. Yet now most of the $200 million he earned in fight purses is reportedly gone, and stepping into the ring against a pugilistic monster wouldn’t be most people’s idea of high quality living for a man of his age.

Holyfield’s purse this time is around $700,000, a figure boosted by the recent surge of the Euro and collapse of the U.S. dollar. However, it remains to be seen how long it lasts him, especially with an estimated annual child support bill of $500,000.

“People see this as a freak show,” said Holyfield. “But I am doing it because I want it, this is what I do. I would still be fighting even if I had all the money in the world. That’s not what it’s about.”

The calls for Holyfield to gracefully embrace retirement are pressing, especially in the United States. U.S. fans would rather see the much-loved veteran tottering around on Dancing With The Stars than getting his face smacked in by bigger and younger men.

“We have been criticized from all sides for letting him box,” said organizer Wilfried Sauerland.

“But it was Evander who came to us asking for this fight. We put him through extensive medical tests and he passed with flying colors.”

The faces of Valuev and Holyfield peer down upon this city from giant billboards and Zurich is getting excited about the most international sporting event to be held here since last summer’s European soccer championships.

“This is a good place and we are going to give the people a good show,” said Holyfield. “I'm happy to talk about my age. It's a testimony to good living and to not quitting, so my aim is to go and win this fight for all the 40-somethings out there.

“It's not really fair to put people all in the same pot based purely on their age.”

No, but it is fair to judge a boxer on his recent performances. In this decade Holyfield is 6-5-1, with his only victories of any note were his one win (plus a draw and a defeat) in his John Ruiz trilogy and a 2002 win over Hasim Rahman.

He has not fought since his first venture overseas, losing a unanimous decision to Sultan Ibragimov in Moscow last November.

For Holyfield, the show goes on. Valuev started his career as a novelty act due to his immense size. Holyfield is in danger of ending his in the same way, a traveling salesman pitching the memory of his better times.