On November 9, 1996, I was sitting in a darkened room surrounded by twenty-five of my male students. We all sat with our attention riveted on a large TV screen. The scene unfolding before us took our breath away. The former two-time world heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield was being interviewed minutes before his historic first meeting with Mike Tyson in the ring. We watched in horror as Holyfield calmly, no, serenely,
explained to the disbelieving interviewer that what would occur in the ring that night—his victory—was assured. . . .
November 9, 1996
Jim Gray: Holy, you guarantee a victory tonight. What makes you think that will be the case?
Holyfield: Well, tonight is the night and you'll see.
Gray: You have an awful lot of confidence. Not many people step into the ring without being intimidated and fearful of Mike Tyson. What will you do in those initial moments to counteract that?
Holyfield: Well, you know, I'm led by the Holy Spirit, so whatever I do, I know I will have enough to win.
Gray: In fact, you have invoked God in saying that God is on your side, in essence, and you have said that it is His will that you win tonight. Now that has drawn the ire of Mike Tyson, with him saying, "Well, God doesn't like me?" Is God picking sides? . . . I mean, do you really think that God is involved in this fight?
Holyfield: Well, there's no doubt. This fight will shake the whole world. And it's more than I guess I can explain right now at this time.
Gray: Bad blood—is there bad blood between you and Mike Tyson based on a comment that you may or may not have made back when Mike was convicted of rape?—or prior to his conviction?
Holyfield: Well, I don't think it's so much that there's bad blood; it's just something that has to be done, and it'll be done tonight.
Gray: So you don't feel an amount of animosity towards Mike?
Holyfield: Well, no, I don't have nothin' but love for people. But I have a job to do and I'm out to do the job, and I will do it. This win is for the Holy Spirit.
Gray: You've had a lot of confidence before. I want to retry this question: What makes you feel as though you personally can guarantee a victory? We haven't heard those types of things, basically, since Joe Namath did it back with the Jets a long, long time ago.
Holyfield: Well, I did it in the Bowe II fight and I was victorious.
Gray: It's a little different setting.
Holyfield: Well, yeah, it's a different setting. The people are different, but, you know, God's still the same—yesterday and today, He's still the same.
Gray: Good luck to you.
We were dumbfounded! What was Holyfield saying? Was he crazy? We all, along with the popular wisdom, were convinced that Evander Holyfield didn't have a prayer in the ring that night! He had lost two out of his last four fights, and all the experts were saying that he was over the hill, that Tyson would walk right through him, that he was "just another Mike Tyson opponent being led to the slaughter." We were all worried for his safety, for we were convinced that Evander Holyfield was in danger of becoming seriously injured that night. But more than that, we were simultaneously dismayed and bewildered by his utter doubtlessness in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. We even felt sorry for the aging ex-champion who seemed to have found a way to avoid reality by imagining that his victory that night had been guaranteed to him by God. We all knew that he was an unusual boxer as he did not hide his deep Christian faith from the public. In fact, he was proud of it. And, in a sport that was too often made up of crude and unsavory characters, Evander Holyfield stood apart as a gentleman and a man of faith. We knew all this and we respected him for it, but now we felt he had gone too far. "No! Evander!" we shouted out loud, "Wake up!" After all, we considered ourselves to be "spiritual" men also and, in that, felt a kinship with Holyfield as a spiritual warrior. But now we found his apparent overconfidence excruciating to behold in light of his impending doom. . . .
But Holyfield did shock the world that night! We, along with all the other "unbelievers," were shown a miracle as he fearlessly dominated the ferocious Mike Tyson, the fight culminating in a devastating eleventh-round TKO. Like the millions of fans who watched the fight that night, we were stunned, overwhelmed and ecstatic! But . . . we were also embarrassed. Embarrassed and ashamed because we had grossly underestimated the power of this spiritual warrior's faith. We, in our arrogance, did not have the eyes to see, for we had mistaken conviction for delusion, faith for self-deception. What a teaching—what a lesson—what an example! Humbled and amazed, we watched the remarkable post-fight interview:
November 9, 1996
Dr. Ferdie Pacheco: That's one of the biggest surprises in boxing I ever had!
Holyfield: I give all the glory to God. And He's the credit for it. I thank God.
Pacheco: Why did you guarantee [a victory] with such assurance? How did you fight such a brilliant fight?
Holyfield: I was led by the spirit of God, and like I told everybody, whatever the spirit leads me to do, that's what I will do. And it wasn't nothin' so much that I did. Everybody thought that I was washed up—but with God, I'm not washed up.
Pacheco: Did you see him getting tired?
Holyfield: It wasn't about getting tired; it was about what the Lord wanted me to do.
Who was this extraordinary man? . . . On November 10, 1998, in a wealthy suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, I got a chance to find out.
As the armed guard waved us through and the large electronic gates opened before us, revealing a magnificent villa surrounded by rolling hills and horse pastures as far as the eye could see, all the questions that I had wanted to ask Evander Holyfield rushed through my mind. I wanted to ask him about what had happened that fateful night almost exactly two years earlier. But that wasn't the reason I was there. I was there to ask the Heavyweight Champion of the World about the relationship between self-mastery and powerful spiritual faith.