Evander Holyfield’s return to the ring at 58 was met with plenty of skepticism, but those concerns only grew after his performance against Vitor Belfort at the recent Triller Fight Club event in Florida.
It wasn’t enough that the former heavyweight boxing champion hadn’t competed in over a decade; he was taking a short-notice opportunity to clash with the ex-UFC champion when Belfort’s original opponent, Oscar De La Hoya, was forced off the card after contracting COVID-19. The California State Athletic Commission also refused to license the former heavyweight boxing champ, which ultimately forced Triller to move the event from Los Angeles to Hollywood, Fla., just days before the card took place.
On the night of the fight, Holyfield was quickly overwhelmed by Belfort with the Brazilian blitzing him with punches in the opening round, which included an early knockdown before the referee saw enough and stopped the contest.
While the Florida Boxing Commission only issued a 30-day suspension to Holyfield for the knockout loss, many believed it was wildly irresponsible to allow him to compete in the first place.
Triller co-founder Ryan Kavanaugh vehemently disagrees, especially after he saw what Holyfield had been doing in the gym as he prepared for his comeback fight.
“We had a contract with Holyfield to fight a number of fights, which we still do,” Kavanaugh explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “His first fight was going to be Kevin McBride, who was the last person to knockout [Mike] Tyson, and McBride is only two years older than Vitor [Belfort].
“We saw McBride and saw some footage and training and got very concerned. We actually went to the commission and said, ‘We’re concerned about this fight.’ I think we were told we were the only promoters ever in the history of promotion try to talk the commission out of a fight. The Holyfield camp, we love them, we love working with them, but they were adamant that this fight had to go on. So much so that they brought it to an arbitration. You have to let this go.
“It was a real, all under pro rules fight. This was not an exhibition dance fight. We said we were very concerned about McBride, not Holyfield. Holyfield, having seen what we saw, was in such incredible shape, who never stops working out, he’s a specimen of a human being. It was quite a battle. Honestly it was going to be a fight of us saying we don’t want someone to get hurt.”
Once the opponent switched to Belfort on short notice, Kavanaugh said he was convinced that the former UFC fighter was about to get demolished by a former heavyweight champion like Holyfield.
“When we turned around to put this card on, the way we looked at it was Vitor, yes, he was younger as we all know,” Kavanaugh said. “I think he was two years younger than McBride. So almost the same age. But he’s not a pro boxer. He’s boxed once.
“He was MMA, and we all know MMA has a disadvantage when it comes to pro boxing. We actually thought it was going to be a very fair kind of card. There was an age disadvantage, but there was an MMA disadvantage.”
Once the fight ended, Holyfield complained to the referee that he didn’t like the stoppage, but it was also hard to argue against the damage he had absorbed in a very short period of time.
Now according to Kavanaugh, Holyfield truly believes he was the victim of a bad set of circumstances that led to the stoppage victory for Belfort, which is why he’s so determined to compete again.
“If you talk to Holyfield, what the world perceived happen, didn’t happen,” Kavanaugh said. “If you talk to Holyfield, Vitor apparently stepped on his foot, which I haven’t seen the footage yet, which made him trip and that’s why it looked like he fell. He swung really hard, which we all know that he did, and that was the knockout swing. Had he connected with Vitor, Vitor would probably still be in the hospital today, and [he] missed and put him into the ropes cause he swung so hard.
“Vitor came back aggressively but Holyfield is a notoriously slow starter. His strategy is let me get hit, let me see how he punches, and then I’ll come out with my returns. If you look closely at that footage, he was blocking. He said he got hit once. If you ask Holyfield, [Vitor] got one hit and the rest of it he was blocking. So the stoppage, in his opinion, was the problem, cause he’s like ‘I would have come back and I knew what I was doing..”
Beyond the stoppage, Kavanaugh definitely disagrees with the assessment that Holyfield somehow didn’t have all his mental faculties in place beforehand.
Whether it was pre-fight interviews or watching Holyfield hit pads at the open workout, Kavanaugh didn’t see anything concerning enough that he felt the need to stop the fight from happening.
“Having seen Holyfield and him being an idol of mine for so long and watching him train, I mean he’s in better shape than I’m in, which isn’t saying much, but he’s in better shape than most people are in,” Kavanaugh said. “He’s always been a quiet guy. It’s not like he’s all of a sudden he’s more quiet or talking slower. He’s strong and fast. We have a lot of training footage of him where he’s hitting very hard. He’s hitting very fast and he’s sparring 22-year-olds and when I say sparring, I’m saying knocking out 22-year-olds in 12-round matches, time and time again.
“I’m just as mixed as you are right now. The odds were on Holyfield, the betting odds. When you look at him, I was for sure thinking Vitor was getting knocked out. For sure.”
With a multi-fight deal in place, Kavanaugh seems resigned to allow Holyfield to compete again, although nothing has been booked at this time.
Chances are Triller will promote another Holyfield appearance, but Kavanaugh expects his level of competition to change slightly from the showdown against Belfort.
“Hopefully Holyfield will end up fighting someone again that hopefully people see as better suited, whether that’s [Mike] Tyson or someone like that and Vitor’s going to fight again,” Kavanaugh said. “We’re going to see what’s going to happen. No matter what was going to happen here, we would have gotten sh*t on.
“We were not happy with a round 1 — they’re calling it a knockout, stoppage knockout, whatever you want — certainly not what we wanted to see, certainly not what the audience wanted to see. But I’m not sure yet if the end of the story has been written.”