The Humble Warrior
The closer the time came for the Round One bell, the more the dressing room seemed to shrink. The small cinder block chamber was like a miniature Grand Central station bustling with the sounds of clanking ice buckets, ripping masking tape, and the loud voices of trainers, reporters, and well-wishers; each offering their predictions for the night's title fight. Oblivious to it all, the robed boxer sat motionless, quiet; seemingly off in a solitude of his own making. Ignoring the TV lights and cigar smoke, he stretched out his muscular legs, bowed his head and closed his eyes. It was as if he were somewhere other than on a bench in that loud, crowded room. On his face was a look of concentration and calm. It was a familiar expression; one that often appeared when he slipped off to that private chamber, that inner place our grandmother used to call "the prayer closet." In that self-created solitude Evander Holyfield shut out the chatter of a world that had made him the talk of the town, and he concentrated on the true source of his strength.
From across the room I recognized the moment. Its appearance made me smile. Over the years that calm, confident air had become a familiar feature of my brother's face. The expression, and its calming affects, were contagious. Even in that shrinking, cinder block room, as thick with anxiety as it was with people, I found myself virtually unconcerned with how the night's contest would end. I simply knew that when the bell finally rang for Round One, there would be a struggle; and that Evander could -and would go the distance.
This was not a notion based on hopeful speculation. It's a fact founded on three decades of intimate, firsthand knowledge. Being Evander's older brother (by one year) I've had a ringside seat to every fight he's faced; on both sides of the rope. From diapers to boxing briefs, we've shared a kind of 'tag-team" relationship. We've always been there for each other. Therefore, seeing what I've seen, and knowing what I know, I can be confident about what I put down here in black and white.
Blow for blow I've watched his struggles and witnessed his training. I've seen him learn the subtleties of not only how to fight, but when to fight. And on every occasion I've observed, he's walked away from the battle stronger and wiser than before it began. Evander "Real Deal" Holyfield has discovered the secret of becoming a warrior of the highest order. And having a been a party to this adventure I, likewise, have learned it's lessons of strength, confidence and calm.
￼ Realizing all of this, standing across that loud, cluttered room, my grin stretched a little more. The boxer's calm, familiar countenance put me at ease. He was ready to face the fight, and I knew it. Whatever the outcome, I was confident that the kid I still call "Chubby" would emerge from the struggle -- a Champ.
The lessons of struggle and confrontation were among the first we learned as children. Being the two youngest of eight siblings, Chubby and "Lightening" (my adolescent ID) had to catch on fast to the notion of survival.
We discovered early on that contention was not something we could avoid. It was a part of life. It was a training exercise that must be experienced, endured, and mastered. Our first training camp was the southern Alabama town of Atmore, where we were both born in the early part of the chaotic '60's. Although the sleepy little town was an outwardly pleasant place full of scampering squirrels and high-gliding bluejays, its true nature was more akin to the dog-eat-dog world of the jungle; where the strong always gain the upper hand. In fact the name 'Atmore' itself was a taunting reminder of this unspoken law of survival. Like most of the black families in that small community, ours was relegated to working sun up to sundown, doing such laborsome tasks as picking cotton and harvesting pecans. Our folks endured this back-breaking way of life in order to attain something better. Always hoping against hope that the barriers would some day fall - and that we could finally have our chance - at more.
But the odds were stacked against us, and we didn't have to go far to be reminded of it. As a matter of fact the first time Evander and I experienced this harsh fact of life was in our own front yard.
THE LUSH, THE LAW & LASSIE
As usual Chubby and I were outside playing with our favorite dog, a beautiful brown and white Collie we had cleverly dubbed, "Lassie." She was the perfect playmate; even tempered, friendly, easy-going with everybody, even strangers. And if that wasn't enough, she could even carry me and Chubby on her back, at the same time!
That memorable day we were rolling around the grass, rough-housing with our friendly canine, when we spotted a strange man approaching the house. Not thinking too much of it, we went on with our ruckus until we heard a sudden, unexpected noise. It was a loud, heavy CRRRUNCH! coming from just the other side of our yard's sturdy wooden fence. Turning our heads toward the sound, we watched as a teetering, woozy figure slowly emerge from behind the structure. He was a short, squatty fellow with matted blond hair and pale, pudgy fingers that looked painfully swollen. And though he was a safe distance from us, we could easily tell that his tattered clothes reeked of alcohol.
"Hey, you kids," he feebly motioned, "C'mere."
￼ Mom had always told us not to talk to strangers, so Chubby and I just stood there, wide-eyed, mesmerized; too frightened to move. When the drunk saw that we were not budging, he mumbled some profanity under his breath, opened the front gate and stepped into the yard. Instantly, the usually playful Lassie began to bark and growl at the man. She started pulling violently at her chain as if she wanted to tear the teetering trespasser apart.
Lassie's uncharacteristic outburst soon brought our sister, Annette, to the screen door. Surprised to see the drunken intruder standing in our yard, she waved him off yelling, "Get yourself outta here, right now! ...you hear me, git!"
Ignoring Annette, the man focused his attention on the other boisterous female in the yard.
Moving as close to Lassie as the dog's chain would permit, the drunkard started taunting her. Swearing and shaking his fist, he ran towards the animal in a mock charge,then abruptly stopped. He kept up this cruel harassment for a minute or so, all the while advancing ever deeper into our yard. Then, unexpectedly, our playful pet's rage exploded. With a mighty howl, the Collie managed to break free of her chain and commenced a charge of her own.
Mustering what little sober mobility he had, the intruder executed a fast, but warbling pivot. And letting go a loud string of obscenities, he beat a hasty retreat out our front gate and down the street --with Lassie snarling at his heels.
A few minutes later our panting Collie returned, just as calm and easy-going as ever. We laughed about it, reattached her chain, and led Lassie to her favorite spot under the house for a well-deserved bowl of water. Recalling the look of terror on the drunk's face, we were sure that we had seen and heard the last of him. But an hour later the intruder was back. And this time the lush had The Law with him.
The Sheriff of Atmore was a tall, lanky fellow with thin, receding brown hair, squinty eyes and a long nose that gave his Alabama accent a decidedly nasal twang. He stood with his arms folded and listened as Annette explained how the drunk had come into our yard uninvited, and harassed Lassie. "She's a good dog," sis explained, "Lassie was just doin' her job; protectin' Chubby and Lightenin' from this trespasser."
"Well, that's not what the gentleman told me," the Sheriff gestured to the teetering man, still reeking of booze. "He says he was just walkin' by and the dog jumped over the fence and tried to bite him."
"He's lyin'," Annette countered, defiantly looking down her nose at the little man. "Yeah," Chubby echoed, "He wasn't actin' like no gentleman an hour ago when he trespassed on our property and messed with our dog!"
"Well, I've heard enough," the Sheriff interrupted, slapping the side of his leg as if punctuating his decision. "Looks like I'm gonna have to shoot your dawg."
Chubby and I looked at each other, neither of us believing what we heard. We had always been taught that police represented law, order, justice. The police were our heroes. Whenever we played "Cops & Robbers" there was always a lengthy debate about who was going to play the coveted role of the Cop, and who would have to endure the stigma of the Bad Guy. The police were the ones you called when drunken bums trespassed on your property! But then this sheriff comes along -- and not only does he let the intruder get away with his deeds, he even becomes the reeking liar's accomplice! It wasn't fair! This couldn't be happening! It was everything but right!
The Sheriff swaggered to his car and retrieved a black, double-barrel shotgun. As we watched wide-eyed, he began loading it with bullets that looked like missiles. The long barrel of the rifle seemed more like a weapon used to bring down an African rhino, than a friendly little Collie.
￼ Resting the gun on his shoulder, he calmly walked passed Chubby, then me, and approached the part of our house that stood about two feet off the ground. It was the shady spot under the porch where Lassie lay sleeping It was the place she called home. Realizing that the Sheriff was serious, and obviously calloused to the presence of two impressionable boys, Annette's voice broke the silence, 'Chubby, Lightenin', you boys go on in the house."
We did as we were told, but once inside we raced straight to the window to see if the Sheriff was really going to shoot our favorite playmate. Peering through the glass, we watched the marksman squat down and point the big rifle under the house. From our position just above, we heard Lassie stir and began to growl; it was the warning she gave to all intruders. She started to bark. Her chain rattled and jangled violently. She wasn't going to cower or whimper. Lassie wasn't going to take it laying down. She was going to go out... fighting.
The whole house shook from the blast. Its rippling rumble sent the squirrels scurrying off to their sanctuaries, and scattered Atmore's Bluejays up into their treetop retreats. But Evander and I could only cling to each other. There was no place for us to hide. As the terrible sound faded, the sheriff dusted off his hat, spewed out a wad of slimy tobacco and peacefully walked back to his car. Without another word he drove away and the drunkard, pleased with himself, staggered off down the street.
When the yard was finally empty, Chubby ran out onto the porch. I reluctantly followed. Under the edge of the steps we could see Lassie's blood forming meandering tributaries of dark maroon in the dirt. Evander hurried down the stairs and around to the raised side of the porch. Dropping to his knees he looked into the darkness. Through his tears he focused on a shaft of light peaking through a crack in the porch floor. Its thin illuminations revealed a shriveled, mangled mass of fur, riddled mercilessly with buckshot.
There was no consoling us, although Annette tried. Nothing could be said that could ease our pain, or justify this act of 'justice.'
When our two elder brothers got home from work and learned of Lassie's death their grief was equally intense. Though thoroughly enraged, James, the oldest of the Holyfield boys, took the news quietly. His stoic, no nonsense personality would not allow him to openly vent his anger. Instead he retreated to the back porch and stared out into space; only the subtle trembling of his tall, muscular frame gave away his frustration. James recognized the thinly disguised prejudice in the day's events. As a black teenager in a small, southern town he was already familiar with 'the struggle.' But despite this experienced perspective, he could no more make sense out of the sheriff's deed than the two youngsters who had witnessed the act firsthand.
The second oldest boy, Willie, was likewise dazed by the news; but his emotions were not as restrained. In fact his disposition was quite the opposite of his elder brother. Being an artist, one who expresses himself with his hands, Willie wasn't shy about displaying his feelings. Grabbing up a shovel, he wandered outside and turned the gardener's tool into a sculptors pick; with tears in his eyes he chiseled away a portion of our backyard and carved out of the earth a place of honor for our playmate. He and James then lovingly wrapped Lassie in one of grandmother's handmade quilts and respectfully lowered the animal into the ground.
Laying Lassie to rest was a rite of passage for the four Holyfield boys. The women of our clan understood. This male ritual initiated each of us into the real world. As we lowered our playmate into the ground, a deeper level of understanding began to dawn on each of us. From big brother James down to little Evander, we each seemed to grasp the significance of the moment. Standing around the open grave, holding hands, we each sensed the numb feeling that comes with the admission of helplessness.
That day we buried our innocence along with our friend.
The despair on Chubby's face, as he stood over Lassie's grave those years ago, contrasted the air of assurance I now witnessed in Evander's eyes. From across that loud, crowded dressing room I saw no evidence of childhood helplessness in my brother's countenance -only the confidence that comes from experience.
That early training camp called Atmore was a hard but effective teacher. It taught Chubby the importance of enduring 'struggle.' He learned early on that contention only has two results; it makes the strong stronger, and the weak weaker. And avoiding it only prolongs the inevitable. Our childhood in Atmore was long ago and far away, but its lessons have remained as current as the clock on the wall. ...
"Fifteen minutes!" a strong voice bellowed from just outside of the dressing room's open door. "Fifteen minutes to the bell, let's go!" With that boisterous cue, the meandering crowd of well-wishers began to pour out of the door and into the hallway, giving the boxer the elbow room to assemble his entourage.
Taking part in that procession is another one of those male rituals. This 'rite of passage' between the dressing room and the ring is a time-honored ceremony that reinforces" the team's" collective resolve to face the battle. Unlike the ritual around Lassie's grave, this observance does not acknowledge the frailties of our humanity. Instead it declares to all who observe it, that our side has trained well to overcome these physical limitations. And that the Holyfield Clan is both ready, confident, and able to face the inevitable questions that arise with all confrontation: Who is the weaker? Who is the stronger? And which of the two are willing to endure the struggle long enough to discover the truth?
As our caravan advanced through the dark hallway, nearing the entrance to the coliseum itself, the familiar square shape of the boxing ring came into view. Through the parade of bobbing heads, the distant, illuminated platform looked like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Bright shafts of smoky brilliance flooded the raised, roped-off stage.
Its dramatic image not only dominated the darkened assembly, but also triggered within me the image of another hallway and the familiar square shape of the table that once dominated our kitchen in Atmore. It was there, at that table, where little Chubby and I first discovered how to march into the contentious Ring of Life with confidence.
As sure as Lassie's tragedy introduced us the harsh realities of this world, those midnight trips to the kitchen opened us up to a world that far surpasses the most tangible reality.
THE MAN IN THE KITCHEN
Being the two youngest of such a large brood, Evander and I not only played together during the day, we even spent our nights together, sleeping in the same bed. Chubby usually slept with his head at the foot of the berth, and I took the opposite approach. The childhood reasons for this arrangement seemed logical at the time: if either of us had a bad dream, we each had a pair of feet to grab onto-- (well, for a five and six year old it was a stroke of genius). Suffice to say, the tag-team of Chubby and Lightening were rarely a part. In fact if one of us woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, he would wake the other. And together we would hold hands and walk down the hallway; which Mama kept lit with the kitchen light.
￼ On one of these nightly treks, we were just leaving the bathroom and were about to turn back down the hall, when Evander thought he saw someone in the kitchen. It was late, around midnight; everyone in the house should have been asleep. Who could it be? We turned and nodded to each other, as if affirming our mutual curiosity. Then slowly, carefully, we took hold of each other's hand and inched our way into the large, well-lit room. As we crossed the threshold into the kitchen our eyes grew as wide as saucers. Standing next to the table was---a man! ...a large, black, bald-headed man!
To a six year old everything seems big, but by any standard this guy was tall! From a lofty height that seemed somewhere near the ceiling, he looked down at us and smiled. Although we can't recall the color of his eyes, we do remember standing for a long moment just staring at this fellow, and he at us. The stranger spoke but not in the normal, conventional way. Although Chubby and I never actually recall hearing his voice, we eventually struck up a conversation with him, but being only five and six years old, we didn't have a whole lot to say. Nevertheless, we must have made a good impression on the man, because after several minutes of chatting the smiling figure came close to us and extended his hands over our little heads. He then touched the tops.
After this physical contact we scurried out of the room, ran to our mother's bedside and started babbling on about "the man in the kitchen." Of course Mama, being bone tired from a long day at work, simply rolled over and mumbled, "...Okay, there's a man in the kitchen.... that's nice. You two go back to sleep...go on now...back to bed." And, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred, we scampered back down the hall jumped into bed and naturally fell asleep.
Every night for about a week this strange scenario was repeated. Around midnight Evander and I would fearlessly hop out of bed, walk down the hallway and have a chat with the tall, dark, man in the kitchen. Afterward we would go to Mom's room, wake her up and try to tell her about it. The rapidity of this nightly game apparently began to wear down her patience, because finally one evening she let us have it.
"Why do you two come in here every night talking about some man in the kitchen? There ain't no man in there! You two better stop this and get back to bed before I get up and whip the both of you." That's all we needed to hear. In a flash we were in our bed with the blankets up over our heads.
No sooner than we had settled under the covers, a pleasant hush fell over the house. Our brothers, sisters, mom and grandmother had long since retreated to their respective rooms. And all of the lights were off, except of course the one in the kitchen. In fact it was so quiet we heard Mom when she eventually got up from her bed and walked down the hall. We heard the refrigerator door open, then close. Then, out of nowhere, there came the sudden high-pitched sound of a glass crashing on the floor, and the bone-chilling shrill of a woman's scream.
￼ Instantly our serene home turned into a madhouse. In simultaneous chaos all of the bedroom doors flew opened and a confusing echo of voices hurried down the hall. After a few disorienting seconds, my entire half-dressed family was standing in the kitchen, wide-eyed and out of breath, each trying to avoid stepping in the white puddle of milk and broken glass splattered on the floor. Our collective stare was focused on Mama. She was trembling.
Frantically pointing toward the sink she stammered, "A man...a m-m-an!"
"Mama, nobody's there," Eloise reassured, trying to encourage a sense of calm. But Mom was not convinced. Still shaking, she eased herself down into a chair at the kitchen table and tried to regain her composure. The family, both shocked and curious, gathered around her and began asking the most obvious question; "What happened?" Mama then pointed to her two youngest and attempted to explain:
"Chubby and Lightenin' have been wakin' me up every night, talkin' about some man in the kitchen. I'd tell them to go to bed 'cause there ain't no man. I lock the back door every night. So there's no way anyone could get in here. Then tonight," she paused and inhaled a deep calming breath, "they came to me again. Since they woke me up, I decided to get something to drink. So I came in here, went to the refrigerator," she gestured around the room reliving the moment, "poured me a glass of milk and sat down, right here. When I looked up I-I saw t-this man, a tall, dark, bald-headed man s-s-miling at me. Ain't no-no one suppose to be in this house! I started screaming a-a-nd he just.... v-vanished!"
As if on cue the entire family turned their attention to me and Evander. A flurry of questions followed. We answered each one as best we could, and passed along every detail possible about the stranger. However, somewhere in the middle of this kitchen-table inquisition, a soft, but feisty voice broke through the clamor and brought the Q& A to an abrupt halt.
"The man was an angel from God."
Everyone turned toward the speaker, dumbstruck. Rolling up to the table in her wheelchair, Grandmother Hatton continued, "When the angel extended his hands and touched the boys lightly on the head, he was blessing 'em with God's gifts."
Another hush fell over the house. Everyone looked at Mama, then at me and Chubby, then down at the shattered glass of milk. It was obvious to every Holyfield around the table that something out of the ordinary had happened.
At the time of grandmother's pronouncement neither Chubby nor I understood what "gifts" meant. For a long time afterward we thought we had been granted the ability to get on her bad side; cause from that night on, Grandma was constantly on our case; correcting us, pushing us to improve.
Like the boxing coaches Evander would later encounter, grandmother was a stern disciplinarian. She took us to task for the most insignificant transgression. Pearlie Beatrice Hatton may have been in a wheelchair, but she kept us on our toes. Each time she disciplined us, she would first quote an appropriate portion of the Bible, both chapter and verse, then pinch us on the arm for "...the seeds we'd sown." Our church-goin' matriarch was determined to do everything she could to get us ready for our "special work."
All grandmothers feel that their offspring will attain some measure of greatness. It's only natural. But after that 'man' visited the kitchen, our God-fearing grandma made it her special responsibility to "coach" us in how to survive inside this roped-off ring of Life. "God will not puts on you more than you can bear," she would say in her southern drawl, "He'll never set you in a place where you can't excel. Things may not always go your way, but if you'll trust Him, and keep on --no matter what-- He'll give you the strength ya' need. He has His reasons. And in His good time He'll turn things around for His glory, and your improvement. You boys can do anything. - anything!"
The 'man in the kitchen' visited us a few more times, but in contrast to Grandmother's years of instruction, neither Chubby nor I can consciously recall the things he told us. All I know is that this mysterious 'man' made a series of unexplainable visits to our Alabama kitchen. Doing so he gave two ordinary boys an introduction to the improbable, and the overwhelming confidence to attempt the extraordinary - that is, with a little help from Grandma Hatton.
Like the hallway to our Atmore kitchen, the corridor through which the Holyfield entourage paraded also emptied into a large, well-lit room - the coliseum, itself. The instant that our procession entered the arena, the entire place exploded in a near deafening crescendo of mayhem. The scene was a chaotic mixture of jubilant fans cheering, Jumping, applauding and yelling for "Evander!. .. Evander!"
Making our way down to the ring, through the middle of this massive demonstration, was like running a gauntlet of your best friends; each wanting to slap you on the back and shake your hand. But this commotion never flustered the boxer. As with every fight, Chubby's attention was focused straight ahead. His thoughts were tuned so intently on his task that if it were possible for one of the fans to gaze into his dark eyes, they would have seen the reflected white square of the boxing ring floating in the center of his pupil.
Finally we reached the raised stage. In that moment I became aware of the adrenaline pumping through my own heart, causing it to beat wildly within my chest. The reality of the moment had finally broken through to my reason. In the middle of this mayhem I suddenly realized that my little brother was about to step through the ropes of a situation from which he could not retreat. He was about to confront an overwhelming struggle face to face. And that there was nothing I could do about it.
For a moment I felt as if I were standing once more at the window, feebly waiting for the sheriff to fire off those inevitable shots. And in that instant I revisited the numbness that comes with the admission of helplessness. Then, through the ropes, I caught a glimpse of Chubby's already perspiring face. It was a familiar expression; one that often appeared when he was off in that private chamber, that inner place our grandmother use to call "the prayer closet."
As the crowd cheered, I saw no evidence of childhood helplessness in my brother's countenance; only the confidence that comes from experience. His expression and its calming affects were contagious. It ignited within me that old, overwhelming confidence to attempt the extraordinary.
￼ As he took off his robe and flexed his well-toned muscles, I couldn't hold back my smile. I knew that the bell for Round One was about to ring, and that there was going to be a struggle. But despite my heart-felt trepidation that "trouble" could easily stumble into the front yard of our hopes, I knew that Chubby and I had both been introduced to the improbable --the notion that God hears and answers prayers.
Whatever the outcome, I was confident that my little brother, Evander Holyfield, could and would go the distance.
And as usual I had a ringside seat.