IBHOF inductee Graham Houston discusses the recent wave of returning boxing legends and the dangers involved following Evander Holyfield’s disturbing one-round loss at the weekend.

Boxing purists don’t like them, but events featuring social media influencers, former MMA stars, and ageing legends of the ring do seem to be here to stay.

Now, I don’t mind it if long-retired former champions box each other in exhibition bouts of two-minute rounds when both men are of a similar age. For instance, Julio Cesar Chavez, aged 58, and Jorge “Travieso” Arce, slightly over 40, clearly had fun in their exhibition-bout series (three of them) in which headguards were worn. The spectators enjoyed seeing the Mexican icons going through the motions and no one got hurt.

And when Mike Tyson boxed his exhibition with Roy Jones Jr last November you could see that Iron Mike, at 54, wasn’t in there to try to take 51-year-old Jones’ head off. Both men treated the event as what it was: an exhibition. (No official verdict was given.)

As regards YouTube sensation Jake Paul, he clearly takes his boxing seriously and he looks like a tough kid. I have no problem with Jake getting in the ring with a former MMA champ, or even a novice pro such as himself. Brother Logan Paul was young enough, big enough and strong enough to go eight two-minute rounds with boxing great-turned-businessman Floyd Mayweather, who may or not have carried him. Floyd was much the smaller man. Paul threw some swings and did a lot of clinching. Again, no one got hurt. So far, so good. 

But things took a much darker turn last weekend when former UFC champ Vitor Belfort blew away heavyweight great Evander Holyfield in the first round. 

Obviously, everyone knew Holyfield could not possibly be the fighter he once was, or even close to it, not at the age of 58 and after 10 years’ inactivity. What we saw, though, was the shell of a boxing legend get embarrassed.  

Honestly, I was alarmed at what I was watching. While I didn’t expect a whole lot, I did expect Holyfield to show at least a modicum of ability. I mean, JC Chavez moved around pretty well at 58 in the exhibitions with Arce. And, in the words of an Associated Press reporter, Mike Tyson, at 54, “showed glimpses of his destructive prime” in the exhibition with Roy Jones Jr.

Holyfield, however, showed nothing. Everything was shot to pieces: balance, timing, coordination, reflexes, punch resistance. All gone.

Even before a punch was thrown, I was worried. Holyfield just didn’t look “right” as he waited for the first bell. He looked like a man who is expecting the worst. It was a “What have I got myself into?” type of look.

Officially, after much confusion, this affair was classified as an exhibition. The stoppage defeat doesn’t appear on Holyfield’s record. But all of us know what happened, as will future generations. The stain won’t go away.

There was a curiosity about the event. Belfort was younger, Holyfield had the boxing experience. On paper, it looked a fairly even match-up.

But fights aren’t fought on paper. From the first serious punch Belfort threw, you knew that Holyfield was in hell. 

A left hand from Belfort’s southpaw stance had Evander stumbling back across the ring. Good Lord, this was the man who walked down Mike Tyson and outpunched Big George Foreman, and who fought a thrilling trilogy with Riddick Bowe. How could this be happening? But happen it did.

Officially, Holyfield vs Belfort, and Anderson Silva vs Tito Ortiz and David Haye’s meeting wth pal Joe Fournier on the same show, were exhibitions. 

But Belfort took this as being a real fight (as did one-round KO winner Anderson Silva). 

Belfort went in there looking to do damage. This was no friendly sparring session, a la Haye vs Fournier. It was more like elder abuse.

I think Holyfield could have been hurt, as in seriously hurt, had not referee Sam Burgos made a quick intervention. Too quick? Some say it was. Not me. The signs were there that Holyfield was in trouble. He was floundering around. At least we were spared the sight of Evander flat on his back.

This must never happen again. A former boxer pushing 60 years of age should not be allowed to take part in an actual boxing match against a much younger man who is in shape, who knows how to land a punch and who is coming to inflict physical harm. (And Belfort doesn’t come out of this looking good, by the way.)

Now we have Marco Antonio Barrera, at 47, scheduled for a six-round welterweight exhibition bout with Daniel Ponce De Leon, who is 41, in New Mexico on November 20. It’s never ending. Still, I see no harm in Barrera’s exhibition with De Leon, just as I saw no harm in Chavez and Arce reliving old glories in what were basically public sparring matches.

But the Evander Holyfield debacle last weekend was another matter entirely. Such was Holyfield’s shocking decline, coupled with Belfort’s mean intent, I honestly believe we could have had a tragedy on our hands if the referee hadn’t stepped in when he did. What we saw last Saturday night was frightful, even a bit frightening. But it could have been worse. Much worse.

Main image: Triller Fight Club.