ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- It was 101 years ago when John L. Sullivan, after losing his heavyweight crown to James Corbett, announced his ring retirement by saying, "This old pitcher went to the well once too often."
Sullivan kept his word and quit for good. But few deposed heavyweight champions over the past century have followed his example, their wounded pride compelling them to continue chasing dreams.
Evander Holyfield is the latest former champion to mount a comeback, beginning with his pay-per-view title-elimination match with Alex Stewart tonight at Convention Hall.
Where the likes of Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Joe Walcott, Larry Holmes and George Foreman failed, Holyfield, 30, who lost his crown to a younger and stronger Riddick Bowe last November, is convinced he can succeed.
"To retire would have been a relief," said Holyfield, who was urged to continue fighting by rap superstar Hammer. "I thought about all the things I didn't like about fighting and my four kids. But then I realized all the pressure I'd been under had built a foundation. And now I can do what I want to do."
Holyfield dumped the veteran training duo of George Benton and Lou Duva, who urged him to quit, in favor of Emanuel Steward, who guided Thomas Hearns to a number of world titles.
"One thing you learn over the years is that the worst thing in the world is to tell a dedicated fighter to quit," said Duva. "Some people say the guy working the corner catches the punches, too. Well, it seemed like I caught a million each time Evander fought.
"I thought Evander was losing his desire in training. If Bowe hadn't beaten him, it might have been Lennox Lewis, or another good, young heavyweight. I didn't want to see him get hurt. You don't worry about tomorrow. You worry about three or four years down the road. You don't want him to become another Muhammad Ali."
Even Stewart, getting a second crack at the former champion after being stopped in an eight-round slugfest here four years ago, wonders why Holyfield is still fighting.
"I always respected Evander for the way he won titles as a light-heavy, cruiserweight and finally as a heavyweight," Stewart said. "But the man made close to $80 million in the ring. Sure, he says he loves fighting. But you can go down to the gym and spar for fun. Why risk injury with all that money in the bank?
"It's got to be pride," said Stewart, who also has lost major fights to Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer and Foreman. "Every fighter, when he loses, looks for excuses, never the real reason why."
It is true, in a sense. Holyfield believes he simply got too ambitious in trying to match Bowe's power rather than employing a more scientific approach.
"I was fighting myself rather than fighting Bowe," he said. "I was a stationary target. I should have been moving in and out, doing some damage and then getting out of trouble.
"I can out-jab him [Bowe]. I don't have to go toe-to-toe. I'll plant my head in Bowe's chest and turn him. I can do it. I can be champion again."
Holyfield, in defeat, gained more public admiration than in all his victories. The 10th round against Bowe was a classic. Holyfield displayed courage and resilience when he appeared out on his feet, and then rallied to put Bowe in danger.
But, obviously, that is not enough for Holyfield to cling to.
"I'm searching for a new motivating force," he said. "Basically, I want my title back. Bowe promised me a rematch. If it doesn't happen, I'll go after Lennox Lewis [World Boxing Council champion].
"I'm comfortable with what I accomplished in the past, but I just want one more chance. Being heavyweight champion was all I ever wanted to be."
Who: Evander Holyfield (28-2, 22 KOs), Atlanta, vs. Alex Stewart (34-4, 32 KOs), New York.
What: 12-round heavyweight elimination bout
Where: Atlantic City (N.J.) Convention Hall
When: Tonight, 10:30 (approximate)
TV: Pay-per-view; show starts at 9
Undercard: Vinny Pazienza (33-5, 25 KOs) vs. Lloyd Honeyghan (41-3, 28 KOs), junior middleweights, 12 rounds, non-title bout
Promoters: Main Events, Inc., and Trump Plaza
Tickets: Only $100 tickets available