Last November, seven months after losing his heavyweight crown to Michael Moorer and being advised by doctors to retire from the ring because of a heart disorder, Evander Holyfield received a clean bill of health from the Mayo Clinic.
The former champion was told that his condition after the fight had been misdiagnosed and that his extreme fatigue and "stiff heart" had resulted from over-medication.
But he still had to convince himself that he could return to the ring without great risk to his health.
"I had to be sure," said Holyfield, who will battle Ray Mercer in a non-title bout in Atlantic City, N.J., tonight. "Life is better than a game, which is going to play out, anyway."
So the 32-year-old Atlanta native put himself through a rigid series of physical tests. Once referred to as a "bionic man" because of all the body-building he did to move up from the light-heavyweight to heavyweight division, Holyfield had to remove all doubts from his mind.
"When I got out of the hospital, the first thing I did was get on a treadmill and really push myself," he said. "If I fell out, nobody would have known. But I discovered nothing was wrong with me.
"Now it's behind me. I don't even think about it. But I want to make myself perform to show people I'm truly healed." Holyfield believes he is following the right course in his life.
"Being away for a while gave me a different perspective," he said. "It's not that I need to fight; I want this fight with Mercer. I don't think now is the time for me to quit.
"God gave me the ability to box. It's what I do. It's not like a car or a house that you can give to somebody. If I don't use this gift, nobody else can. When I finally do retire, I want to say I've done all I can do. The bottom line is I felt I still have the ability to be %% champion of the world."
But there are close friends and business associates who say Holyfield is on an ego trip, taking senseless chances after having earned more than $100 million with his fists over the past decade.
"He's very obsessed with equaling Muhammad Ali's feat of winning the heavyweight title three times," said Shelly Finkel, his former manager. Holyfield fired Finkel after he urged the boxer to retire after the Moorer fight.
"No fighter gets out of boxing without being hurt in some way," Finkel said. "Eventually, you get your brain rattled. I love the sport, but it's dangerous and more hurtful than football. Evander certainly doesn't need the money. And he takes greater risks than most heavyweights because he's not a big puncher. He wins on guts and heart, and most of his fights go the distance. Why does he need to continue fighting, except for ego?"
Holyfield refuses to sell Mercer short despite his embarrassing loss to a middle-aged Larry Holmes and his lackluster losing effort against journeyman Jesse Ferguson. That fight triggered an investigation into whether Mercer offered Ferguson a bribe to lose. No charges resulted, however.
For Holyfield, a victory over Mercer would serve as a steppingstone to a possible title fight against one of the three current champions -- George Foreman, Bruce Seldon and Oliver McCall.
But it is a Holyfield showdown with former champion Mike Tyson that is by far more intriguing to boxing fans. The match was in the making several times. It was scheduled for November 1991, only to be postponed when Tyson suffered a rib injury in training. It was rescheduled, but then canceled when Tyson was convicted of raping a beauty pageant contestant.
"If it happens, great," Holyfield said. "If it doesn't happen, I can live with it. But it's wide open now. Everyone, including Tyson, believes he can become champion again. I feel the same way. Making history is one thing. But boxing is just something I love."
Who: Evander Holyfield, Atlanta (30-2, 22 KOs), vs. Ray Mercer (35-3, 27 KOs), West Orange, N.J., 10-round heavyweight bout; Hector Camacho (51-3, 24 KOs), Clewiston, Fla., vs. Homer Gibbins (35-3, 27 KOs), Riverdale, Ga., for Camacho's International Boxing Council welterweight title
Where: Atlantic City (N.J.) Convention Center
When: Tonight, first preliminary bout 7:15
TV: TVKO, pay-per-view show starts 9 p.m. %%