Family ties and Pacquiao inspire Holyfield before pro debut

By Sports Desk November 02, 2019

When Evan Holyfield makes his professional debut on the undercard of Sergey Kovalev and Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez's blockbuster WBO light-heavyweight clash it will not be the family affair it was the first time he pulled on boxing gloves in public.

Holyfield is the son of all-time cruiserweight and heavyweight great Evander Holyfield, while his brother Elijah is part of the Carolina Panthers practice squad on his rookie season in the NFL.

When they were children, there was briefly a possibility of Elijah following his sibling's career path – naturally with some final pointers from their father and a touch of sparring before entering the Georgia Games - a community multi-sport event in their home state.

"We both had our first fight on the same day," Evan recalled when talking to Omnisport. "We were eight years old and it was just me and him.

"My Dad brought us downstairs and taught us the 'one-two' and, before you know it, me and Elijah were having our first fight.

"We ended up in a tournament on the same day at the Georgia Games."

Evan and Elijah, both 21, remain close as they aim to write the next chapters in the story of one of America's most famous sporting names

"All our other brothers and sisters are older and there's a couple younger than us - he [Elijah] was like my best friend," Evan said.

"We have a really good relationship. I Facetime him often and we always ask each other what's going on with our football and boxing.

"At this point I feel like I'm one of his big fans as well as his brother. I just get a kick out of watching him as a football player. I'm really proud of him."

It will be Elijah's turn to play loyal supporter when Evan steps through the ropes at the MGM Grand against fellow novice Nick Winstead, who was stopped on his own debut five months ago.

Campaigning in the light-middleweight division means Holyfield Jr takes his stylistic cues a little further away from home than a father who reigned during one of the most celebrated era for boxing's big men in the 1990s.

"The person I most look up to other than my father when it comes to boxing is Manny Pacquiao," he said. "I grew up watching him and besides my Dad he's the one person who really got me into boxing.

"I feel like I take a lot of stuff from him, including his footwork. Even though his speed and combinations are realty hard to duplicate, I try to work on that too.

"I also take stuff from 'Sugar' Ray Leonard, 'Sugar' Ray Robinson – all those people and try and mix it in and make something that's my own."

When it comes to his son's boxing career, Evander has been happy to take a back seat and hand over the reins to esteemed trainer and former light-welterweight contender Maurice 'Termite' Watkins.

In Evan's eyes, the four-time heavyweight ruler was always a parent first and a superstar fighter second.

"When I think of my father as a boxer, it actually took a couple of years for it to soak in and for me to really understand him as a boxer," he added. "When I was younger I really only saw him as a father.

"It was only when I got into boxing and really started to study boxing that it really hit me – him as a legend.

"I have memories of going to some of his fights but I was about eight or nine and wasn't really into it.

"A couple of years down the line I was watching all his fights, studying and asking questions. Now I know him as a person and a fighter."

Getting to know Evan Holyfield as a fighter is a process the boxing fraternity will begin with no little excitement at the MGM Grand.

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  • LeBron after 17 years: How much further can the NBA Finals MVP go? LeBron after 17 years: How much further can the NBA Finals MVP go?

    Thursday marks 17 years to the day since LeBron James made his NBA debut with the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Sacramento Kings.

    The number one overall draft pick, who had 25 points in his first game, went on to win the Rookie of the Year award in 2003-04 and has been at the forefront of the league ever since.

    James has been MVP on four occasions and earlier this month collected his fourth championship ring, also winning Finals MVP for a fourth time at the age of 35.

    Only three other players have been named Finals MVP after their 35th birthday: fellow greats Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, of course, Michael Jordan.

    But how did they fare in the final years of their careers after being the main men on title-winning teams as veterans? And how might that colour what we can expect from LeBron beyond year 17?

    We use Stats Perform Data to take a look.
     

    WILT CHAMBERLAIN - 1972 Finals MVP, aged 35

    The Finals MVP award was not introduced until the 1969 series when Chamberlain was already in his 30s – by then an NBA champion with the Philadelphia 76ers and a four-time MVP – but he was belatedly recognised as he guided the Lakers past the New York Knicks three years later, winning their first title since moving to Los Angeles.

    But Wilt would not then go on to add to his honours as he played just one more season before retiring.

    The veteran still played all 82 regular season games in 1972-73, averaging more minutes (43.2) than in the championship-winning campaign, but he endured the lowest scoring year of his career, with 13.2 points per game. He had peaked at 50.4 points 11 years earlier.

    Shooting less regularly, there were still flashes of Chamberlain's old magic as he remarkably had the NBA's highest all-time field-goal percentage across a season (minimum 500 attempts) with 72.7 per cent made. Only DeAndre Jordan in three straight seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers – between 2014 and 2017 – has shot above 70 per cent.

    The Lakers will certainly hope James does not go down the same path, having been backed to play into his 40s by LA assistant Jason Kidd and former Miami Heat team-mate Dwyane Wade.
     

    KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR - 1985 Finals MVP, aged 38

    Abdul-Jabbar won his first Finals MVP with the Milwaukee Bucks the year before Chamberlain's but, despite collecting two more rings in the interim, had to wait until 1985 to be hailed again as the postseason's outstanding player. Kareem outperformed Lakers team-mate Magic Johnson – 12 years his junior – as they beat the Boston Celtics and he became the oldest NBA Finals MVP.

    And yet his career was not over, with the support of Johnson surely an example the 2020 Lakers would like to follow as Anthony Davis aids LeBron.

    Abdul-Jabbar's production actually improved in the season he turned 39 – scoring 23.4 points per game, up from 22.0 – but that would be the last year he averaged at least 20.0, ending a record 17-season streak that has since been matched by Karl Malone and James, who can surpass that mark in 2020-21.

    The Lakers kept winning as Kareem's numbers understandably dropped, though, taking the title in 1987 and 1988 – led by Johnson and James Worthy.

    A 42-year-old Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989 after seeing his field-goal percentage dip below 50 per cent in a season for the first time at 47.5. His astounding 19-year stretch of making more than half of his attempts stands as a record, later tied by Shaquille O'Neal.


    MICHAEL JORDAN - 1998 Finals MVP, aged 35

    Jordan might be considered the clear rival to James in the 'GOAT' debate, but LeBron is not likely to follow in MJ's footsteps after his 'Last Dance' with the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Beating the Utah Jazz, he won a third straight title and a third straight Finals MVP for the second time yet was done at the top level thereafter.

    The 35-year-old retired from the sport again, only to return once more in 2001 with the Washington Wizards.

    Jordan would donate his salary to relief efforts after the September 11 terror attack but struggled to deliver on the floor as he battled injuries.

    The statistics when MJ did appear in 2001-02 – he made 53 starts in 60 regular season games – did not make for great reading. The five-time MVP ranked worst in the league for three-point percentage (minimum 50 attempts) at 18.9 per cent, making just 10. He was 41st of the 48 players who attempted at least 1000 field goals that year at 41.6 per cent.

    Jordan quit the sport for good in 2003.
     

    LEBRON JAMES - 2020 Finals MVP, aged 35

    If Abdul-Jabbar provides the best example of how a superstar should treat the final years of his career, LeBron appears well placed to similarly profit.

    With the arrival of Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans last year, James' game changed to incorporate a second elite scorer, becoming a passer as he logged a career-high 10.2 assists per game.

    LeBron became the oldest player in NBA history to average 25.0 points and 10.0 assists. No rival has ever managed such a performance past the age of 30, let alone 35.

    Crucially, the former Cavs man was also more protected. He visited the foul line less often (down from 7.6 free-throw attempts to 5.7) and recorded fewer rebounds (down from 8.5 to 7.8)

    And his 34.6 minutes per game – a career-low – represented the fewest in league history while scoring 25.0 points and 10.0 assists.

    With a gruelling next season just around the corner, James is likely to play even fewer minutes again but, alongside Davis, still looks primed to make the difference when it matters most.

  • Talking Point: Can Pogba, Fernandes and Van de Beek play together for Man Utd? Talking Point: Can Pogba, Fernandes and Van de Beek play together for Man Utd?

    "It's nice for some commentators to have a little go," said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as another news conference turned into a discussion about a player not in his recent plans.

    The "commentator" in question was probably Marco van Basten, the Netherlands and Ajax great who is perhaps the most authoritative voice wondering aloud why Donny van de Beek can't get a game for Manchester United.

    Since signing from Ajax for an initial £34.7million in September, Van de Beek has played 61 minutes in England's top flight, all of them as a substitute. Even with Paul Pogba restricted largely to the role of impact-sub, with post-COVID-19 fitness concerns still a problem, Van de Beek appears below Bruno Fernandes, Juan Mata, Scott McTominay and Fred in the midfield pecking order, and that's despite scoring a goal on his Old Trafford debut.

    Solskjaer made it clear the Netherlands international will get his chance and he handed him a first start in all competitions against RB Leipzig on Wednesday. Perhaps that first league start will come this weekend against Arsenal; maybe Solskjaer will give in to curiosity and start Van de Beek, Pogba and Fernandes together.

    Could such a system work?

    TRIO TROUBLES

    Part of Solskjaer's problem here is obvious: Van de Beek, Fernandes and Pogba are midfielders with similar technical qualities, so fitting them all in the same line-up is a challenge. Their average positions in league football last season, for instance, are all neatly within the centre circle.

    The issue is heightened by Solskjaer's preferred formations.

    Solskjaer tends to favour a 3-4-1-2, such as he did in the 2-1 win at Paris Saint-Germain, when United face stronger opponents who expect to have more possession. That formation allows Fernandes to play as a number 10 and speeds up the transitions to counter-attacks, but it also depends on ball-winners covering the ground behind him. Against PSG, that pairing was Fred and McTominay, and it worked well – they won six free-kicks and regained possession 14 times between them. Van de Beek came on with 88 minutes gone for a tiring Fernandes.

    When Solskjaer switches to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, as is his preference for most Premier League matches, the stability of the midfield relies on at least one of Fred, McTominay or Nemanja Matic as the anchor while Pogba and Fernandes are given more freedom to roam. Should Van de Beek slot into this line-up, United would sacrifice a more defensive-minded player, which could put the back four at risk of runners bearing down on them, as was their undoing in home defeats to Crystal Palace and Tottenham.

    UP FOR THE CHALLENGE

    So prevails the conventional wisdom, anyway. But Van de Beek could be better suited to these systems than it appears if Solskjaer decides to be bold.

    Van de Beek's attacking strengths are clear. Last season in the Eredivisie, he managed the same number of shots (44) as Fernandes did in the Premier League, at an average of 2.1 per game (down on Fernandes' 3.3, but higher than Pogba's 1.6).

    In his 23 appearances, he got eight goals – again, level with Fernandes – and five assists from a hugely impressive 41 chances created. In terms of open play, Van de Beek outperformed Fernandes (1.7) with chances created on average per 90 minutes (1.9). His average passes in the opposition half were at 29.9, well down on Pogba (47.2) and Fernandes (45.6), but Van de Beek had well over double the number of touches in the opposition box per 90 (7.8) than either of his new team-mates.

    That paints a picture of Van de Beek in a box-to-box role, one that would suit one side of a 4-3-3 or a forward position in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2. Where, then, would the defensive balance come from? Well, from Van de Beek.

    His 46 Eredivisie tackles last season gave him an average of 2.2 per game, greater than Fernandes (1.7) or the deeper-lying Pogba (1.6). He also outperformed those two for interceptions (16) and possession won (111), although his average per 90 minutes for each were similar to Fernandes.

    Van de Beek also averaged 42.7 passes per 90 minutes in the league in the 2019-20 season but with a higher accuracy than Fernandes (82.3 compared to 75.7). A player capable of winning back the ball and retaining it as he can would offer a sufficient level of defensive stability alongside Pogba and Fernandes, particularly with his positional nous, in games where United expect to control the ball. And Pogba is accomplished in a deeper role, anyway: he played 30 passes in his own half per 90 minutes in the league last season, and 47 in the opponents' half. He can influence proceedings at both ends by holding position while Van de Beek and Fernandes are given free rein, knowing the Dutchman will be willing to track back and cover.

    EXCHANGE POLICY

    If a Pogba-Donny-Bruno set-up is to work, though, they need to start functioning together as a passing unit.

    In the second half of last season, when Pogba was fit again and Fernandes firing after his January arrival, the duo combined effectively in United's league run-in. They exchanged 129 passes in 661 minutes on the pitch together, creating seven chances for each other and each providing an assist. Those are encouraging numbers from the early months of a partnership.

    This season, though, they have exchanged 38 passes in 230 minutes, indicating a slight drop in their link play, and neither has yet created a goalscoring chance for the other.

    Van de Beek has only made four passes to Fernandes and two to Pogba but, for a player to play just 61 minutes, that's not too surprising. It does, though, indicate the need for each to get used to the others' ways of working if a strong midfield trio is ever likely to be formed.

    That said, of the seven passes Fernandes has ever played to Van de Beek in the Premier League, one created a goalscoring chance. If that ratio continues, there are strong odds Van de Beek will turn performances into regular goals and force Solskjaer's hand when it comes to his team sheet.

  • Joshua questions Usyk's 'pitty-patty' style ahead of Chisora fight Joshua questions Usyk's 'pitty-patty' style ahead of Chisora fight

    Anthony Joshua has warned Oleksandr Usyk to mix up his fighting style against Derek Chisora, suggesting "some people don't respect" his approach.

    Usyk, a former undisputed cruiserweight champion, will contest just his second fight at heavyweight on Saturday against Derek Chisora.

    The Ukrainian defeated Chazz Witherspoon in Chicago last year but faces a sterner test in the form of Chisora, unbeaten in his three bouts since being knocked out by Dillian Whyte in London two years ago.

    Usyk is the mandatory challenger to Joshua's WBO belt and is expected to be given a title shot next year, but the Briton feels he must display some greater raw punching power if he is to thrive in the heavyweight division.

    "When I boxed Andy Ruiz Jr in the second fight, I adapted to the Usyk style," Joshua told Sky Sports. "Hit and don't get hit, the sweet science of boxing. You learn that from the amateurs.

    "I was amateur for two-and-a-half years so was still adapting to different styles. Usyk was amateur for a long time so he has taken the 'hit and don't get hit' style into the pros.

    "The good thing that helped me? Sometimes I know to sit down on my feet and hurt someone.

    "You've got to let them know that you're there because all that pitty-patty stuff after 12 rounds? Sometimes people don't respect that type of power."

    Joshua puts his IBF, WBA and WBO titles on the line against Kubrat Pulev on December 12 and is set to face the first of a unifying double-header with Tyson Fury in 2021.

    But Alexander Krassyuk, Usyk's co-promoter, says an agreement is in place for the winner of Joshua-Pulev to face his man next.

    "Our plan is: A) beat Derek Chisora, B) push AJ to comply with WBO rules or vacate the title, C) defeat AJ or any other WBO champion or contender and become the heavyweight champion. Simple and practical," he said.

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