Living Up to the Holyfield Name

Up against the odds heading into the NFL draft, Georgia running back Elijah Holyfield is embracing the underdog role his father once made so famous.
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterBUCKHEAD, GeorgiaApril 17, 2019

He was there at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997, the night of his father's most famous—er, infamous—fight, one row behind Queen Latifah, inside the belly of his pregnant mother as she jumped and screamed and received Are you supposed to be here? glares.     

When Mike Tyson gnawed into the ear of his father, Evander, his mom shouted so loudly she thought she might go into labor right then and there.

But it wasn't concern or horror that made Tamie Pettaway shout. She didn't want to sprint into the ring to save Evander from the assault. To hell with sewing that ear back on. She wanted the fight to go on.

"I was like, 'He's ready! Let him go!'" Pettaway remembers. "He doesn't need that ear right now. He needs to fight right now!"

Because she had seen the look in Evander's eyes that night. The drive. She knew he would crush Tyson and was ticked he didn't get to finish the job.

And maybe part of that night has lived on in Elijah Holyfield, the baby who would be born five months later.

Pettaway saw the same look—this feverish desire to finish the job, no matter the circumstances—piercing in high school, when Elijah became a star running back, and in college, when he played for Georgia. Before one game against LSU, seeing Elijah get off the team bus, Mom had flashbacks to that night in '97.

"I saw the eye of the tiger. I saw in his mind. There's nobody out here I can't compete against. I can do this. I'm built for this. This is what I'm made of," Pettaway says. "I believe in my heart that this is what my son believes he's made to do. What he's built for. And that excites me every time I say it because I can see it.

"How can he be denied? He can't."

So never mind that Elijah didn't get to finish his own fight that night against LSU, receiving only seven carries in a loss. And never mind that the ATV-shaped, 5'10", 217-pound back who ran for 1,018 yards and seven touchdowns on 159 attempts last fall has had his name dragged through the mud for two months leading up to the NFL draft thanks to lackluster 40 times.

The underdog role is nothing new to a Holyfield.

"I think I'm the best back in the draft," says Elijah, soft-spoken and stoic. "I feel like my tape proves it, and I feel like I have a lot more that I can show.

"I don't feel like people have seen the full Elijah."

And when they do, he believes, they will see what everyone around him, including Evander, sees. That he inherited what made the champ great. That he's wired differently.

The 4.78 40 he ran at the combine and the 4.8 at his pro day were glacial for a running back.

He faces the same uphill climb Dad did when he was a 25-1 underdog the first time he beat Tyson and 2-1 before the bite fight.

He knows what an underdog can do.

What's the feeling behind that look? Evander can't explain. Elijah can only try.

"You can't get into that mode until it just happens," Elijah says. "It's kind of a feeling of being fearless. You're not worried about anything."

This fearlessness, he explains, is a gift inherited from Dad.

Elijah, the eighth of Evander's 11 children, grew up as part of a huge, "blended" family, as Tamie puts it. She has been married to Chris Pettaway for 20 years, and he had kids of his own before the marriage too. As a kid, Elijah learned as much as he could about Evander, watching clip after clip, fight after fight. No. 1 on his list is the first time Dad fought Tyson. He loves seeing Tyson walk to the ring in no robe, only a black cutoff sweatshirt, staring ahead, knowing full well his dad wasn't intimidated at all. Holyfield shocked the world with an 11th-round TKO.

Dad could see right through Tyson, Elijah says, and that's how you need to attack all obstacles.

"It's something in you," he adds.

Father and son don't talk about specific fights often, but son can relate to that fearlessness.

John Raoux/Associated Press

Whereas Evander played football as a kid before fully committing to boxing, Elijah boxed before fully committing to football when he was about 14 years old. It's no shock Elijah gravitated toward running back, where he could punch away at defenses like a boxer. That's his running style—he prefers to blast through you.

Says Elijah: "I always love those physical, tough runs, where I could go around, but I don't want to. Those are tone-setters. As somebody told me, 'It's like when you run the ball, [for] the whole team, it's an emotion-builder.'"

One specific game in high school put him on the map.

He knocks on the table, says, "I don't fumble," and explains how he always held on to the ball until coughing it up multiple times in the first half of a game as a junior at Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia. His team trailed 21-0. His coach told him, as Elijah remembers it, "F--k it! You're going to run every f--king play!" And, as Elijah remembers it, he then ran the ball 24 straight times. He never tapped his helmet to come out. No, he wanted more. From the stands, Mom screamed to the Woodward Academy coach, "You're killing my kid!" Chris calmed her down. He knew Elijah could take it.

Woodward lost the game 21-20 because of a blocked extra point. But Holyfield finished with 260 yards and two TDs on 38 carries. The more he touched the ball, the more he punished defenders, the better he became.

"I was in one of those zones where it was like, 'If I need to do it, I'll do it,'" he says. "It was one of those defining moments in my career: If you need me to do it, I'll do it."

Adds Mom, "Everybody in the stadium—even the other team—was giving him a standing ovation."

On the spot, people started to know Elijah Holyfield for more than his last name.

Not that that's the only thing he wants to be known for.

Holyfield doesn’t run from the shadow of his father. He welcomes it. But he also makes it clear he's his own man. He's a steak aficionado and says it has to be a ribeye cooked medium, no matter how much his well-done-favoring friends make fun of him for it. He’s a Netflix junkie and points to Spartacus as his favorite show ever. His favorite athlete isn't Dad or a football player but Kobe Bryant because of that rare "mindset" he represents.

And he knows the Holyfield name can, unfortunately, be a negative at times.

Like in youth sports. Mom remembers other parents instructing their kids to take out her eight-year-old son, just to brag. She didn't want the "Holyfield" name on the back of his jersey because there were times he wouldn't even have the ball and kids would blindside him.

Or when Dad's financial troubles became news. She remembers being in the checkout line at Walmart and trying to create conversation with Elijah so he wouldn't hear a loud nearby conversation about his dad losing $230 million.

Or at school. In eighth grade, three classmates attacked Elijah in the boys bathroom, cornering him. Rather than flee, he fought, standing his ground to preserve his reputation. He pummeled all three. The bad news? Even though this was self-defense, he was suspended. The good news? Nobody messed with him again.

That became a theme.

In high school, whenever opponents played dirty, he returned the favor. "I became a person you didn't want to mess with," he says. Nobody talked smack because they knew they'd pay. And when fans tried taunting Elijah with pictures of Tyson in the stands, he only laughed. Why would that scare him? Tyson never frightened his father. In fact, he loves the story of Evander randomly bumping into Tyson at a hotel months after the second fight.

Their rooms were next to each other in New York at the NBA All-Star Game.

Tyson exited his room. Holyfield exited his. And Holyfield simply said, "It's all good."

It's always been much better to be a Holyfield than not.

The name means nothing, Evander says. Nothing, unless you do something with it.

He wants all 11 kids to be better than he ever was. "Not like me," he says. "Better than me. That's the key to what true love is. Each generation's supposed to be better."

Maybe this is why Elijah never gets irritated by all the questions about Dad. Never tries to steer the conversation away from him. Because he knows the truth: What makes Evander great can also make him great. In the NFL.

"A lot of people try to make it like I should be upset or feel a certain way about my Dad," he says. "I'm like, Why would I ever be mad that my Dad [is] one of the greatest boxers of all time? I'd never be ashamed. It doesn't bother me that way.

"It's more of a...it gives me something to go at."

And a reason to never quit.

Forced to wait behind Sony Michel and Nick Chubb at Georgia, Holyfield was a non-factor for two years. Then, as a junior, he split work with D'Andre Swift. While other running backs would've bolted to another school, though, Holyfield stayed put. To him, it was simple. He felt he was always the best of the bunch.

He didn't back away from that fight in the bathroom and wouldn't back away from this.

"I've just never been that type of guy," he says. "I've just never been the type to give in. Sometimes, it hurts. Sometimes, it's not always the best thing. But I've always had this attitude that when I do something, I do it all the way. Either I'm in or I'm out.

"So I said to myself: 'Your dream was always to play at Georgia, and your dream is still in front of you. You don't want to go somewhere else.' ... Through my whole college experience, I became a whole lot more mentally tough. And I think it's helped me grow as a person."

Of course, it helps having a dad around who knows what it's like to be counted out.

Evander can point to precisely when he was counted out, when he was in the position Elijah was in early at Georgia and is again now: his first title fight, against Dwight Muhammad Qawi, in Atlanta. Evander was 23 years old, Qawi 33, and Evander still remembers Qawi sniping, "I can't believe they sent a baby to do a man's job." He let Qawi talk. He knew the truth would be told.

Joe Holloway, Jr./Associated Press

Evander won, and his career took off. To him, the reason is simple. He believed that if he didn't quit, ever, he'd be the best.

"I didn't quit," he says, his voice tough, weathered. "If I would've quit or got mad because things didn't go my way, then I would've never made it. This message—'Don't quit'—means that something is going to come up. Somebody's going to aggravate you. Something's going to happen that's going to make you want to quit. Some type of distraction is going to always be there. Things aren't always going to go your way."

So that's the message to Elijah now.

Evander didn't grow up with a dad, and his mom, Annie, didn't have much money. He remembers wanting to go to Six Flags, only for Mom to tell him, "You have to eat to live." Any idea that Elijah was fed with a silver spoon in his mouth is dead wrong. Evander stressed humility.

Meanwhile, with Evander busy boxing until 2011, Tamie and Chris raised Elijah. And in their house, he didn't get away with anything. He didn't do his homework? Didn't take the trash out? Mom would grab him by the jacket, smack him with a shoe—"shoes, punches, everything," Tamie says. Usually, the sound of her voice and disappointment in her face were enough.

For one full year before high school, Elijah did move in with Evander, who at the time was living in a 44,000-square foot mansion that is now occupied by rapper Rick Ross. On the surface, that would seem like a life of luxury and leisure, but in reality, Elijah would wake up at 5 a.m. each morning to work out with Evander and a trainer. And he loved it. The next year, Elijah attended a military school—after that three-on-one skirmish, Dad had a reason to send him—and continued to train. And train. He took weightlifting as his last period of class and always stayed to work out extra.

Elijah can't remember the last non-Sunday he didn't work out. He describes it as a "constant," in his head, that he can't quite explain.

Adds Mom: "His mindset is amazing. He's a competitor. Their work ethics are very similar. So knowing the type of person Evander is, it's the same thing with Elijah. I know who he is. I know what he's made of. I know what he's built of."

The result is that son is a spitting image of Dad.

In mindset and physique.

"He's always working out," Evander says. "And...you don't have to tell him to work out. This is what he wants to do. He's focused. He wants to be the very best."

So he cannot stop.

Elijah trains with John Lewis, the older brother of ex-NFL back Jamal Lewis. Has since childhood. Never late, Holyfield called one day in college to tell Lewis he'd "had a little incident" so was running late. The tire on his car had blown out. Minutes later, he pulled up in an Uber. He'd decided to deal with the tire later. It couldn't interfere with that day's intense cycling. "You can't teach that!" Lewis says.

Elijah also lifts weights with Buddy Primm, the Mickey Goldmill-like trainer whom Terrell Owens asked to stand up at his Hall of Fame induction. Primm was the miracle-worker behind T.O.'s physique, the one who put him in the Super Bowl seven weeks after the receiver had broken his leg and torn an ankle ligament. And Holyfield, Primm says, is just as tireless of a worker. "He has one gear: That's wide-open and straight ahead. He has that boxer mentality."

John Amis/Associated Press

To top it off, since the combine, Elijah has been training at David Buer Fitness. He must hold certain poses, he explains, be it a wall sit or an ab raise, to the point of literal collapse. The first day, you're asked to hold one for five minutes. Which is impossible. Which is the point. From there, he rips through three-minute poses at a time in sets of five, 10, 15, 20 and 25. The goal is to restructure the body by getting typically dormant muscles firing and to teach his body how to handle going all the way to the brink.

"It pushes my mind to places where I've never pushed my mind," Elijah says. "It definitely pushes you. The only time you stop is when your muscles stop. When you fall through the pose. When your muscles give out. Collapse. My mom said she wanted to come. They were like: 'Nah, you probably don't want to see him like this. It's intense, it's intense.'"

Perfect for a player who, as a kid, asked Mom for training with Lewis as his only Christmas present. A player who lives at full speed. If a team wants him at anything less than that for a practice, Lewis says, that team had better hand him a note that says "No tackling." That's when you will see the player who seemed so out of his element at the combine and his pro day.

Holyfield lives for contact and competition, and no, a few sprints in shorts don't quite show what makes him special.

Son is an underdog. There's no disputing that.

Heading into the draft, which begins April 25, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has Holyfield ranked as the 11th-best back and 132nd-best overall prospect. The 40 time is a red flag. Elijah's camp didn't agree with the media times on site at the pro day, but one AFC scout assures that Elijah did, indeed, run in the 4.8s. Lineman territory. A reason to forget the name entirely. Teams simply aren't in a mad rush to add a slow back—let alone a slow back who spent most of his collegiate career buried on a depth chart.

Evander rants about the 40. If someone were trying to tackle his son out there, he says, nobody would catch him. It's a contact sport. Not track.

Lewis agrees. He imitates how Elijah ran the 40, his legs extending at exaggerated 45-degree angles, like he was looking for someone to hit while he ran. That's his nature. That's a strength.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Elijah brushes this all off as just another obstacle to overcome. "I've never had anything come easy to me," he says. "Everything I've done in my life is what I've worked for."

That's why he's confident he will thrive in the NFL. He believes he gets better as the game grinds on, as opponents start running on empty. And he plans on being an all-around back anyway, like his favorite, LaDainian Tomlinson. That last season in Athens, Elijah knew he needed to improve as a receiver, so he started catching 100-plus balls every day after practice. And during practice—whenever there was a lull—he'd have someone throw him 10, 20, 30 balls. In all, he estimates he caught 500 balls a day. Georgia never showcased him as a receiver, but the talent's there, as NFL scouts also saw at his pro day.

And nobody, Elijah assures with a cold stare, will ever outwork him. He plans on obsessing over his craft, like Kobe.

Adds Lewis: "If you have a guy who runs a 4.3, fits all the criteria, but is the kind of cat who will shut down, who's not going to give you all his effort, who doesn't really practice hard...we'll see how long he lasts. You'll either want to cut him, or you'll be mad you gave him all that money.

"But if you get a guy with a mentality, heart and the willingness to say, I am a football player, that's the difference. He doesn't want any hand-me-outs. He wants to earn it.

"He's going to earn it at that next level. Because now? You're saying I'm slow. You're saying I'm this. I know him. He's mad right now."

Evander knows the feeling. For him, any time things got tough, any time he was doubted, "Woo-hoo!" he shouts. That's what got him going. He'd never shout into a mic like other boxers, never talk trash to intimidate. He quietly ramped up the work behind the scenes. So Dad knows what's going through his son's mind right now.

The same thoughts Evander had before taking down Tyson.

"He wants it," Dad says. "He has something to prove."


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.