PORTLAND, Maine — Evander Holyfield, a five-time world heavyweight boxing champion, accepted a key to Maine’s largest city from Portland Mayor Michael Brennan on Friday.
Holyfield is visiting Portland as the special guest of the All Star Boxing Event to be held at the Portland Expo Center on Saturday night.
“We have different elections in Portland and often times things are disputed as a result of those elections, but what we have standing here is an undisputed champion of the world,” said Brennan when he gave the key to Holyfield during a news conference at the Portland Regency Hotel and Spa.
Brennan said that he’s only given out 10 keys to the city during his time as mayor, but that he felt giving one to Holyfield would deliver a special message.
“I really admire Evander, because often times people win things and people lose things, but he’s had the opportunity not only to be champ, but to regain that championship as well. That really shows a measure of perseverance and it really shows a commitment and a passion to a sport that I really think is important to have in the city of Portland,” said Brennan.
Holyfield said he was honored to be recognized, and that his commitment to the sport and his goals to become a world champion started at the age of 8. He also gave much of the credit for his success to the support his mother gave him.
Holyfield began boxing at the Boys Club in Atlanta, Georgia,where he immediately gained recognition and encouragement from his coaches. As he became more successful, his mother always urged him to to keep working, even when he was down.
“Any time things ain’t go my way, I wanted to quit, my momma would say, did you not tell me you were going to be the heavyweight champ of the world? Because if you quit, you’re not going to be it,” said Holyfield. “She kept me going, no matter what.”
That attitude is something Portland Boxing Club coach and promoter Bobby Russo has brought to the boxing ring in Portland. The bouts Saturday will be the 99th boxing event Russo’s been a part of in Portland, and he thinks that boxing in Portland is coming back strong.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Portland was “the busiest fight town in the world,” said Russo. “It’s faded out a bit and I think the reason that it faded was because there wasn’t a good grassroots program.”
Russo credits a short revival of Maine boxing in the 1990s to the international success of featherweight and lightweight champion Joey Gamache, a Lewiston native, but said the fans were focused only on him. Of eight bouts scheduled for Saturday night, five will feature amateur boxers from Portland Boxing Club.
“I think it [boxing in Portland] is as big as you can make it with who you have for locals. If you don’t have locals, you have nothing,” said Russo.
With a focus on local talent, Russo has put together some of the best boxers in Maine who have gone on to win a total of 182 championships combined, eight of which were national titles.
Portland had gone a number of years without a major bout until Russo put a show together last fall, and he believes he can put on a few a year and slowly build up a new audience.
“This is world-class stuff from a small town. I’m especially proud that it’s a small town. And it works better here because the audience is so connected to the boxers,” said Russo. “Plus, these are Maine guys … We’ve got the talent.”