ATLANTA, Ga. - When Evander Holyfield first boxing professionally, someone asked how long he planned to trade punches. He thought 28 sounded like a reasonable age to hang up the gloves, so he went with that.
Of course, here he is now, more than a decade and a half beyond his retirement goal - still stepping into the ring, still striving to be the undisputed heavyweight champion before they count him out for good.
"I realized that 28 is not as old as I thought it was," Holyfield said with a chuckle during a phone interview from his Texas training base. "I fought George (Foreman) when I was 29 and George was 42. I kind of thought, 'Shoot, man, I'll definitely be gone by that time. That would be real old.' Well, now I'm 44, and I don't think it's old at all."
Indeed, Holyfield is getting ready to step in the ring again Saturday night in El Paso, Texas, to face another geriatric heavyweight, 41-year-old former contender Lou Savarese.
If the "Real Deal" passes the fourth test in his carefully scripted swan song, he hopes to land another title shot against one of the myriad champs in the muddled division. Within two years, in the World According to Evander, he'll have all the belts around his waist and surpass Foreman as the oldest heavyweight champ ever.
Then, and only then, will Holyfield walk away from the sport, content that he accomplished everything he set out to do in a career that will go down as one of the greatest in boxing history, no matter how the final chapter plays out.
"My momma always said, 'Son, some people may know more than you. Some people may be stronger than you at certain things. But when it comes down to working, it's up to you to let someone outwork you,'" Holyfield recalled. "That's something that always stuck with me. It's up to me to work hard. It's up to me to pay the price."
Plenty of people worry that Holyfield may be paying too high a price for what seems an improbable goal: reuniting all the heavyweight belts around his still-narrow waist, at an age when most boxers have long since retired. His outlook was especially grim during a six-fight stretch that produced only one win and prompted the state of New York to strip him of his license after a dismal 2004 loss to Larry Donald.
Holyfield seemed to another of those ex-champions who hung on far too long. It's still a lingering question as he approaches his 400th round as a pro - he's at 392 - and many of those were fought against bigger men.
Holyfield insists his health is fine, especially after a nearly two-year layoff helped him heal nagging shoulder problems and buy into a training philosophy more in keeping with a man his age. He's won three straight - albeit, not against the strongest competition - and is a fighter looking forward, not backward.
Still, he can't escape his past. Thursday marks the 10th anniversary of the infamous rematch with Mike Tyson, who was disqualified for biting off a chunk of Holyfield's right ear while the two were in a clinch.
Even after all these years, no one has forgotten that wild night in Las Vegas. While he was getting a pedicure Wednesday at a Texas salon, Holyfield regaled the workers with his recollections of the Tyson fight.
"I made $35 million that night," Holyfield recalled. "People ask me if I was mad. Why be mad. I wish he had bitten the other one for another $35 million."
Joking aside, he harbors no animosity toward Tyson for his reprehensible conduct in that fight, even though Holyfield is reminded of it every time he looks in the mirror and sees the jagged edge of his ear.
"I was still the champion. It's not like he took the belt away from me," Holyfield said. "And I left people with something to think about when I forgave him."
Holyfield hopes to leave the boxing world with a less-gruesome image than Bite Night. The heavyweight division does seem ripe for the picking, the title belts split among a group of obscure fighters from former Soviet republics.
This isn't like it was during Holyfield's prime, when he battled it out with an imposing list of titans such as Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe. These days, the belts are held by Wladimir Klitschko of the Ukraine (IBF), Ruslan Chagaev of Uzbekistan (WBA), Oleg Maskaev of Kazakhstan (WBC) and Sultan Ibragimov of Russia (WBO).
"These guys can't beat Evander Holyfield," said his trainer, Ronnie Shields. "No way in the world. Looking at these guys, he's got a chance against anybody."
Holyfield, the only four-time champion in heavyweight history, has been forced to acknowledge his age when training. He no longer can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Tuning up for the Savarese fight, he sparred 36 rounds in six weeks - on par with what a younger fighter might do in a week.
"I used to work out three times a day. Now I work out one time a day," Holyfield said. "The fact is, it takes my body longer to recover than it used to. I have to have everything down to a science, what I need and don't need. I can't take nothing extra."
Shields also has worked to change Holyfield's mind-set in the ring. He always fought with a warrior mentality, as if feeling that he needed to prove himself worthy against the usually bigger opponents. Now, his trainer said, he's content to do damage with his jab and use his legs to work from the outside.
"He fell into the hype that he was a warrior," Shields said. "Now he's realizing that he's got to forget this warrior thing and go be smarter. He's always going to be a warrior, just be a smart warrior."