Four-time world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield was ready to give up boxing when he was only 11. But he didn’t do it because his mother told him, “Never quit when you’re down. It’s an excuse.” Years later, when his mother battled joint pain, Evander convinced her not to quit moving and got her dancing again.

Evander’s first loss to a kid named Cecil Collins turned the then-undefeated pee-wee champ against the sport, but he was afraid to tell his mother that he wanted to quit.

“My momma never did like boxing, but she said, ‘You don’t quit because things don’t go your way,’” says Evander, 46. “I knew my momma wouldn’t let me quit, so I tried to quit quietly.”

When he came home from the match, instead of sitting down to dinner, Evander quickly showered and went to bed, hoping his mom wouldn’t notice. But mothers always notice. Besides, Annie Holyfield's youngest son had never, ever missed a meal.

After going up to his room and finding Evander in bed, Annie asked what was wrong. The boy considered lying, but he knew this all-knowing woman would eventually find out, and the wrath of an angry mom and a “delayed whooping” was one he certainly didn’t want to face. So he was honest. He told her he lost and wanted to quit and she simply said, “You gotta go back.”

Today, Evander fondly remembers the woman who he proudly says made him the man he has become. Telling story upon story, this massive, somewhat-foreboding man grins as he tells tales of being bathed in a tin tub in front of the fireplace and getting caught playing with matches by a well-meaning neighbor.

No Excuses

The youngest of nine children raised by his single mom in a poor neighborhood in southeast Atlanta, times weren’t easy for Evander growing up. Annie Holyfield worked 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. as a cook. Yes, it was hard work, “but my momma said, ‘Everything is hard work if you’re doing it right.’” She didn’t accept failure and she made sure her son finished everything he started.

“You never come to a true understanding to be the best you can be if quitting is an excuse,” he says. “Nobody chooses parents, neighborhood or skin color. You learn to appreciate what you have and what you come from. That’s how you become the best of what you can be.”

Evander remembers having a particularly difficult time with a job at an airport as a teenager. He came home one day, complaining to his mother that he was working harder than everyone else. She stopped him mid-sentence and told him that he was getting paid to work eight hours, so do it. “She knew I was trying to find a way to quit. My momma always took away all the excuses.”

Evander did the same thing for her years later when joint pain started causing her problems in her early sixties. “She said, ‘Son, my knees hurt. My back hurts. It hurts to move.’ And I said, Momma, you need to move around. You know how you used to dance? You just gotta move. You gotta start walking.”

Because Evander listened to his mother when he was growing up, she listened to him when the tables were turned. She agreed to start moving.