He was in the final stages of preparation for his rematch with Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas tomorrow night, a contest intended to produce an undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. And the one thing that the two fighters agreed on during this week's pre-fight publicity blitz was that sport itself is in serious danger of ending the century on the canvas. As the hour draws near, Holyfield-Lewis II has come to seem less of a mere title decider than boxing's last best hope for redemption.
As Holyfield implied, prizefighting has never been without its shadows. But this year has been spent in a gathering gloom, starting with the attempt by Mike Tyson to break Axel Schulz's arm in a clinch last January and running all the way through to the ludicrous finish of Tyson's most recent encounter, when he was disqualified for hitting Orlin Norris after the bell ended the first round. In between came the fiasco of the first Holyfield- Lewis fight, in March, when a poor contest ended in a controversial draw. That was followed by the much anticipated but similarly disappointing world welterweight championship fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, when De La Hoya tried to win the fight in reverse gear. And then, last month, came Naseem Hamed's unseemly display of body-slamming against Cesar Soto in a fight more suited to a WWF bill.
When they pay their money, boxing fans know that they lay themselves open to the risk of sudden and sometimes mystifying disappointment. Such sensations go back to Sonny Liston quitting on his stool against Cassius Clay, and beyond. By the nature of the sport, nothing can be guaranteed. But this year's procession of embarrassments resembles a systematic cheating of the public, and the public has begun to show its resentment.
"This year's fights have left the fans in a very bad state of mind," Emanuel Steward, Lewis's highly respected trainer, said yesterday. "They have a lot of questions. Right now they're on the brink of deserting boxing, and I understand it."
The fans would not have been reassured by the last week's news of the criminal indictments naming the IBF president, Bob Lee, and three other officials, who are accused by the US Attorney and the FBI of taking bribes to rig the rankings in order to produce the match-ups desired by certain top promoters over a 13-year period. This week a New York State Senate committee recommended the creation of a national body to regulate the sport and prevent it, in the words of its chairman, Senator Roy Goodman, from "degenerating into a meaningless and violent show". Simultaneously the Attorney General of Nevada, Frankie Sue Del Papa, announced that her office will be working with the state's Athletic Commission, the sanctioning body for tomorrow's fight, on an investigation into the way the sport is organised.
"I can't say what it is that's wrong," Holyfield said in his last pre- fight interview, knowing that the Miami offices of his promoter, Don King, had been searched as part of the FBI investigation. "It involves a lot of different components. People should come together and decide what's best for the sport. The boxers, the TV people, the managers, the promoters, the writers. It needs a collective effort to make it a better sport for everybody, including the fans."
In Lennox Lewis's view, the unification of the three championships - Holyfield's World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation belts and his own World Boxing Council title - would be a first step, providing a single figurehead behind which the sport could regroup and reunite. "Each of the governing bodies has its own agenda," he said. "The sport needs to be cleaned up so that it's not as dodgy as it is now. My hope is to be a good ambassador for boxing." But a good ambassador would not produce, by himself, the sort of root-and-branch reform that boxing needs.
Nor will one great fight be enough to refurbish boxing's image. "But at least it would give a little hope," Manny Steward said. "Between the bad decision over the Lewis fight, and the De La Hoya-Trinidad fight not being a damn thing but a foot race, and then to come back with Tyson, people feel they've been wasting their money. So this fight really could help push them one way or another."
Steward has been involved in boxing since 1953, when he won his first fight as an eight-year-old schoolboy in West Virginia. Ten years later he was the Golden Gloves bantamweight champion of the United States, and his career as a trainer has included significant spells with Thomas Hearns and Evander Holyfield. I asked him to imagine that he had been made world boxing commissioner, with unlimited powers over the sport, and to list the first three steps he would take.
"First," he replied, without missing a beat, "I would inform the authorities when fighters don't fight to their best ability and give a full 12 rounds. They should be penalised and their purses should be held up, such as - I hate to say it - with the Tyson fight. And also De La Hoya and Trinidad. When De La Hoya elects to run for three rounds, that is committing fraud. You're supposed to be prepared to go the entire 12 rounds for the public."
Second, he said, he would improve the method of selecting judges. "At the moment they're chosen by the promoter, almost. So when the promoter is in effect the employer of the judges, normally they try to be favourable to any fighters he's involved with. It's an unspoken word that they get more assignments. It's like a soccer game in England. If you're playing against Ireland, you don't say well, since the promoter's the owner of Wembley Stadium, he's going to pick the officials. They should be selected by a random system where maybe you notify 12 to be on standby and then pick three of them, but you will not know which until within the last three days. And after each fight where you have a result that is vastly out of proportion, they should be critiqued and go before a panel of judges and they should be suspended, possibly. At the moment it's just put down as, `Oh well, that was a bad decision, let's forget it' - and the next week they get rewarded because a lot of times that particular promoter, whom they favoured, is going to be hiring them back again."
Steward's third step would be to improve the standard of fights by ensuring that boxers are trained more effectively. "A lot of them are not prepared properly. I would have a system where you ran a periodic check to see what condition they were in and how they're training. The rest of it - the promoters and the managers - is going to take care of itself, but there are very few of what I would call teachers."
All Steward's recommendations are to do with what happens inside the ring. But most outsiders would share the New York State Senate investigating committee's view that the priority is to eliminate the notorious "alphabet soup" created by the existence of the WBA, the WBC, the IBF and the various lesser international bodies, whose main interest is in a money-making proliferation of largely spurious titles.
"It's not going to happen," Steward said, with a rueful shake of the head. "That's only being realistic. I think the best you can do is try to regulate it and keep it to maybe no more than three organisations. And there should be a certain period of time after which champions are forced to fight against each other, so that you automatically get some kind of unification. It shouldn't be a situation where the top guys just don't fight each other if they don't want to."
Meanwhile, the sport's image needs Holyfield and Lewis to produce a contest worthy of inclusion in the all-time highlights reel. When Marc Ratner, the serious-minded head of the Nevada Athletic Commission, called it "a pivotal fight for boxing as we head into the new millennium" at Wednesday's press conference, he was not merely indulging in the usual hyperbole.
Both fighters are clearly aware of their wider responsibility, and have the capacity to produce the goods. But if they find, when they are alone together in the ring, that self-interest once more overcomes the urge to create a spectacle, then the arena's cleaning staff can sweep up what remains of the sport's integrity and throw it out along with the rest of the trash.