BOXING: Lewis and Holyfield start the sparring

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LENNOX LEWIS and Evander Holyfield set the stage yesterday for their long-awaited heavyweight world title unification bout in New York with each champion vowing to triumph on 13 March.

"When you wait for a long time and you cry, you finally get what you want," Holyfield said. "On 13 March, Lewis cashes in. But I will be ready. I will be the undisputed champion. I will be wearing the belt."

The fight at Madison Square Garden will bring together the crowns of boxing's three major sanctioning bodies for the first time since Riddick Bowe dumped the World Boxing Council belt in a dustbin on 14 December 1992.

"I'll be ready," Lewis said. "I will be stepping out with all three belts and I'll be the undisputed world heavyweight champion."

Holyfield, who is 36 and holds the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation titles, has a career record of 36 wins and three losses with 25 knockouts. Lewis, the 33-year-old World Boxing Council champion, has a 34-1 record, which includes 27 knockouts.

Holyfield spent 19 months in 1991 and 1992 as the undisputed champion before losing to Bowe and that defeat began the fragmentation of the world title.

Despite beating Mike Tyson twice and scoring revenge victories over the only two men to conquer him in the ring, Holyfield needs to defeat Lewis if he is to lay a substantiable claim to a place among the undisputed legends of the sport, like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Tyson as the dominant fighter of his era.

"He's obsessed with having the title unified," Holyfield's trainer, Don Turner, said. "Finally it's going to happen. Holyfield is one of the most extraordinary boxers in history. You will see Holyfield at his very best."

For Lewis, too, the March contest finally provides him with the career- defining fight he has needed to legitimise his reign, as he is a champion who has never faced Tyson, Bowe or Foreman.

"I'm excited. I'm glad it's finally on. I'm sick of people coming up to me asking when it's going to happen," Lewis said. "I have waited for this for a long time. I'm glad Holyfield has finally said yes because of the pressure he has been under to have this fight.

"March 13 will be a special day, a hard day. I don't expect it to be easy. I'm fighting a man who shows true grit, a man with a lot of patience and determination. I think it's going to be a great fight."

Boxing has struggled for the past 18 months with Tyson banished and both Lewis and Holyfield fighting second-raters instead of each other. "It means a lot to the world and in one sense, boxing has been going down because the people they have not been getting the fights they have deserved to see and they have been one-sided ones," Lewis said.

Both fighters wore grey suits and neither looked nor spoke with each other during a promotional session at Madison Square Garden that lasted more than two hours, much of it spent listening to promoter Don King pile on the hyperbole.

King compared the fight to the 1971 Ali-Joe Frazier bout at the Garden, playing his circus ringmaster role to the hilt. The Garden reportedly is paying a live site fee of $8.5m (pounds 5.2m). Ticket prices will range from $1,500 to $100. No pay-per-view price has been announced, but it is expected to be $49.95 (pounds 30). One of the pay-per-view exhibitors, who keep half the pay-per-view revenue, will be Cablevision, which is available in 3 million homes.

The biggest pay-per-view sale for a fight was 1.99 million for the Holyfield- Tyson rematch carried by SET. Tyson has been involved in the four top pay-per-view bouts and seven of the top 10 fights.