According to Holyfield, Lennox Lewis will not see the end of the third round at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. A knockout blow within the first nine minutes of fighting will allow him to add Lewis's World Boxing Council belt to those he already owns from the World Boxing Association and the International Boxing Federation, making him, in the words of the promoter Don King, "the unmitigated, the unadulterated, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world" - the first such since Riddick Bowe in 1992.
This does not seem an especially rash claim. Predictions of that kind go back to the days of Cassius Clay, and probably far beyond. Yet Holyfield is more usually noted for being as economical with such rhetoric as he is with his cash, and his claim will add a bit of spice to the early rounds of a fight that might otherwise, if Lewis's familiar tactics prevail, take a while to come alive.
But by the normal standards of pre-fight hype, this is kindergarten stuff. Even Lewis had to work hard to become aroused by Holyfield's uncharacteristic rashness. "I do look upon it as an insult," he said in his usual mild, unemphatic way at yesterday's pre-fight press conference. "I think he'd better wake up and apologise. If he's saying something like that, he'd better try and live up to it. I fail to see who Evander's knocked out in three rounds yet in his whole career." Lewis had obviously overlooked Holyfield's third- round knock-out of James "Buster" Douglas to capture the undisputed title in 1990 from a man who had himself stopped Mike Tyson in 10 rounds earlier that year.
"It's quite amusing to me that he should pick the hardest competitor he's ever met against whom to make a prediction like that. When it comes to the third round, I'm going to be talking to him and saying, 'I'm still here.' Fourth round, 'I'm still here.' "
Resisting attempts to make him modify his forecast, Holyfield responded: "I've been in this game for so many years that I should have the confidence to say what I'm going to do. I thought about it. I thought, 'what would the people like? Would they like a surprise, or would they like me to foretell it?' I've always been a guy who's surprised people, ever since I got into boxing. I surprised people who never thought I'd beat Bowe, who never thought I'd beat Tyson, who never thought I'd be anything. So this time I decided not to surprise you. I said it, and people seem kinda upset, but I'm sticking with it. I'm not telling you to believe me. It's up to you whether you believe me now or believe me later. This is not predicting. This is truth."
The contest's build-up has been characterised by a relative absence of the noisy insults that generally identify a major heavyweight contest in the pay-per-view era. It is hard to share the belief of Emanuel Steward, Lewis's trainer, that Holyfield's chances have been damaged by his irritation at recent remarks in which Lewis pointed out the apparent discrepancy between his opponent's constant profession of his Christian beliefs and his fatherhood of several children out of wedlock. Sticks and stones might break Holyfield's bones, but it seems unlikely that the mere word "hypocrisy" will do serious harm to his prospects come Saturday night.
Lewis tried to press the charge home yesterday. "I heard Evander telling a television interviewer that to him a hypocrite was someone who was a quitter," he remarked, standing a few feet from his opponent, who was dressed in a long grey preacher's coat. "But I never said he's a hypoquit. I said he's a hypocrite." A nice try, but Don King's hold on the undisputed word-mangling title was not in peril. More typical of Lewis was his brief but none the less warm salute to his opponent's quality. "I think Evander Holyfield's a great competitor, a great warrior," he said. "He's won a lot of great fights out there. He's got a great heart, and he's shown true grit. But I don't think my heart should be questioned. I'm looking forward to it. This fight will show the world who the best heavyweight on the planet really is."
According to the ineffable Don King, this is a fight between "an irresistible force and an immovable object, and something's got to give. And it will give on Saturday night in the greatest fight in the history of boxing." It is not in recognition of his own part in the affair that the promoter has titled the fight "King's Crowning Glory". Oh no. "This is a fight between two kings with three kingdoms," he cackled yesterday. "This fight has superseded everything that has come in its wake." Indeed. King was delighted to announce a coup that, in his view, puts himself and his associates on the level of a diplomat such as Henry Kissinger. "In Bosnia," he said, "they will be having a moratorium, so to speak, on 13 March. They will not be killing each other on 13 March. They will be watching Holyfield and Lewis. Clinton and Yeltsin could take a leaf out of our book."
But in boxing terms this is indeed a contest to rank with the most significant of modern times, even if it will not ring down the centuries in the manner of the event chosen by King as an analogy, when "those 300 Spartanites held the bridge at Monopoly... er, Thermopylae." A sell-out Garden crowd of 19,000 will include 7,000 visitors from Britain, hoping to see one of their countrymen do what so many could not and take the undisputed title for the first time.
The 36-year-old Holyfield, whose record reads 33 victories and three defeats from 36 fights, with 25 knockouts, will take a minimum of $20m (pounds 12.4m) from the fight, the exact sum depending on revenues from pay-per-view television. Lewis, three years younger, with one defeat (to Oliver McCall) in 34 fights, and 27 knockouts, will be sent on his way, win or lose, with a purse of $10m.
American experts find it impossible to believe that a Brit can eclipse one of their own, but no one except Holyfield seems certain of the exact course the fight will take.
Much has been made of the return of the world's top heavyweights to what Lewis's manager, Frank Maloney, calls "the temple of boxing", but the significance of the location was at once recognised and downplayed by Lewis. "When I was young, growing up, I always said I wanted to box at Madison Square Garden," he said. "Then they stopped having fights here and took them out west to the casinos instead. I was really surprised when they brought it back and I was glad, because it was something I've always wanted to do and it's a great honour. But this weekend, when the fight does come about, I won't be thinking about where it's being held. All I'll be thinking about is Evander Holyfield and me in that 20-by-20 ring."