Four men in search of the highest honour

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Boxing

KEN JONES

reports from Las Vegas

There is a simple way to describe each of two heavyweight contests that are taking place barely a mile apart at casinos in Las Vegas on Saturday and to be shown almost simultaneously live on American television by rival networks.

The one at Caesars Palace involving evenly matched opponents - the World Organisation champion, Riddick Bowe and the former undisputed title- holder, Evander Holyfield, who are meeting for the third time with honours even - is a real fight, exciting in prospect.

The counter-attraction at the MGM Grand, where Mike Tyson's comeback continues against Buster Mathis Jnr, is a public humiliation. Mathis is given so little chance that it would be appropriate if he showed up in a tumbrel and an executioner's block was placed in the ring. "Buster's got some good moves, but he's low on power and punch resistance," Eddie Futch, Bowe's famed trainer, said yesterday. "I'll be astonished if he lasts more than two or three rounds."

The dilemma for those of us who are obliged to stay in touch with both contests is that while Bowe and Holyfield are likely to provide superior entertainment, no risk can be taken with even the remotest possibility of another drama in Tyson's life.

Nobody imagines Mathis capable of causing a sensation, but as there are plenty of examples in boxing history to embarrass logical conclusions, and as Tyson's next opponent will be Frank Bruno for the World Council championship in Las Vegas on 16 March next year, there can be no argument over the respective importance of this week's events in the Nevada desert.

To make things more complicated, Bowe versus Holyfield is a pay-per-view fight put out at $35 (pounds 23) by Home Box Office, while Tyson versus Mathis is free as the result of a deal struck between Don King and Fox television.

If Fox stick to their schedule and Mathis is no more troublesome than his moderate record suggests, viewers will be able to watch both fights, but the advantage is unquestionably with Fox, who are predicting a conquest in the ratings.

A ludicrous situation is typical of affairs in the heavyweight division since Tyson, in renewed alliance with King, set out to regain the undisputed championship. Ignoring conveniently and completely the fact that Lennox Lewis defeated Lionel Butler in an official eliminator for the WBC championship title earlier this year, Tyson said yesterday: "Nobody deserved the title more than Bruno and I'm looking forward to challenging him. Bruno lost fights, but he never gave up. He didn't get discouraged. I like that. Although I didn't see the fight against Oliver McCall, it was incredible that he won. Something special. I don't know whether he's improved, but I'll be ready for him."

Bruno, whose purse of pounds 7.5m will be a record in British boxing, is unlikely to be encouraged by watching Tyson from ringside on Saturday. Certainly, there is no evidence to suggest that the man who stopped him violently in the fifth round almost six years ago is taking the short cuts that probably brought about a sensational loss of the title to James "Buster" Douglas in Tokyo.

Reaching for the soreness caused around his lower ribs by vicious body punching, one of Tyson's sparring partners, Tyrone Evans from Chicago who stands 6ft 7in, said: "I've been in with Bowe and Holyfield, but I've never come across anyone who hits so hard as Mike. You really earn your money in there."

Doubtless eager to banish the memory from his mind, Tyson never refers directly to incarceration. It is always "that place" or "my long lay-off". "Being out of boxing for such a long time means that I'm still looking for my old skills," he said.

"And it doesn't happen overnight. I feel more confident than I was before my first fight because I sense a lot of things are coming back. I'm more relaxed than I was against Peter McNeeley." When asked if an iced towel was wrapped around his right fist to relieve pain, Tyson shrugged. "It's nothing," he said.

In view of a reluctance to communicate publicly since his release from prison, Tyson's manner was surprising. "I still love boxing," he said, "the thrill it brings me, but I get tired of speaking about it."

It pleases him that Saturday's contest is on free television. "There are millions of people in the world who have never seen me fight, so that's really something. For the moment, I'm not thinking about Bowe or Holyfield or Lewis. All that matters is that I'm back from a long lay-off and can try and get better. It will be an ongoing process until I feel that I've reached a pinnacle. Every boxer deserves respect and nobody is bigger than the title."

The title or titles? "I've got nothing against sanctioning bodies," Tyson said, "because their titles provide fighters with status."

There is another way to look at the fragmentation of boxing authority, the power wielded indiscriminately by self-serving international bodies, and it is why Lewis's advisors will be back in the High Court tomorrow seeking to prevent Bruno from defending against Tyson. Some hope. Some sport.

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