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Boxing: Holyfield soldiers on but Lewis fears it's one battle too many

"The trouble with Muhammad Ali," Joe Frazier once said of his great adversary, "is that he does not know how to die." What he meant was that Ali's vanity was obliterating the vow he made earlier in his career to "go lie on a beach and forget all this mess" when his fighting days were done. But the lure of the limelight proved dangerously irresistible.

If Evander Holyfield knows the symptoms he is not admitting it. Ali had 10 fights too many. How many Holyfield has had remains in doubt. He has lost six of his last 13 yet, astonishingly, the ultimate ring war veteran is challenging again for a world heavyweight boxing title next weekend, at 44.

Moscow's Ice Palace will be the scene for a defence of unbeaten Russian Sultan Ibragimov's World Boxing Organisation title against the warrior known as the Real Deal, and there are many in boxing who feel this could be the fight too far for a former champion whose ego is even bigger than Ali's.

Among them is Lennox Lewis, a one-time foe who, unlike Holyfield, quit while he was ahead. "Evander's problem," he says, "is he misses the glory. I don't. I am sure he has people around him who are telling him he can still do it. You can always find yes men who tell you what you want to hear. They are getting paid – and you're the one who's getting damaged. Evander is an old fighter past his prime and taking serious chances with his health."

The New York Boxing Commission agree, banning him from boxing in the state because of the quality of recent performances. But Holyfield has managed to manoeuvre himself into contention in the first world heavyweight title fight to be held in Russia, an event backed by the government, with help from boxing's own czar, Don King.

It is eight years since Holyfield lost the title reunification bout against Lewis, and 10 since Mike Tyson infamously gnawed off part of his right ear in Las Vegas. Now, while Tyson seems to be headed back to jail after admitting drugs offences, Holyfield soldiers on, convincing himself he is on a crusade to eventually unify the title once more.

It has to be said that Holyfield is no washed-up bum fighting for a buck. He may have 11 children by seven different women to support but he provides generously for all, and is wealthy enough to reside in a mansion in Atlanta that Victoria Beckham would die for. "I'm not fighting for the money," he insists. "If someone gave me a billion dollars tomorrow I'd keep fighting. God has given me a goal."

Here is a man seriously deluded by ambition. Emanuel Steward, one of his former trainers, says: "I have never met anyone with an ego like his. It drives him on." His present trainer, Ronnie Shields, says telling Holyfield he shouldn't fight "is like telling Noah he's crazy to build an ark". There are disturbing portents of incipient brain damage – Holyfield already mumbles and his reflexes are suspiciously slow.

So what of the man he faces in Moscow? Ibragimov is one of the new breed of eastern bloc pros, a former Olympic silver medallist, a dozen years younger than Holyfield with 22 wins but only one of consequence when he won the WBO title against American Shannon Briggs. He does not carry a compelling punch but it is the volume of blows that Holyfield might suffer that causes concern.

In Holyfield's 23-year career spanning 52 fights, the four-time world champion has carved out a place for himself in boxing's Hall of Fame. His career has embraced epic battles against Tyson, Lewis, Larry Holmes, Riddick Bowe and his rival candidate for boxing's bus pass, George Foreman, whom he outpointed in 1991. If Holyfield somehow beats Ibragimov, he will become second to Foreman, who at nearly 46 was the oldest man to win a heavyweight title.

"God will help me win this fight," says Evander of his Holyfield war. He is receiving a fraction of the US$33 million he got when Tyson chewed his ear but now the fear is that Holyfield has bitten off more than he can chew.