King's tricks fire Holyfield's world of illusion

Former world heavyweight champion can win title for fourth time by dispatching Ruiz and will then seek big-money fight with Tyson in Las Vegas
Click to follow

Perhaps only Don King would attempt to make a scuffle over scraps from another man's table, in this case Lennox Lewis's, worthy of a version of the Gettysburg Address. Predictably, the language was somewhat less structured than Abe Lincoln's but the sentiment soared.

Perhaps only Don King would attempt to make a scuffle over scraps from another man's table, in this case Lennox Lewis's, worthy of a version of the Gettysburg Address. Predictably, the language was somewhat less structured than Abe Lincoln's but the sentiment soared.

No, he bellowed, Evander Holyfield's latest attempt at re-incarnation in the Paris Casino Hotel showroom here tonight, when he fights John Ruiz for the World Boxing Association title taken from Lewis in a New York courtroom, is not an affront to any lingering idea that professional boxing has the capacity to save itself.

"What we have here," King asserted, "is heavyweight boxing moving into a new dimension. The heavyweight division is better than ever before because we are upholding the rule of law."

Audacity and surrealism have long been King's stock in trade, but rarely has he given such a breath-taking display of selective morality. King, as always, seems to find adrenalin in the shadow of the noose. But then it is also true that the shadow has been receding a little more each day the jury at the trial of International Boxing Federation chief, Bob Lee, in Newark, New Jersey, has remained deadlocked. It is nearly two weeks now, and the longer the delay in returning a verdict the more it seems that King's empire will remain secure against all intervention, including the new Muhammad Ali Act, which is now written into American law and designed expressly to counter the manipulation of fighters by promoters.

The widely held belief is that the prosecution of Lee was aimed primarily at ensnaring King, that the ailing Lee would, if convicted, make a deal before sentencing and bring down the man who has been seen for so long as boxing's ultimate manipulator, a suspicion scarcely weakened by the willingness of so many of his rivals, including Bob Arum, Cedric Kushioner and Dino Duva, to admit bribing IBF officials in return for indemnity against prosecution.

"How can this happen?" asks King, who has twice beaten off Federal prosecutions, for tax evasion and insurance fraud, and will now watch with interest the disciplinary hearing of the Nevada Athletic Commission next week when they consider Arum's confession that he paid a $100,000 (£67,000) bribe to the IBF. "I'm looking forward to working in a healthier game," says King, straight-faced and unblinking.

Arum, the word is, will probably suffer no worse fate at the hands of the commission than a slapped wrist and a cosmetic fine. Meanwhile, the chances are that King will be reinforced yet again by possession of a share of the world heavyweight title which last November seemed to have been finally beaten out of his grasp by Lennox Lewis.

It is a twist of events that could, you have to believe, have been fashioned only by King. "I don't go where the wild goose goes ," he says, "I go where the money goes," and if Holyfield does make a kind of history tonight by beating the 28-year-old and extremely limited Ruiz, as he should somewhere around the fifth round, King will be taking another golden flight to one of the richest fights in history. Despite his collapsed relationship with Mike Tyson, King will make immediate steps to stage Holyfield-Tyson III, which he says would be bigger than a second Lewis-Holyfield rematch because "it is a fight which comes out of the streets, out of the blood. The whole world will want to see this fight because Tyson is such a violent, unpredictable individual, and if Holyfield beats Ruiz of course it will be for a world title."

For Tyson the lure of huge money, perhaps more than $30m, would surely work powerfully against any distaste at the idea of working again with a man he is currently accusing in a civil action of robbing him of no less than $100m. Heavily in debt to Showtime television, some estimates have it at as much as $15m, Tyson has a compelling incentive to be led by the hand of King yet again. It is known that King and Tyson's new manager, Shelley Finkel, haverecently been in regular communication.

Holyfield is keen on the idea. He says: "When I beat Ruiz - there is no if about it, brother - Tyson will be the first fight if it can be put on. I talked to Don King about putting pressure on Lewis, and we agreed that we needed to line up the ducks and shoot them down. Tyson would be the first duck. Of course Tyson is dangerous. If he senses a weakness he springs like a cobra, but I know, and he knows, I can always take him. I'll do it on the way to Lewis, who is my most important goal now. It is important for me to win the belt against Ruiz, but being undisputed champion again, being able to have that when I walk away, is the thing which is driving me on. Muhammad Ali set the standard when he won a heavyweight belt for a third time and now I have the chance to enter another dimension by winning the title for a fourth time. But when you look at boxing history, who was the champion? It was Rocky Marciano. He retired undisputed champion of the world with no contenders around. That's what I want - and I'll get it if even it takes me to the age of 50."

Such is the revived zeal of a man whose spirit so recently seemed to have been mauled to the point of extinction by Lewis. The danger, of course, is that he is entering, a few months before his 38th birthday, that world of illusion which persuaded Joe Frazier to announce to him nine years ago: "I could whup you now." Holyfield recalls: "Joe said that to me before I fought George Foreman. Afterwards he came to me and said: 'Maybe not'."

If anyone is saying "maybe not," to him now, Holyfield is not listening, a decision which makes more sense today when he faces Ruiz than it would if Lewis does happen to reappear at the opposite corner of a ring. "I don't disrespect Ruiz," says Holyfield, "I don't disrespect anyone who has the courage to enter a ring, but I know what I can do, and I know that the duration of the fight depends on how many mistakes he makes, and how quickly. If he is careful, the fight may go some distance, but if he makes a mistake early he goes early. It's as simple as that."

Nothing in Ruiz's record suggests that Holyfield is in the grip of hubris, at least for the moment. "The Quiet Man" of Puerto Rican blood, who has lived his life in one of the tougher corners of Massachusetts, has a record of 39-3 with 27 knock-outs, but the merest glance at the list of his opponents tells you that hisNo 1 ranking with the WBA flatlycontradicts King's vision of a purified ring.

Ruiz's most celebrated victim is Tony Tucker, a fighter of some distinction before a descent into drugs which made him something of a burned-out case a good 10 years before he stepped in with Ruiz two years ago - at the age of 39. The most serious examination of Ruiz came four years ago in Atlantic City when he faced Lewis's next opponent, David Tua. It lasted 19 seconds and it was, says Ruiz, something more than a defeat. "These things happen in the ring," he says, "and I try to explain it to myself every day of my life.

"It burns away in the back of my mind, and this week everybody has been asking me about it. But it is not as if they are reminding me of something bad. It is always with me. That's why the most important thing for me is not just beating Holyfield, but getting to face Tua again in the ring."

The prospect clearly leaves the hard-punching South Sea islander distinctly unfazed. He recently had a new car stolen when he went to pay for some petrol. "The thief did that quicker than I beat John Ruiz," he said. Asked about his victim's fighting style, he quipped: "I met him but I didn't get to know him."

Ruiz bears such ridicule with much stoicism. "You have to live with something like the Tua thing, and you must not let it break you," he says. "The thing I focus on is that I have won all my fights since then, the last six by knock-out, and while I respect Evander Holyfield I know that I can take him now. He has been great but everything passes. I'll earn a million dollars from this fight, which makes my family's life secure, but deep down I want it more for my pride. I know that I too can make history, become the first Latino heavyweight champion."

That honour most narrowly eluded Oscar Bonavena when he went 15 hard rounds with Joe Frazier and, rather earlier in the century, in 1922, Jack Demspey required the help of reporters at ringside to get back, illegally into the action against Angel Firpo, the "Wild Bull of the Pampas".

Dempsey-Firpo was a fight which most of America, including the baseball icon Babe Ruth, wanted to see. The clamour for Holyfield-Ruiz is not so pressing. But then it is not without intrigue. It could never be that, not with Holyfield spinning another dream, and King another tale. The promoter is calling the fight Justice Delayed but not Denied. His idea of justice, that is. Rather miraculously, it continues to survive.