Boxing: Bowe the great waist joins quest for suitably big belt

Haye waits in wings as giants of yesteryear cling on to hopes

As Riddick Bowe hauled his 41-year-old and near- 20-stone carcass around in Mannheim, Germany, last weekend, blowing like an old bull elephant to overcome a Christmas turkey named Gene Pukall, it was not a pretty sight. More a salutary reminder that the boxing ring is no country for old men.

Remember Riddick? He is the man who lost to Lennox Lewis in the Olympic super-heavyweight final in Seoul 20 years ago, then beat him to the punch by becoming a world champion before throwing his belt in the bin. Lewis duly picked it up to be installed as the new title-holder.

It is a complicated tale, but then Bowe is one of boxing's most complex characters. One of the sport's great wasted talents, he has been beaten only once in a 45-fight career which has embraced repeated retirements, a prison sentence and some apparent mental instability.

That defeat was inflicted by Evander Holyfield in one of their trilogy of contests. Last night the 46-year-old Holyfield was himself involved in another vainglorious attempt to win back a version of the world heavyweight title against the World Boxing Association champion, the seven-foot Russian Nikolai Valuev, in Zurich.

Why do they do it, these big men in their not-so-roaring forties? Why cannot old fighters, like old golfers, grow old graciously? They say old golfers never die, they just lose their balls; alas, old fighters are more likely to lose their marbles.

The reason they fight on or come back is usually cash, sometimes ego but invariably an unwillingness to accept the decline in their talents. They continue to chase a pot of gold. "Money makes the world go around," says Bowe. "Why knock a man when he is trying to do something right? I could easily go and get a gun and do something bad. I'm just trying to earn an honest dollar."

His second fight against Holyfield, in Las Vegas in 1993, was halted when a man parachuted into the Caesars Palace ring from out of the Nevada sky. When it restarted, Holyfield snatched a majority points decision.

"Big Daddy" Bowe's career was then pockmarked by controversy. He disappeared from the sport in 1996 after two brutal bouts with Andrew Golota, the Pole being disqualified in both for low blows – one fight caused a major riot at Madison Square Garden. Bowe joined the Marines but quit after only 11 days of basic training. In 2000, he was charged with kidnapping his wife and five children, and served 17 months in jail after his defence counsel appealed for a lenient sentence, claiming that he had suffered brain damagein the ring.

Bowe's fight in Germany last Saturday was only his third in 12 years, and his lumbering corpulence was an indication that whatever he may have lost, it wasn't his appetite. When he was champion he had a mansion built in Maryland in which the first-floor master bedroom had an en suite kitchen.

The trouble with these ageing monoliths is they never seem to know when they are past their fight-by date. That may be why Britain's David Haye is going for broke by taking on Vitali Klitschko rather than his less lethal brother Wladimir, whom Haye saw stopping another over-the-hill heavyweight, Hasim Rahman, in Mannheim.

Haye would have been an even-money bet to beat the defensively suspect Wladimir, as the Londoner has always punched above his weight, but the 6ft 8in Vitali will be odds-on to beat him. Haye, five inches shorter, will struggle to get inside a long, clunking jab that can take your head off. Not only has Klitschko the elder never been knocked out, he has never been knocked down or even wobbled.

Haye, 28, the self-proclaimed saviour of heavyweight boxing, says he is bringing in Lennox Lewis as his strategist, but Lewis had trouble working out Vitali and was behind on points on all three scorecards when the fight was stopped with the Ukrainian'seyebrow severely lacerated.

What Haye is banking on is the age factor. At 37, Vitali is five years older than Wladimir, and in boxing they say that every month of inactivity that passes after 30 adds six months to the fighting age. Vitali has fought once in the past four years, a nine-round demolition of a passive Samuel Peter two months ago. The fight is touted for either Wembley or Stamford Bridge next June but could well end up at the O2, which would be easier to sell out.

Haye believes Vitali decided to fight him because he wants to protect his fragile-chinned little brother from the Hayemaker's hammer blows. But it is a dangerous gamble for David. You have to respect his fortitude and ambition, but you fear he will not get within a stone's throw of this Goliath.