Tyson's Vegas sideshow

Heavyweight game: Former champions cash in while a fall-guy picks up the pieces and domestic glory visits the seaside: Harry Mullan says that the main event on Saturday will be the Bowe v Holyfield rematch
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The Independent Online
ONE of the least enjoyable aspects of covering a big fight in a Las Vegas casino is getting out of the place afterwards: you have to inch and shuffle your way through wall-to-wall celebrity spotters, pickpockets and lowlifes. Last time I did it, after Mike Tyson's 89-second encounter with Peter McNeeley, it took me 40 minutes to reach the door. It was one of those occasions when I would gladly have traded my future happiness for just three minutes with a flame-thrower. That night I was motivated by nothing more than an acute need for a quiet restaurant and a bottle of red, but the homicidal rage which will descend on the hacks who must battle through the crush at the MGM Grand on Saturday night when Tyson returns for his next fight, against Buster Mathis Jnr, will be inspired by purer and more professional considerations.

Just over an hour after Tyson disposes of Mathis, Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield will renew their classic rivalry at Caesars Palace, a 20-minute jog down the road. Traffic does not move on the Strip on an ordinary Saturday night, never mind a show-stopper like this week's, so cabs are out of the question. Instead, the tourists and fight fans can enjoy the unusual spectacle of some of the game's biggest bylines wheezing their perspiring way down Las Vegas Boulevard, clearing their path with a swinging laptop. As an illustration of the craziness of modern heavyweight boxing, it will serve. What other sport would schedule - or permit - two such big events for the same evening in the same town just to satisfy the egos and the jealousies of rival promoters and TV companies?

But given that boxing does not even have an agreed heavyweight champion, common sense in other areas is too much to expect. George Foreman, the last linear title- holder, has been stripped of or relinquished every version of the championship except that of the World Boxing Union, an organisation run from a village in Norfolk. He talks of fighting again, but his marketability was severely dented by his poor showing in his last fight,when he was awarded one of those peculiar Las Vegas decisions over the German trier Axel Schultz.

He gave up the IBF title rather than face Schultz in a rematch, so Schultz will now contest the vacancy with the equally obscure South African Frans Botha. They probably care passionately in Germany about the outcome, but I doubt if the Vegas sports books will even quote odds. The position with the WBO belt is even more absurd. Bowe won it from Britain's Herbie Hide in March, but when Holyfield announced that he did not want to fight for a WBO title, Bowe obligingly relinquished it. Now he has apparently had second thoughts and asked for his belt back, although the fight at Caesars will be billed merely as a "special attraction" rather than a championship.

Assuming Tyson defeats Mathis, he will face Bruce Seldon for the WBA title in March, while Frank Bruno can be expected to produce more fancy footwork than was ever seen in Riverdance as he tries to protect his place in the Tyson queue rather than risk the WBC championship against Lennox Lewis. In Thailand this week the WBC will rule on the merits of their own written assurance to Lewis that he would get first crack at the title after his conqueror, Oliver McCall, had been permitted to make two defences; with Don King and Frank Warren in Bruno's corner, Lewis should not hold his breath.

His best hope is probably the slim one that Mathis can live up to his own brave words and shock Tyson. The US champion is several grades above the hapless McNeeley, and has a presentable record of 20-0 with one no- contest, which occurred when Riddick Bowe whacked him on the floor but was spared the ignominy of a disqualification defeat. Bowe was winning easily at the time, and the conclusion is inescapable that what he could do, Tyson can emulate. But Mathis talks a good fight. "Tyson is an ordinary fighter," he insists. "He threw so many wild punches against McNeeley. He can get away with that if the other guy allows himself to be intimidated, but he can't intimidate me.

"This is 1995. I'm not fighting the Mike Tyson of 1986-87. That guy was scary. He'd look at opponents and they'd be beaten before the opening bell, but if he thinks he can get me with that '86 stare-down routine, he's got another thing coming. I won't go weak at the knees if he acts all bad.'' Sounds good - but then the ever-quotable McNeeley was ahead on points too until the first bell rang.

Bowe v Holyfield III needs no such hot air to sell it. After sharing a ring for 24 of the fiercest rounds in modern heavyweight history, they have no secrets from each other, or from the public. Theirs is in the great tradition of epic series such as Dempsey v Tunney, Louis v Schmeling or (the closest comparison) Ali v Frazier. They bring out the very best in each other in a rivalry marked by the deepest mutual respect and regard. Bowe won their first meeting in 1992, the 10th round of which is seared into the memory, and Holyfield got the verdict in the rematch a year later on a night made even more memorable by the unscheduled arrival in the ring of a nutty paraglider.

Holyfield's defeat by Michael Moorer, and his subsequent short-lived retirement because of a heart condition, has delayed this decider. At 33, Holyfield is probably past his prime, but the pair are so well-matched that they are simply incapable of having a bad fight. The boxing trade acknowledges that Caesars hosts the real fight on Saturday night. A poll of "insiders" by Ring magazine saw Bowe take 74 per cent of the votes as the world's best heavyweight, with Tyson at 21 per cent and the rest nowhere. On a straight head-to-head basis, 67 per cent picked Bowe to beat Tyson. Even in the muddied waters of heavyweight boxing, quality shines through, and Saturday's results should confirm those opinions.