ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Let it be duly recorded that Larry Holmes does indeed still speak. And in full sentences, although not many of them. Finally emerging from weeks of secluded training and weighing in at an admirably trim 225 3/4 pounds for Friday's date with Mike Tyson, Holmes genially told the gathered assembly, "I'm here to fight. I'm here for business. Have a good day. I'll see you all {Friday} night," then, leaning over in Tyson's direction so there'd be no mistaking whom he was really addressing, "especially Mike Tyson."

Unabashed, Tyson pointed at Holmes and promised, "I'll be there."

"I hope so," Holmes wagged.

Curtain. End of Act I.

When we last saw Larry Holmes here in Atlantic City, in June, the week of the Michael Spinks-Gerry Cooney debate, he was lugging 255 pounds around the stage at the Sands in his cabaret singing debut. Holmes and Joe Frazier were billed in "The Battle of The Heavyweight Champs." Now, we knew Smokin' Joe had sung before, but Holmes was a complete surprise. "I never dreamed Larry could sing," former light heavyweight contender Bobby Cassidy remarked at the time. "I have trouble understanding him talking."

Holmes came out wearing a diamond necklace, a diamond bracelet, five diamond rings and a black suit with a tomato red shirt. Apparently he'd taken singing lessons at the Sammy Davis Jr. Vocal Academy and they'd thrown in a Sammy fashion starter set. Some thought Holmes' backup band failed him by not playing louder -- no matter what they did you could still hear him. On the other hand Holmes' effort was honest, and though his singing wasn't good, who'd have the guts to tell him?

One song I distinctly remember was called "Boxing Politics," an angry denunciation of the official judgment that Spinks had beaten Holmes 14 months previous. The refrain of the song went like this: "Everybody knows I beat Spinks/Everybody knows boxing stinks." Not exactly a subtle lyric, but if it's Cole Porter you want, your first stop probably wouldn't be the heavy bag. Anyway, my sense at the time was that Holmes was bitter about the way boxing had treated him, especially the Spinks judges, whom he vulgarly ridiculed after the fight, and the boxing press, whom he continuously and gratuitously berated for not according him "more respect," and that he was happy to be through with all of them.

So you can imagine my surprise at reading that Holmes was coming out of retirement to fight the young serial killer Tyson. Holmes hasn't fought at all in 21 months, hasn't won in almost three years and probably hasn't fought well since debriefing Cooney six years ago. Before the first Spinks fight, Holmes was 48-0, and intent on surpassing Rocky Marciano's 49-0 record and becoming, at least technically, the greatest heavyweight champion ever. Now he appears to be endangering not only his reputation, but his good health.

Holmes is 38, the same age Muhammad Ali was in 1980 when his comeback ended ignominiously as he sat on his stool at the start of the 11th round rather than endure any more pounding from Holmes. Tyson is 21. He was 6 when Holmes fought his first professional bout in 1973, 11 when Holmes first won the heavyweight title from Ken Norton in 1978, and 14 when Holmes drummed Ali in the fight this one most closely suggests.

No 38-year-old has ever won the heavyweight championship. One way of looking at 38, the most flattering way, is to say Holmes has experience. Another is to say he's old. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Holmes is actually a grandfather, and Thursday at the weigh-in, radiating conviviality in his red leatherette designer warmups and aviator glasses, he looked about as much like a professional boxer as George Bush.

Twenty-eight times a former heavyweight champion has attempted to win back his crown. Twenty-four of those challenges have failed, 16 times with the former champion carried out on his shield. With history obviously working against him, why would Holmes do this? Not for the money; he's flush. And why on earth would he fight Tyson? Why not go gently into that good night?

Because, as A.J. Liebling said long ago, fighters fight. Holmes is only doing what most of the greats before him have done -- scratching an itch by answering the questions on the forms that allow for the torch to be passed to the new generation: What's he got? And, what do I have left? Joe Louis returned to fight Marciano, Ali returned to fight Holmes. Now Holmes is back to fight the best and brightest of the youngsters who grew up in his shadow.

Some suspect that the impetus for Holmes attempting such an improbable comeback was Sugar Ray Leonard's spine-tingling victory over Marvin Hagler. And Leonard conceded, "My fight gave people some incentive, some hope, some reassurance that it can be done if approached properly." But Leonard believes Holmes is influenced by a more time-honored script. "The fighter's mentality doesn't like to accept that it's time to leave," Leonard said. "Unfortunately, a lot of times it's the case where someone retires you, someone gives you the final verdict: No more."

There are advantages Holmes brings into the ring. He's a more experienced, more patient, more skilled boxer than Tyson. He has 10 extra inches in reach to keep Tyson at bay, and 10 extra pounds to reinforce his intentions. But the thinking is that with his youth and his strength and his fury Tyson is the best bet in the casino, for as even the most novice gamblers soon learn, no matter how many times you spin the roulette wheel, it never comes up 38.