ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- One of them is a vicious 21-year-old annihilator with a 32-fight winning streak, who says, "I am the best fighter in the world." The other is a well-remembered, one-time champ and classic pugilist, now 38 and in uncertain condition, who talks of the need for somebody to teach the young champion how to fight.
This is Mike Tyson versus Larry Holmes Friday night in Atlantic City's Convention Hall for 12 rounds or less, with the emphasis on less. Las Vegas odds are saying Holmes' chances of winning this one are 7 1/2 to 1 against, numbers known as forbidding, and a euphemism for saying "Good luck, Larry" in the most hopeless sense.
This is all premised on the basic belief that Holmes is too old, perhaps too fat and too slow, hasn't thrown a punch in anger in 21 months and is attempting his comeback against the prize ring's most ferocious slugger since Joe Frazier, or even Jack Dempsey. Because Holmes chose to train in private the last several weeks, there is no fix on his condition.
There is also the suspicion that Holmes, who is talking of vindication since losing his title to Michael Spinks, and says he has a need for regaining his pride and dignity, was also highly motivated by a guaranteed $3.1 million payday. Some believe that is the carrot that brought him out of retirement. Tyson's guarantee is $5 million.
The title they are fighting for is what young Tyson and his sponsor, Home Box Office, say is his "undisputed world heavyweight championship." A truth is that it is much disputed by those who do not choose to gloss over the fact that Holmes, after reigning as the undisputed champ for seven years, lost his title to Spinks, not to Mike Tyson, who has yet to fight or lick Spinks. If, as Holmes says, he wants his title back, it has been suggested he should be fighting Spinks, not Tyson. But for Holmes that becomes murky logic when a $3.1 million payday is involved.
In Atlantic City, all of the types have gathered for the contest in 16,000-seat Convention Hall that is a sellout at $500 tops. Present are the hangers-on looking to cadge a ticket, the peacocks who will flourish their furs and finery for the prefight parade to their seats, and the inevitable old fighters and fight managers given to talking in the Dick Marsillo idiom. It was old fight manager Marsillo who is remembered for interrupting one conversation by saying, "Let's reminiscent about tomorrow night's fight."
Sugar Ray Leonard, here as a TV commentator and a comeback maven himself, is saying "Holmes has a chance," because against Tyson he will not need to call so much on his legs, which failed him in the Spinks fights. Archie Moore, the old light heavy champ, has even stronger opinion on the fight. He says, "Holmes too can punch, and he knows too much for Tyson." This pleases the promoters, whose creed is: They also serve who pick the underdogs.
The most fearless prediction, however, is being made by the most respected analyst, Larry Merchant. He suggests that Holmes is being led to the slaughter and describes the fight as nothing more than "a ritualistic sacrifice." Inasmuch as Merchant is HBO's top authority and ringside commentator, such comment smacks of bravery.
The fight is headquartered at the Trump Plaza Hotel and is a Donald J. Trump production, and don't you forget it. The Donald J. Trump biography is on sale here, along with a press release that describes him as "a man who continues to dominate the media." In it he also taunts Las Vegas with the statement, "Like a former champion pinned against the ropes, Las Vegas has been staggered by the sudden emergence of world championships at Trump Plaza and Casino." So there.
In his prefight statements, Holmes has imputed that Tyson is unlettered in the boxing arts and has no left hand and two left feet. He has abstained from comment on Tyson's punching power that has stopped 28 of 32 opponents. Holmes supporters are saying legwork against Tyson will not be as necessary Friday night because Tyson will always be in front of him, which, however, is not necessarily a blessing.
Holmes will have a 10-inch reach advantage, but what used to be his good jab now has all his years as a passenger. And there are other factors, like his long layoff, that suggests Holmes may be overripe for Friday night's task.
At today's weigh-in, Holmes was announced at 225 3/4, a decent number inasmuch as he was 223 for his last Spinks fight. However, he did appear reluctant to take off his T-shirt before mounting the scales. How many of those pounds may be flab may determine the course of the fight.
Tyson weighed in at 215 3/4. And the fight will have a Mutt-and-Jeff aspect with Holmes at 6 feet 3 and Tyson 5-11 1/2, which may not be in Holmes' favor. It is not easy to punch down, which means a sacrifice of some power.
The worst case scenario would be steeped in irony. It was less than eight years ago that another old champ essayed a comeback and was brutally punished by Larry Holmes until the referee stopped it as a mercy act. Like Holmes this week, Muhammad Ali was also making the try at the age of 38.
So, this is the prognosis for what could be in store for Holmes Friday night. Always alert, however, that Holmes used to be a knocker-out himself, and also to a boxing truth that one punch could turn the whole thing around.