At 9 p.m., midnight back in his home town of Atlanta, Evander Holyfield began his last full training session for his heavyweight title unification fight Saturday night with Lennox Lewis. The time was both odd, and sensible; boxers rarely work this late, yet at this late hour of his career Holyfield decided to conduct the bulk of his training at fight time so that he would be "awake and ready."

Taped religious music filled the room. "The spirit of the Lord . . . " The old warrior felt the sounds, keeping time as he bobbed his head and dipped his shoulders. Then he turned to face music in another form, a huge sparring partner across the ring who stood 6 feet 6 and weighed 250 pounds.

At 37, Holyfield looked old enough to be the father of James Gaines of Knoxville, Tenn. Gaines is a replica of Lennox Lewis, who believes he can dispatch Holyfield into retirement. Lewis is a 9-5 favorite Saturday night, less a tribute to his skills than to the belief that Holyfield looked too old, too slow in their controversial draw in March.

In his dreams, Holyfield unleashes a siege on Lewis as he did for two rounds against Gaines. Holyfield stepped forward into close quarters, which Lewis denied him with a long, effective jab; Gaines lacked a jab. Holyfield dug lefts to Gaines's body, softening him up and setting him up; Holyfield could not reach Lewis's body. Midway in the second round, Holyfield popped a right-hand lead onto Gaines's nose, a surprise for the neophyte that backed him to the ropes. Lewis never was surprised, almost always stepping back in advance to avoid Holyfield's right hands.

"People will see a better Evander than they have ever seen in my whole boxing career," said Holyfield, sitting and talking afterward.

The words were so definitive that his audience, writers from across the country, from Britain to Asia, fell silent momentarily.

"Y'all heard that," cried out Don King, the fight's promoter, who'd heard words he could sell.

But was Holyfield merely exhilarated by the end of training? Was he making another prediction that he couldn't back up, like his forecast of a third-round knockout of Lewis in March? Or had Holyfield really settled into the kind of serene confidence that he did before knocking out Michael Moorer two years ago? Did Holyfield actually not feel as old as he looked?

Earlier in the day, Lewis exuded just as much confidence. Gone was the tentativeness he betrayed before their first fight, which he won as clearly as Joe Walcott beat Joe Louis in the same New York ring more than a half-century before. Like Walcott, Lewis would be denied by astigmatic judges.

"This time it's going to be easier," the 34-year-old Lewis said. "He knows he's going to get hurt. His goal, really, is to leave with his faculties. It's time for him to retire."

Unlike their first fight, the rematch points to a knockout or a stoppage. If he were disciplined, Lewis would fight exactly as he did in March in New York and let the capable trio of Las Vegas judges take care of the rest. But Lewis talks as if he could be tempted into finishing off Holyfield. "Judges ain't looking for you to run around the ring," Lewis said. "They want to see you mount some kind of attack. I need to go in there and pick up the pace a bit more."

Holyfield would welcome that. He wants to slug even though he's outweighed by 30 pounds. In Holyfield's best scenario, he will catch Lewis early and take his heart away. Failing that, Holyfield might be in trouble. Even in trouble, however, he can be dangerous, especially capable of landing a big left hand on the counterattack.

"I can't hunt for the head all the time," Holyfield said. "I've got to go to the body, break him down. Get to the head shots eventually. It's not so much what I learned about Lennox Lewis as what I learned about myself. I didn't move enough. I went straight in. I'm the one who didn't fight a good fight. I need to take my head out of the way of those jabs, and catch him with some of those jabs, and hooks. . . .

"I know the game of boxing," he said. "It's about applying your craft. Unfortunately, you're human. You have your ups and downs." He claimed to have felt poorly the night of the first fight, that it took even spiritual forces to sustain him through all 12 rounds. "You push to the end on a day you ain't doing well, you get another opportunity to redeem yourself. And I will redeem myself."

This is the third time in Holyfield's career when people have said that he is a shot fighter. It happened in 1992-93 after a loss to Riddick Bowe and before their rematch, which Holyfield won. It happened again in 1995-96 after Holyfield lost to Bowe in their third fight before stopping Mike Tyson in 11 rounds. Holyfield is perseverance personified. But given his age and the number of his long, tough fights, how much could he have left?

"People said Riddick Bowe was younger and stronger and had the reach and he was a good fighter," Holyfield said. "The only thing I had at that time was, to think of Christ. People didn't understand what that means. I just had to wait until that day to pick the belt up. They thought I was crazy. How can this young guy lose? Well, I went in there and picked the belt up.

"And, of course, when I fought Tyson, it was pretty much the same thing. People questioned my integrity, my faith, because they said, you know, do you think of your kids, you could actually die against that guy. Why would you do this? I pulled that one off, too. I have faith in God, the one who brought me here. I don't worry about what people say."