Critics of boxing have taken shots at the sport since the days of bare-knuckle fighting, but never has it experienced a siege like that of the past year. An atmosphere of gloom hangs over Saturday night's heavyweight title unification rematch between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis following a long run of disappointing and sometimes unsavory major matches, and the indictment last week of the president of one of boxing's three major sanctioning bodies on federal racketeering and bribery charges.

Congress also has voiced criticism of the sport as it prepares to weigh in with reform legislation.

Many officials connected with boxing, and other knowledgeable parties, believe the sport in the United States should be directed by one organization whose members have no other allegiances within the sport. Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said that the Pennsylvania-based Association of Boxing Commissions, headed by Greg Sirb, should be put in position so that it could take charge effectively. Rock Newman, manager of the inactive heavyweight Riddick Bowe, called for the establishment of "a blue-ribbon panel" that in effect would run the sport.

"For the United States, it is very important for the Association of Boxing Commissions to get more and more involved," Ratner said. "We really need to have some standard regulations in the sport. We need the same rules in every state. We need the same medical standards in every state. We need the same medical rules, so if you take a test in Nevada, and if it's not time essential, say an EKG, that medical information can be in some kind of central depository where the state of New Jersey or the state of New York could use it.

"There desperately needs to be some sort of international blue ribbon panel in place, with no ties to promoters or boxers, to regulate and administer the sport," Newman added.

Lou DiBello, an executive with TVKO, the pay-per-view carrier of Holyfield-Lewis II, expressed the hope of most boxing fans that effective reform measures will result from the 32-count indictment coming out of U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., or the action of legislators in Washington. Four officials of the International Boxing Federation were accused of accepting bribes from promoters and managers for higher rankings for their boxers. More indictments are expected after the first of the year.

"This sport has needed a jolt," DiBello said. "I'm optimistic. It can be cleaned up. I'm looking at everything that's going on now, maybe here's the window, here's the opportunity."

The window was thrown open as long ago as June 1997, when Mike Tyson was disqualified for biting Holyfield's ears and banned for a year from fighting in Nevada. Earlier that year, Lewis found himself in two strange bouts both involving one championship belt, first with Oliver McCall and then Henry Akinwande. McCall appeared to have a nervous breakdown in the ring and the fight was stopped. Akinwande, who simply wouldn't fight, was disqualified for clinching.

This year has produced a string of woeful performances. Tyson admitted trying to break the arm of Francois Botha at the bell ending Round 1 of a fight eventually won by Tyson. When Tyson fought again, last month, he hit journeyman Orlin Norris Jr. after the bell, also ending Round 1. The blow was ruled accidental, but Norris toppled to the canvas, fell awkwardly on his knee and told the ring doctor he couldn't come out for Round 2. The Nevada State Athletic Commission absolved Norris and indicated Tyson would have trouble getting his license renewed.

Featherweight Prince Naseem Hamed, who appears frequently on Home Box Office telecasts, flipped his opponent over his back during a recently televised title match from Detroit--an outrageous act that drew merely a two-point penalty. A recent fight card in Atlantic City was marred by a brawl near the ring that resulted in a backup referee being hit on the head with a thrown chair. The Miami Herald reported recently a number of fixed fights including several involving a four-round regular named "Butterbean," widely known for his lack of ring skills.

In addition to these disasters, two major fights turned out disappointingly. Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad failed to live up to its promise of being the best non-heavyweight bout in a decade when De La Hoya ran away from Trinidad in the last few rounds, losing a decision. Holyfield-Lewis on March 13 in New York proved to be a lackluster bout followed by a worse decision resulting in a draw. Each of the three sanctioning bodies appointed one judge, and the one named by the IBF, whose belt is held by Holyfield, saw Holyfield as the winner--including the winner of Round 5, in which Holyfield was pummeled.

Officials of the three sanctioning bodies, which many believe simply should be ignored and left to vegetate, have been keeping a low profile this week. As it is, boxers must pay large sums to each group to have their fights "sanctioned."

"It's important just to have one belt," said Lewis, the champion according to the World Boxing Council. Holyfield holds the WBA belt in addition to the IBF's. The New Jersey-based IBF is the only one with headquarters in the United States, and therefore accessible to federal investigators.

Because of the first Holyfield-Lewis fight, the judging of bouts has come under full fire--almost obscuring greater ills in the sport such as the buying of rankings and, even more, the ability of promoters to tie up boxers for many years. The House bill would prohibit boxers from signing any contract with a promoter longer than five years; the Senate version of the bill had called for a one-year limit. Differences in the versions are expected to be reconciled early next year.

Ratner welcomed "federal laws that can make the sport better" and said of the indictments of IBF officials: "I'm saddened by it, but . . . maybe it's the best thing that can happen that the sport cleans itself up. And that's what it needs."

CAPTION: When Evander Holyfield, left, escaped with a draw despite being dominated by Britain's Lennox Lewis on March 13, the judges' scoring system came under scrutiny.


What: Evander Holyfield vs. Lennox Lewis for undisputed heavyweight title.

Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas.

When: Undercard fights begin approximately 9 p.m. Saturday; main bout expected to begin around midnight.

TV: Pay-per-view.

Ages: Holyfield 37, Lewis 34.

Records: Holyfield, 36-3-1, 25 knockouts; Lewis, 34-1-1, 27 knockouts.

Undercard: Super lightweight champion Sharmba Mitchell of Takoma Park vs. Elio Oritz of Venezuela; cruiserweight champion Fabrice Tiozzo of France vs. Ken Murphy of Chicago. (Both are for WBA titles.)