Tonight, Mike Tyson will make yet another unremarkable return to the ring. When he hasn't been pummeled by Evander Holyfield or Lennox Lewis, Tyson has been left to knock over tomato cans. Now, in quest of money to pay off his extraordinary debt, he has another setup waiting in Louisville.

Tyson began his descent as a boxer 16 years ago -- 16 years! His decline has been the longest, and among the most pitiable, of any prominent champion in any weight class. The last believers apparently caught on two years ago when Lewis, hardly the most fearsome of heavyweight champions, flattened Tyson like a flounder.

Tyson leads a parade of former heavyweight champions making noises about reclaiming the title. Right alongside is Hasim Rahman, who was champ for a few minutes after knocking out Lewis when no one, most notably Lewis, was looking. On Wednesday night in Rochester, N.Y., not exactly the Vegas Strip, Rahman took on another Lewis -- Terrence -- as he bides his time in hopes of another title shot. Rahman set his competitive bar so low that Terrence Lewis was at least the fourth opponent scheduled for this fight. His accomplishment was being the one to actually make it to the scene of the bout, in which he was saved by the referee in the second round.

Then there's Riddick Bowe, queuing to join the parade of ex-champs. Like Tyson, Bowe once deserved the title. If he had handled his success as well as he did Holyfield (winning two of three), Bowe would have been champion longer than Lennox Lewis -- and a more charismatic and better champion, too. But Bowe undertook a number of bizarre misadventures, including that of abducting his first wife. Having recently completed the prison sentence for that inexplicable behavior, he is restless to return to the ring. But it may be even later in the game for Bowe than for Tyson.

There is a caveat, however. Any one of these ex-champs -- Tyson, Rahman or Bowe -- can nurture the slim hope of being champion again, at least in name, because the state of the heavyweight ranks is so abysmal. The identity of the current titleholders makes for little more than a trivia question. (The answer is John Ruiz, Vitali Klitschko and Chris Byrd.) Rock Newman, Bowe's former manager, said recently that he wasn't surprised that Bowe would want to attempt a comeback given the underwhelming potential opposition.

About the time of the advent of television, A.J. Liebling worried about the unpromising crop of heavyweights. A perceptive chronicler of the sport, Liebling wrote that because "the Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder," it was "impossible to think that such a continuum can perish" despite "the period of minor talents."

He was not prone to pessimism.

And he was right.

Marciano was still on the way up.

And Ali was still Cassius, the kid on his bicycle in Louisville.

What would Liebling have said now? Would he have found light in the sport's latest Dark Age. A less optimistic view is that, while there may be some more boxing greats over the rainbow, the sun has set.

What awaits tonight in Louisville is the appearance of a bankrupt boxer in a bankrupt division, the most important one in the sport. It has been a long, long slide for the 38-year-old Tyson. His behavior in and out of the ring has been abhorrent, punctuated by the briefest periods of charm. Given the obscurity of tonight's opponent, the Brit Danny Williams, this is one of the those times when the need to attract paying customers has demanded civility.

Maybe the last time Tyson exhibited a genuine emotion was the week before he went to the ring against Michael Spinks in 1988, and destroyed him -- yes, Tyson's last great fight. In the leadup to that, he wept in his dressing room after a workout. Thoughts of his departed mentor, Cus D'Amato, moved him. Tyson's original co-manager, Jimmy Jacobs, had died, too, just three months earlier. Tyson was alone, and, in retrospect, seemed to sense that what awaited him was a path down the other side of the mountain he was just about to finish climbing.

Now he's near the bottom. He hasn't fought since February 2003. That was against Clifford Etienne. He's been in a years-long stretch in which for the most part only clowns have been sent in to face him. People apparently pay to watch Tyson because they are interested in potential mayhem. He's on a par with much of what passes for entertainment on TV.

Bowe, nearing 37, wishes that he had kept his mind on his business when he was younger. Of all the craziness that marked his career -- joining the Marines, etc. -- the weakness that likely did him in was his "see-food" diet: Whatever food he saw, he ate.

"I love to eat, and I have no problem telling anybody that," he said in one of his most recent interviews. "I lost sight of what I was supposed to be doing. I got out of my training program. So when we'd get in training again, it was much harder for me . . . to get that weight off. You pretty much have to stay in shape. And that's where my problem came in."

When he left off, he had taken two awful beatings from Andrew Golota, who was disqualified both times for low blows. It's not so much that Bowe has been away from the ring since 1996; it's what skills he retained by the time Golota was finished with him. But as Bowe said before going off to prison, "I miss boxing. I miss the attention. If somebody tells you that after being champion you're not going to miss the attention, he's lying to you."

Bowe is the latest to confirm Liebling's observation: Fighters fight.

Unlike this right hand that connects with Hasim Rahman, the name John Ruiz doesn't with the casual boxing fan. Ruiz is, in fact, one of three titleholders.