NEW YORK -- Larry Holmes took undisputed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield to school yesterday.
With the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" playing in the background at the St. Regis ballroom, Holmes, wearing cap and gown, was bestowed by promoter Bob Arum with a degree as "Doctor of Pugilism."
The former heavyweight king, 42, who challenges Holyfield at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on June 19, waved his mock sheepskin and said, "I never thought I'd get one of these. I stayed a whole day in school -- once."
Then it was on to more serious hyperbole for the fight that Time-Warner president Seth Abraham predicted would be viewed by 100 million fight fans on pay-per-view, and, if all the tickets priced from $100 to $700 are sold, will produce a live gate of $8.2 million at Caesars Palace's 15,000-seat arena.
Equipped with a movie screen and pointer, "Professor" Holmes, a 6-to-1 underdog in the opening Las Vegas line, explained how he would give the unbeaten Holyfield the same painful boxing lesson he administered to previously undefeated Ray Mercer in Atlantic City a month ago.
"See how Holyfield holds his hands by his side?" said Holmes, viewing a film clip of Holyfield's recent close call against journeyman Bert Cooper. "He can't fight me like that. I landed 76 percent of my jabs against Mercer, and against Holyfield, 'The Holmes Hammer' will connect 90 percent of the time.
"And you saw how Cooper almost knocked out Holyfield?" Holmes added. "If I hit him with the same kind of hook, it will be 'Good Night, Irene.' He's going to learn I'm not George Foreman or Cooper. If he had been around in the 70s when there were heavyweights like Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers, you'd have never heard of Evander Holyfield."
When Holmes paused to catch his breath, Holyfield and his supporters launched a strong counterattack.
"If Holmes is a 'professor,' " said co-trainer Lou Duva, master of malaprops, "then Evander was his class 'valatory,' or something like that."
Holyfield, 29, then defended his right to defend his title against the likes of Foreman, 44, and Holmes, twice a grandfather, rather than younger contenders Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis and Michael Moorer.
"At first I said I wasn't going to fight any more old fighters," the champion said. "I was in a 'no-win' situation against Foreman. George fought a great fight, but I fought a better one, and yet everyone said I was supposed to beat 'the old man.'
"But how can you say no to a former champion like Larry Holmes when he steps to the plate and hits a home run against a top contender like Mercer? The others -- Bowe, Lewis, [Razor] Ruddock and Moorer -- haven't proven themselves and don't seem willing to fight each other. They all prefer waiting for a title shot and one big payday," Holyfield said.
"I agreed with my promoter [Duva] and manager [Shelly Finkel] that Holmes has more credibility than anyone else. But I plan on fighting until 1996, so all these young heavyweights will get their turn."
Speaking of Holmes, Holyfield said: "I always had great respect for him the seven years he was champion. He's still a very smart, experienced fighter who used all his skills to frustrate Mercer. But he'll be fighting more than thinking against me. I'll put relentless pressure on him."
Then, borrowing Holmes' pointer, Holyfield showed Holmes flat on his back after his aborted ring comeback against then-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in 1988.
"That's how Larry's fight will end against me, and here's where I'll be vacationing after the fight," he added, as the scene shifted to an idyllic beach.
Holmes dismissed his fourth-round knockout by Tyson as easily as Holyfield explained away his uninspired seven-round victory over Cooper, a 16-1 underdog.
"When I fought Tyson," Holmes said, "I'd been off 2 1/2 years. I really didn't have time to get ready. And Tyson took unfair advantage of me." Indirectly, Tyson was also blamed for Holyfield's struggle against Cooper.
"In my mind, I was preparing to fight Tyson. That was going to be the highlight of my career. And, if I won, I planned on retiring undefeated," Holyfield said. "But Tyson got hurt and then involved in his rape trial. They switched to [Francesco] Damiani as my opponent, and he backed out, too.
"I didn't do myself justice in agreeing to fight Cooper. Talking about retiring set me up for losing, and I'll never fight just for money again.
"Now I want to keep fighting while I still have the heart and desire. I don't want to be like Foreman and Holmes and come back after 40 because of some 'unfinished business.' When I quit the ring, my work will be done."
Holyfield, who had been promised more than $30 million to fight Tyson, will receive $18 million for taking on Holmes, who will get a minimum of $7 million.
NOTES: Welter champ Meldrick Taylor meets junior-middle king Terry Norris at The Mirage, May 9. . . . Cesar Chavez vs. Hector Camacho is on hold with Arum and arch-rival Don King still fighting over promotional rights to Chavez.