LAS VEGAS -- The bogus fight poster was the latest slap in the face of undisputed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.
Distributed by co-promoter Bob Arum only three days before Holyfield's title defense here tomorrow night against Larry Holmes, the poster announced that Holmes, as the born-again heavyweight king, would be fighting fellow "senior citizen" George Foreman at Caesars Palace on Nov. 13.
It was the latest ploy by Arum, who has supported Foreman and Holmes in their ring comebacks, to try to penetrate Holyfield's cool exterior. Earlier, Arum had faxed national boxing writers a letter suggesting that Holyfield, who began his pro career as a light heavyweight, had blossomed into a heavyweight by using steroids.
This charge ruffled the stoic Holyfield. He labeled Holmes an accomplice.
Holmes subsequently would offer an apology. But Arum, at the final pre-fight news conference, said: "I only issue these releases. It's up to the news editors to use their judgment on whether they're true or not."
Countered Holyfield: "In the game of boxing, you don't need to say things like that to try to bring the sport down. Professional boxing is under enough pressure as it is.
"I don't like the idea of using lies about me to promote the fight. I'm a grown man. I can take it. But it hurts the kids who look up to the heavyweight champion. Mainly, I tell the kids, 'Don't believe the hype.' I'm not a cheater, and never have been."
Getting no respect is something Holyfield, 29, has had to deal with since winning the heavyweight championship with a third-round knockout of Buster Douglas, the same man who, as a 40-1 underdog, shocked the world in February 1990 by leaving Mike Tyson groping on the canvas for his mouthpiece while being counted out.
When Holyfield left Douglas in the same pitiful state nine months later, ringside critics said it was because a bloated Douglas had done all his training at the buffet table.
Holyfield heard similar criticism 14 months ago for allowing Foreman, then 42, to test him over 12 rounds.
"I thought I won at least eight rounds," Holyfield said, "but because of George's age, everyone felt I should have knocked him out in one or two rounds."
The champion's image was even more tarnished last October when journeyman Bert Cooper, a late substitute, forced Holyfield to take a standing eight count in the third round after stunning him with a roundhouse right behind the ear. The cobwebs cleared, and Holyfield regained control, stopping Cooper in the seventh.
"I didn't really want to fight Cooper, and my mind wasn't in it," Holyfield said. "I was supposed to fight Tyson, and he suffered a rib injury. Then it was [Italy's] Francesco Damiani, and he pulled out at the last minute. But the fight was in my hometown of Atlanta, and I didn't want to disappoint all the people who support me."
And yet skeptics will continue to label Holyfield a "paper champion," simply occupying the heavyweight throne in Tyson's absence, and fighting retreads like Foreman and Holmes while avoiding young lions such as Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis and Razor Ruddock.
Holyfield says it is a bum rap, and he has strong evidence to support him. He had signed twice to defend his title against Tyson, only to have the showdown eliminated by first a rib injury to Tyson and then Tyson's rape conviction.
Holyfield's financial adviser, Shelly Finkel, offered Bowe $6 million as a title challenger, but Bowe's manager, Rock Newman, demanded more money in Tyson's absence. Finkel held firm, then signed Holmes for $7 million after the ex-champion had upset Ray Mercer.
Jumping to Holyfield's defense, Bernie Dillon, TVKO vice president of programming, said: "Evander pursued Tyson for three years. He was the one fighter going after a man everyone called 'The Baddest Man on the Planet.' "
Meanwhile Holyfield continues to roll with the punches.
About his size (6 feet 2 1/2 and 210 pounds), he said: "People say I'm a blown-up heavyweight. But no one is 'a born heavyweight.' Usually babies weigh 7 or 8 pounds. You grow. I grow."
About ducking young contenders: "I didn't want to fight Holmes. I figured it was another 'no-win' situation like fighting Foreman.
"I preferred fighting Mercer, who was the only young heavyweight willing to take a risk. But my advisers asked me to fight the winner of Holmes vs. Mercer, and I was as surprised as anyone when Larry won.
"But I'll fight anyone the sanctioning bodies [IBF, WBA, WBC] say is a legitimate No. 1 contender. I plan on fighting until 1996, and the Bowes, Lewises and Ruddocks will all get their chance. Even Tyson, if he's freed by then."
When Holyfield, a humble, soft-spoken athlete, is asked if he believes one day he will secure a place among the heavyweight legends, he smiled and said softly: "That's not for me to decide. I try not to let the heavyweight championship get bigger than me. All I can be is the best fighter I can be and let history decide where I belong.
"Deep down, though, I feel I'm the best heavyweight today. I can beat heavyweights of all styles. It comes down to self-esteem. It takes talent, hard work and a big heart to become a champion.
"But I'm sure there is a guy on the street who's sure he can kick my butt. But I don't worry what people say."
Who: Evander Holyfield (27-0, 22 KOs), Atlanta, vs. Larry Holmes (54-3, 37 KOs), Easton, Pa.
What: For Holyfield's IBF, WBA and WBC heavyweight titles
Where: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. 16,000 seats.
When: Tomorrow, 11 p.m.
Distance: 12 rounds
Tickets: $700 to $100
TV: TVKO, estimated pay-per-view price, $35.95
Promoters: Dan Duva, Bob Arum