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'Real Deal' still is proving authenticity


LAS VEGAS -- Whenever he is introduced, his name is interrupted by a commercial.

It is never simply "Evander Holyfield."

It is Evander "Real Deal" Holyfield.

As though there might be some doubt.

And there is.

Historically, the heavyweight champion of the world has never had to explain himself or issue disclaimers or defend his authenticity.

Until now.

It has come to this for Holyfield -- there are more than a few people who think that his title is in harm's way tonight against a 42-year-old grandfather who has love handles ridging his ample waist.

That would be Larry Holmes, who was custodian of the belts now cinched about Holyfield when Holyfield had barely escaped from kindergarten.

The idea of any other heavyweight champion being doubted against a man with liver spots and a hitch in his get-along would be ludicrous. And Holyfield may very well reduce Holmes to a pathetic shambles; in fact, all ballistic and physiological and geriatric logic argues that he will.

But for all the gentlemanliness and the respectability he has brought to his station, Holyfield has his skeptics in the fistic fraternity.

He first won the title from corpulent James "Buster" Douglas, who showed up that night looking like Shamu shimmied into trunks two sizes too small.

Holyfield's first defense was 14 months ago against George Foreman, who is older even than Holmes, and much wider around, too. Foreman went the distance. For 12 rounds he absorbed a shelling but never left his feet, and it reinforced the notion that Holyfield, who is not a true heavyweight, lacks a heavyweight's put-away punch.

Holyfield's second, and last title defense, was against Bert Cooper, a willing but plodding pedestrian who did not succumb until the seventh round and who was just one more punch away from knocking out Holyfield in the third round. Only his ultra conditioning, and the respite from a standing-eight count, saved the champion.

So then, three fights and three reasons to question whether Holyfield truly is the real deal.

One opponent was more drastically out of shape and far less fit than Holmes. Another was Holmes' senior. And the last one possessed far fewer skills and experience and ring savvy than Holmes.

None of this is lost on Holyfield. He knows that he does not stir the public, even though he has restored emotional stability and sanity to the division left in smoking ruins by Mike Tyson. He knows that he has a reputation now as abuser of the old and the fat -- Joe Louis had his bum-of-the-month club; Evander Holyfield has his cadaver-of-the-month club.

"I didn't really want to have to fight Larry," Holyfield admits.

"I was disappointed when he beat Ray Mercer to get the shot at me. I had just beat George [Foreman], but it was like I had lost that fight. He got all the credit for lasting 12 rounds. Now they're saying' I'm picking on another gray head.

"People don't realize how hard it is, how much pressure there is."

Holyfield is a sensitive sort. He has none of the sadist in him. The idea of busting up a senior citizen brings him no joy.

"If you hurt them, people just think you're a bully," he said, sighing.

He can console himself with $16 million, his share of the purse tonight.

He has always taken the high road, has never brayed nor postured. Indeed, as the hype for this fight has unfurled, it is the other camp that has resorted to dirty-tricks campaigning.

Bob Arum, a carrion-picker who scavenges for a living these days by promoting old bones, has planted rumors and innuendo about Holyfield, suggesting among other slanders, that the champion is into steroids.

He also had a poster printed and circulated that pictures Holmes as the new champion and advertises his next fight -- against Foreman. It is called "The Geezers at Caesars."

To his credit, Holyfield has not responded in kind. Outwardly, at least, he remains placid.

"They're just trying to distract me," he said, shrugging. "It just gives me greater motivation."

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