LAS VEGAS -- Slightly more than two years ago, heavyweight Riddick Bowe stood on a busy street corner in Washington, shaking hands and acting more folksy than Ross Perot while publicists paraded around with signs that read: "Bowe For President."
They were hyping Bowe's 20th professional fight, against ex-champion Pinklon Thomas. Come Friday night against Evander Holyfield, Bowe will be contending for the biggest job in boxing -- the heavyweight championship of the world -- a position cynics feel he is no better equipped for than the presidency.
In the fashion of his idol, Muhammad Ali, Bowe always has talked a good fight.
"I predicted that we'd have a new president next year, and now I'm predicting I'll be champion of the world because I'm bigger, stronger and smarter than Holyfield," said Bowe, 25, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native now living in Fort Washington, Md.
"All I have to do is stay focused and keep my composure."
And prove to the world he has the heart of a champion. Critics say his 31-0 professional record, including 27 knockouts, is as illusory as the volcano-spouting Mirage, the gaudy hotel housing the fighters this week.
Bowe's manager, Rock Newman, has been credited with a masterful job of maneuvering his fighter into an $8 million payday without Bowe's having faced a leading contender save for Pierre Coetzer -- the game, but unskilled journeyman he disposed of in seven rounds in July.
No one questions Bowe's talent. He is a full-blown heavyweight at 6 feet 5, 235 pounds, blessed with a trip-hammer jab and a head-spinning right hand.
The question is, how will he react to the pressure of a championship bout and the first hailstorm of blows unleashed by Holyfield?
Most of the doubts are traced to Bowe's knockout by England's Lennox Lewis in the 1988 Olympic finals. The referee stopped the bout in the second round, when it appeared Bowe no longer was interested in fighting back.
Ferdie Pacheco, the ringside commentator at Seoul, labeled Bowe lazy and a "space cadet." Pacheco dismisses the claim that Bowe had much on his mind that night, including the recent loss of his sister, Brenda, who was killed by a drug addict.
"I know there were a lot of side issues," Pacheco said recently, "but the great ones -- Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano and Ray Robinson -- never lost their focus in the ring no matter what went on outside.
"Make no mistake," said Pacheco. "Bowe's got all the natural ability to be a champion, but what happens when something goes wrong again? Would he bug out again or suck it up? Until that happens, we'll never know."
Bowe fights criticism
Bowe said he has grown weary of people questioning his fighting spirit.
"A lot of people say I can't take a punch, that I've fought nobodies or lack heart," he said. "And when I knock out Holyfield, they'll have to manufacture something new and nasty about me. They'll probably say that Holyfield wasn't a true heavyweight. Anything to diminish my victory."
Newman, who saw a quality in Bowe that rival promoters Butch Lewis, Bob Arum, Don King and Dan Duva failed to see, said it's an injustice to confuse the confident Bowe with the uncertain youngster who settled for a silver medal in the '88 Olympics.
"Riddick has grown in so many ways," said Newman, a former Washington radio figure and college counselor who invested his life savings in launching Bowe's boxing career. "Don't be fooled by his wise-cracking. He'll always have a little boy in him. But he's very sensitive and thoughtful with people he knows.
"And he's not the kind to spend his money frivolously. After this fight, he'll be set for life. When he's 40, he can collect $250,000 a year without having to touch the [principal]. He could quit fighting early, but he loves the spotlight like Ali and the competition of proving himself the best."
Newman even said Bowe's Olympic humiliation acts as a positive.
"In an interesting way, losing to Lewis made him a better person and better fighter, almost like what happened to Holyfield when he got disqualified in the 1984 Olympics," Newman said. "It gave Riddick the incentive to redeem himself.
"But Riddick had already proved he was something special to me the way he survived the ghetto without any drugs, drinking or emotional problems. He grew up one of 13 kids without a father figure in the house. He came out of the same environment as Mike Tyson with a sense of humor and smile on his face. That tells you all you need to know."
Asked if Bowe is prepared for a major test, Newman bristled and said: "People always bring that up. We had Riddick lined up to fight Ray Mercer, Tommy Morrison and even Razor Ruddock, but, for some reason, they fell through. But, for the last 3 1/2 years, he's been the busiest heavyweight around, fighting boxers, brawlers, jabbers and hookers and beaten them all."
Bowe's biggest scare came against former champion Tony Tubbs in Atlantic City, N.J., in April 1991. Eleven of 12 ringside reporters present felt Tubbs had outboxed him, but the three judges ruled otherwise.
"It will sound like an excuse now," said Newman, "but Riddick was consumed with some personal problems before that fight. That was the only time he told me that he went into a fight preoccupied, but he learned to deal with adversity."
Futch takes a gamble
Bowe has won the respect of Eddie Futch, 81, the legendary trainer who would like to cap his career by molding a sixth heavyweight champion. Futch had a hand in tutoring Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks and Trevor Berbick.
At his age, Futch was reluctant to take on a dubious project. He had heard the whispers about Bowe.
"One promoter [Butch Lewis] had already inquired if I'd teach him, and I turned him down," Futch said. "But when Rock called, I agreed to at least talk to Riddick in Reno. I told him I didn't have a lot of time left, and I didn't want to waste a minute of it with a fighter who wasn't totally committed to winning.
" 'Waste my time,' I said, 'and you're history.' I asked Riddick a lot of personal questions, and he answered all of them frankly. He passed all my tests with flying colors."
And then his boxing education began in earnest.
"The first thing I had to do was completely change his thinking," said Futch. "He wanted to fight just like his hero, Ali, but I said: 'Why do you want to be a second-class Ali when you can be a first-rate Bowe with your own style?'
"He had too much size and power to waste floating around the ring. He had to believe that he was strong enough to beat any heavyweight in the world."
Said Bowe: "Eddie took the amateur out of me. I was just an excitable kid, throwing a lot of punches. He showed me how to set up a fighter and make guys come to me. He showed me I don't have to knock out everybody to win."
But Newman was not leaving anything to chance. Since Bowe stopped Coetzer, Newman has added former comic Dick Gregory to the team as a nutritionist and Mackie Shilstone, who bulked up Spinks, as a conditioning guru.
Almost four years have gone into the reclamation of Bowe, the Olympic goat. He is now on the threshold of fulfilling a dream that began when, as a seventh grader, he jumped up and shouted, "I'm Muhammad Ali" and pummeled a classmate masquerading as Joe Frazier.
But now Bowe, brash and unbeaten, is ready to stand on his own two feet.
"I believe Evander Holyfield is one of the greatest guys God has created," Bowe said. "But business is business, and the ring is my office, and that's why I have to beat him to death Friday night."
Who: Evander Holyfield (28-0, 22 KOs), Atlanta, vs. Riddick Bowe (31-0, 27 KOs), Fort Washington, Md.
When: Friday night. Main event will start at approximately 11:15.
What: For undisputed heavyweight championship, 12 rounds or less.
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas.
Semifinal: Tim Littles (19-0, 13 KOs), Flint, Mich., vs. John Scully (27-2, 15 KOs), 12 rounds, for Littles' USBA super middleweight title.
Tickets: $100 to $800.
TV: Pay-per-view, distributed by TVKO.
Promoters: Main Events, Monitor and Spencer Promotions in conjunction with The Mirage.
1989 March 6: Lionel Butler, Reno, Nev., KO 2
April 14: Tracy Thomas, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 3
May 9: Garing Lan, Atlantic City, W 4
July 2: Antonio Whiteside, Fayetteville, N.C., KO 1
July 15: Lorenzo Canaday, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 2
Sept. 3: Lee Moore, Pensacola, Fla., KO 1
Sept. 15: Anthony Hayey, N.Y., KO 1
Sept. 19: Earl Lewis, Jacksonville, Fla., KO 1
Oct. 19: Mike Acey, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 1
Nov. 4: Garing Lane, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 4
Nov. 18: Don Askew, Washington, KO 1
Nov. 28: Art Card, Buffalo, N.Y., KO 3
Dec. 14: Charles Woodard, St. Joseph, Mo., KO 2
1990 Feb. 20: Mike Robinson, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 3
April 1: Robert Colay, Washington, KO 2
April 14: Eddie Gonzalez, Las Vegas, W 8
May 8: Manny Contreras, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 1
July 8: Art Tucker, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 3
Sept. 7: Pinklon Thomas, Washington, KO 9
Oct. 25: Bert Cooper, Las Vegas, KO 2
Dec. 14: Tony Morrison, K.C., KO 1
1991 March 2: Tyrell Biggs, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 8
April 20: Tony Tubbs, Atlantic City, N.J., W 10
June 28: Rodolfo Marin, Las Vegas, KO 8
July 23: Phillip Brown, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 3
Aug. 9: Bruce Seldon, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 1
Oct. 29: Elijah Tillery, Washington, W-DQ 1
Dec. 13: Elijah Tillery, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 4
1992 April 7: Conroy Nelson, Atlantic City, N.J., KO 8
May 8: Everett Martin, Las Vegas, KO 5
July 18: Pierre Coetzer, Las Vegas, KO 7
W -- 31, L -- 0, KO -- 27