WASHINGTON -- When champion Riddick Bowe and challenger Jesse Ferguson answer the opening bell at RFK Stadium at approximately 11:10 tonight, it will mark the first heavyweight title match staged here since Joe Louis manhandled Buddy Baer 52 years ago at Griffith Stadium.
But area fight fans have welcomed the event with almost total indifference. Yesterday, stadium general manager Jim Dalrymple reported an advance sale of 6,000 tickets for the ballpark, which had been scaled for a crowd of 30,000. Many of the $400 ringside seats remain unsold.
Promoter Rock Newman, who also manages Bowe, says 10,000 tickets have been sold, but two-for-ones were being offered to government employees in a last-minute effort to provide a respectable turnout.
Many have questioned the wisdom of having the unbeaten Bowe (33-0, 28 KOs) fight a journeyman in a stadium.
"This fight should have been held in a phone booth," said boxing historian Bert Sugar.
It is simply not a fight to stir the passions. In Las Vegas, Caesars Palace, a Bowe sponsor hoping to hold a major title fight this fall did not even list the the match in its sports book.
Several casinos on The Strip in Las Vegas posted 40-1 odds against Ferguson (19-9, 13 KOs), who has lost to such ordinary heavyweights as Orlin Norris, Oliver McCall, Bruce Seldon and a lumbering Dane named Anders Ecklund.
But last February, Ferguson upset Ray Mercer, who had been projected as Bowe's next opponent, and earned himself a $500,000 guarantee, one-third of what Mercer had been offered.
Ferguson, 36, portrayed as a "Rocky" character, has talked bravely of how he will carry the fight to Bowe, who, at 6 feet 5 and 244 pounds, enjoys a three-inch height advantage and a 20-pound pull on the scales.
"Being a big underdog is all the better for me," said the North Carolina native who lives in Philadelphia. "I'm the pug, the journeyman, the sparring partner. No one gives me a real chance.
"But what makes Bowe so great? If I can get to him as much as I got to Mercer, I can whip him. I watched him win the title from Evander Holyfield. He had him down, but couldn't finish the job. And if he couldn't finish Holyfield, he can't finish me. I'm going to knock his heart out."
His new managers, Seth Braunstein and Greg Cohen, a pair of young New Jersey businessmen, say the "new" Ferguson has benefited from a rigid training regimen.
"He never really trained seriously before," said Braunstein. "He was always the 'opponent,' and didn't have great confidence. The guys who managed him before just tried to cash in on him instead of trying to move him up the ladder."
Said Ferguson: "When I look in the mirror, I see a guy who made some mistakes in the past. But the Mercer fight changed everything. Beating him the way I did was no fluke. That convinced me I could win the title."
At first, Bowe, trying to hype sales, attempted to build Ferguson as a legitimate title threat. But as the fight drew closer, the champion began suggesting Ferguson had as little chance as his last challenger, Michael Dokes, who survived less than one round.
"He's been talking too much," said Bowe, who will earn a #F reported $7 million for defending his International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association crowns. "He should learn to treat the champ with respect."
Bowe's veteran trainer, Eddie Futch, has cautioned him against overconfidence, citing such major heavyweight upsets as Ingemar Johansson over Floyd Patterson, Leon Spinks over Muhammad Ali and Buster Douglas, a 40-1 shot, leaving Mike Tyson groping for his mouthpiece in a Tokyo ring.
By winning, Bowe can look ahead to more lucrative purses against more recognizable rivals. Negotiations have begun for a Holyfield rematch and a meeting with unbeaten Lennox Lewis, who owns the World Boxing Council title.
Lewis injured his right fist in his lackluster, 12-round victory over Tony Tucker two weeks ago and underwent surgery that could postpone his showdown with Bowe, whom he stopped in the 1988 Olympic super heavyweight final.
Who: Riddick Bowe (33-0, 28 KOs), Fort Washington, vs. Jesse Ferguson (19-9, 13 KOs), Philadelphia
What: For Bowe's International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association heavyweight titles, scheduled for 12 rounds
Where: RFK Stadium, Washington
When: Tonight. First fight at 7:30. Main event estimated to start at 11:10.
Promoter: Spencer Productions
Tickets: $400 (ringside), $300, $200, $100 and $50. Call (202) 432-SEAT. About 20,000 remain.
Highlights on undercard: Roy Jones (21-0, 20 KOs), Pensacola, Fla., vs. Bernard Hopkins (22-1, 17 KOs) of Philadelphia for vacant IBF middleweight title; lightweight Sharmba Mitchell (29-0, 17 KOs), Takoma Park, vs. Kenny Baysmore (28-5, 24 KOs), Washington; Egerton Marcus (10-0, 8 KOs), Virginia Beach, vs. Andrew Maynard (21-4, 18 KOs), Laurel, for NABF light-heavyweight title.