LAS VEGAS -- Since being anointed "the opponent" for former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in his latest comeback bid at the MGM Grand tonight, Francois Botha has endured the jokes about being headed for extinction like the "White Buffalo" nickname he favors.
But as fight night approaches, the bulky South African native has exhibited no signs of stage fright or a trembling in his voice or legs that characterized so many of Tyson's previous foes.
It's not because Tyson has not tried to work his usual intimidating act. When asked what he expects Botha to do tonight, he replied, "Die."
But Botha, a 6-to-1 underdog who likens himself to Rocky Balboa fighting Ivan Drago, remains unfazed.
"I'm not a sacrificial lamb or 'another Peter McNeeley,' " he said, referring to Tyson's first opponent in his previous comeback after being released from prison in 1995. McNeeley's corner tossed in the towel before the first round ended.
"I can't be scared," Botha insisted. "I fought bigger guys in the amateurs. Tyson tries to intimidate everyone. It worked on Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon, who were scared before they got in the ring. He tried to intimidate Holyfield and Holyfield said, 'Say what you want,' and then knocked him out.
"He can talk all that trash, but my mind is too strong. I have no fear. He says it's going to be a bloodbath, and he's going to drink my blood. I really believe this is a guy who is very insecure with himself."
Despite his 39-1 record, there is little on Botha's ring resume to put Tyson on guard. His only fight against a name opponent came on the undercard to Tyson's first melee with Holyfield in 1996. He was stopped in the 12th and final round by Michael Moorer, but was applauded for his courage in taking a thorough whipping.
In trying to prove Botha is not a 233-pound punching bag, press agents have repeatedly introduced him as "the former IBF heavyweight champion."
But his reign was the briefest in history. After winning a 12-round decision over Germany's Axel Schulz in 1995, he tested positive for steroids. The fight was ruled "no contest." The defrocked champion said it was medication for his shoulder.
Nevertheless, it cost him an earlier lucrative date with Tyson. But tonight he will earn $1.8 million for being viewed as the perfect opponent (or foil) in the eyes of Tyson's advisers and Showtime boss Jay Larkin.
"Botha brings character to the ring," Larkin said without the trace of a grin. "He's tough, durable, keeps coming at you and doesn't cover up. He's the perfect opponent for Tyson coming back. Depending on how he looks against Botha, it will tell a lot about his future."
If nothing else, Botha and his family talk a good fight.
"Why should Francois be afraid of Tyson when he comes from a country where they have tribes and spears" said his father, who introduced his son to boxing at the age of 7.
Fighting in junior tournaments, Botha lost his first five fights but persevered.
"People thought I'd quit and lose heart," he said, "but I never thought of giving up."
He blossomed into one of South Africa's outstanding amateur boxers, winning all but 25 of his 403 bouts while garnering 28 titles up to the heavyweight class. He made his American pro debut in April 1990 in Biloxi, Miss., winning a four-round decision.
"When they announced I was from South Africa," he recalled, "I figured people would say, 'He's a racist.' But that wasn't the case. The fans here, both black and white, have supported me."
But Botha realizes he will become an instant folk hero if he finds a way to upset Tyson.
"If I knock him out, I'll be the biggest thing in boxing," he said.
And he said he has the perfect fight plan to neutralize Tyson's superior power.
"I can see it now," he said. "Tyson will see me with my hands down and come rushing right at me, trying to take me out quickly. I expect the first round to be brutal.
"I've got to make the right moves. You've got to get him on his heels and make him miss. You've got to push him around, wrestle him and hold him the way Holyfield did. That's the way to get him into the later rounds."
That is also the strategy of Botha's principal trainer, Panama Lewis, who will not be allowed to work his corner while still under suspension for a 1983 glove-tampering charge in New York that resulted in a two-year prison term.
"Tyson burns up everything in the first few rounds," Lewis said. "If you haven't fought for 18 months and have a man like Botha fighting you for three minutes a round, you'll get tired. Have you ever seen the Titanic sink?
"Besides," he added, "Tyson isn't hungry anymore. When all that money came in, he's not paying the price. He doesn't have the same ambition."
If strictly fighting doesn't get the job done, Botha has considered several options.
"Mike doesn't like to talk in the ring," he told the New York Daily News. "But I do, and he might not like it. He might snap. Mike's a windup doll, but you have to wait until he starts to unwind and becomes vulnerable. It only takes one punch to get it done."
And then there's the last resort.
"I just might bite him first," the "White Buffalo" said with a laugh, enjoying himself at least until he climbs into the ring tonight and sees Tyson waiting in the opposite corner.
Who: Mike Tyson (45-3, 39 KOs) vs. Francois Botha (39-1, 24 KOs).
What: Scheduled 10-round heavyweight bout.
Where: MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas.
TV: Showtime pay-per-view, estimated charge $45.95. Telecast begins at 9 p.m. Pub Date: 1/16/99