Evander Holyfield will risk what is shaping up as boxing's richest fight, his match against Tyson, when he enters the ring against undefeated Alex Stewart tonight.
The bout at the Trump Plaza Hotel is a matchup of unbeaten heavyweights, but the word on the boardwalk is that one of them, Stewart, has fought 24 journeymen and is in over his head against Holyfield, perceived as the only credible opponent for Tyson, the undisputed heavyweight champion.
Holyfield, light-heavyweight bronze medalist in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, weighed in at 212 pounds Friday. He is 22-0 as a pro, with 18 knockouts. Stewart, 223, is 24-0 against no-name opponents. He stopped all of them in four or fewer rounds.
Stewart is most commonly pegged as a 10-1 underdog tonight, but the Caesars Palace sports book posted Holyfield at 13-1 Friday.
That news drew only a growl from Lou Duva, Holyfield's 70-year-old trainer. In the hotel coffee shop Friday morning, he pointed to his platter of sausage, eggs and hash browns and said: "This is my third breakfast. About three days before a fight, for any of my guys, I turn into a compulsive eater. Sure, we expect Evander to win and we know Stewart hasn't fought anyone who's great. But I've been around long enough to know there's no such thing as a pushover in boxing, particularly (among) heavyweights.
"With heavyweights, the biggest bum in the world can take you out with one shot. I've watched tapes of a dozen Stewart fights, and he's a young, aggressive guy who has a good right hand. If Stewart comes out there loose, figuring he's got nothing to lose, and decides to make it the fight of his life . . . That's what makes me nervous."
If Duva eats three breakfasts before Holyfield fights a 13-1 shot, the thought of his coffee-shop tabs before a fight against Tyson staggers the imagination.
Everyone is a little jumpy this week in the Holyfield camp except the fighter. Duva's son, Dan, is Holyfield's promoter and he is in preliminary negotiations with Shelly Finkel, a New York boxing-rock concert promoter, for a June date for the Tyson-Holyfield showdown--all contingent, of course, on Holyfield defeating Stewart.
Holyfield's handlers seem to agree that Stewart is something like a 10-1 shot against their boxer, but they nonetheless see danger in the shadows--a possible threat to boxing's biggest potential payday.
Some boxing observers see Tyson-Holyfield as boxing's first $100-million fight. Donald Trump has the final refusal rights, negotiated as part of the deal in which he paid $11 million for the Tyson-Michael Spinks bout. It's estimated that the site fee could go as high as $15 million.
To put that figure in perspective, Trump paid $350,000 for the Holyfield-Stewart match.
But all that goes out the window if Holyfield loses to Stewart, a Brooklyn resident by way of Jamaica by way of London.
Stewart, 24, was born in London to Jamaican parents, who moved their family to Jamaica when Stewart was 15. When he was 18, the family moved to Brooklyn. He boxed for Jamaica in the '84 Olympics and was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Turning pro in 1986, Stewart scored a series of early TKO victories in New York and signed a promotional contract with Madison Square Garden. Relying principally on a good right hand, he developed a Garden following by stopping everyone put in front of him.
According to Garden promoter Bobby Goodman, it isn't Stewart's fault that he hasn't fought name heavyweights. In his most recent fights, he stopped Terry Armstrong in three, Fernando Montes and Jack Johnson in two each, stopped Arthel Lawhorne in four, and Dave Jaco in one.
"When we got to the point with Alex where he needed credible opponents, we couldn't find any who wanted to fight him," Goodman said.
"We offered Tim Witherspoon $50,000, and he turned us down. So did Trevor Berbick. We called George Foreman and he asked us to send him some tapes of Alex. We did. George never called us back."
Stewart, whose previous biggest purse was $13,500, will earn $225,000 tonight. Holyfield will get $1.2 million.
Stewart's regular trainer is Edwin Viruet, but the fighter's manager, Mike Jones, hired the veteran Eddie Futch to fine-tune Stewart for this fight.
"He's a good athlete, but he had a balance problem," Futch said. "He was standing six inches too far away from everyone and having to lunge too much. I've brought him in closer. Also, he wasn't trying to punch through people. He was aiming for surfaces, instead."
Futch first saw Stewart when he hired him as Michael Spinks' sparring partner before the Tyson-Spinks fight.
"I liked him then, and I still do," he said. "He's a good fighter. He doesn't have a true knockout punch but he can batter you pretty good because he's aggressive and confident."
Holyfield's trainer, George Benton, indicated that his man would crowd Stewart tonight.
"(Stewart's) big punch is the long right hand, so we've done a lot of jab work to offset that," Benton said. "We want Evander to stay close to this guy, to smother him."
Stewart's last fight was on Aug. 10; Holyfield's was on July 15, an impressive second-round, one-punch knockout of Brazilian Adilson Rodrigues.
Holyfield said Friday that he expects to get his chance with the champion in June.
"From what everyone tells me, it looks good for June," he said. "But I'm only thinking of Stewart right now. And I'll probably have another fight before June, too."