As Evander Holyfield flipped through the pages of a children's book with his daughter in the back of a stretch limo, en route to an appointment with a documentary film maker in Hollywood, the people traveling with the heavyweight champion were earning their pay in crisis management.
Did Jack Nicholson, as rumored, have flu, they asked via their cell phones. If so, did he still plan to attend Friday night's Laker game against Seattle?
The answers would determine whether Holyfield had to decline Nicholson's gracious invitation to sit next to him in a courtside seat at the Great Western Forum and watch from a couple rows back, out of range of Jack's cough.
Eight days before Holyfield's fight against Lennox Lewis at Madison Square Garden for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world, a fight Holyfield's publicists are calling his most important ever, no one wanted to be responsible for his leaving L.A. with flu.
Outside the limo, but still within the boxing world, another question was being asked. What in Don King's name was Holyfield, eight days before he was to meet Lewis, doing in Los Angeles, 1,600 miles from his training camp in Houston and 2,800 miles from the site of the fight in New York?
Holyfield gave an answer fit for King. "I'm promoting," he said, pointing out that most of his appearances here Friday--ESPN's "Up Close," NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "The Howie Mandel Show" and a news conference in Burbank--were to attract attention to the pay-per-view fight.
He was going to the Laker game, he said, to kill time before his red-eye flight home to Atlanta, where he plans to attend church Sunday before traveling to New York the next morning.
There are worse ways to prepare for championship fights. A couple of hours before he fought Lou Abrams for the lightweight title in 1940 at Madison Square Garden, Lew Jenkins walked casually into a nearby bar frequented by sportswriters and bummed a smoke. (The moral of the story was lost when Jenkins, the "Sweetwater Swatter," won in three.)
In post-midnight excursions leading to his second fight against Muhammad Ali in New Orleans, Leon Spinks hung out in establishments so depraved that not even his bodyguard, Lawrence Tero--who became famous as Mr. T--would accompany him inside. (Ali won a unanimous decision.)
Still, you had to wonder if Holyfield wouldn't have better served himself by training on the heavy bag for an hour and a half and then watching fight films, which Lewis did Friday.
"Lennox is leading a spartan type life," his trainer, Emmanuel Steward, said from their camp in the Poconos. "He hasn't left the mountain for anything in seven weeks."
Holyfield heard that and shrugged.
"What kind of shape do I have to be in to go three rounds?" he asked.
Holyfield doesn't mean to give you the impression that he's not in shape. He is, he said, after training for 14 weeks in Houston. He just wants you to know that he's not backing down from his recent declaration that he will knock out Lewis in the third round.
That was not part of the promotion. That, he said, was a message from God revealed to him in a dream.
"That's the truth," he said. "It's not a prediction. The weather is a prediction."
Steward, who used to train Holyfield, said he was startled when he heard Holyfield talking that talk because that's not the Holyfield he knows.
"I admire Evander tremendously," Steward said, "but he's always been a little bashful."
Steward advanced two theories for the sudden bluster: Either Holyfield doesn't have much respect for Lewis or Lewis has gotten under Holyfield's skin with his comments to the media.
"Lennox called Evander a hypocrite, pointing out that he has been doing some things that are not so godly," Steward said.
But that is not the first time Holyfield has heard that. A close friend of his told him years ago that he wore his religion like his suits, customized to fit him.
That was even before reports surfaced in the media that Holyfield has nine children with six women, not all of whom are wives. Now he's having to explain to everyone.
"Lennox is saying I did this and I did that," Holyfield said. "I did do that. I fell short.
I'm only a man, but I can always grow in my relationship with God. Tears have come to my eyes. I have cried to the Lord and asked for forgiveness, and he has forgiven me."
It has not been as easy for Holyfield to find forgiveness in some of the women and children whose lives have been affected by his losses to temptation.
Born after his first marriage dissolved, his fifth child, Emani, 6, couldn't wait to tell her friends at school in Pasadena that she was going to spend Friday with her father, the world heavyweight champion. At the same time, she gets upset when they call her by her full name, Emani Holyfield.
Holyfield has been told that Emani is confused, perhaps even a little resentful, because she carries the famous man's name but not its privileges except during his rare visits to Los Angeles and her annual summer trips to Atlanta. The analysis stings him like a Riddick Bowe jab.
"I do the best I can," Holyfield said.
"He's a good provider," Emani's mother said. "The kids charm him."
She doesn't allow Emani to watch Holyfield's fights, although she knew her daughter would hear about the last one against Mike Tyson and told her what happened.
When Emani joined her father in the limousine outside ESPN's studios Friday, she covered her mouth with the children's book in hopes that no one else would hear a question she thought might be embarrassing, and asked about his ear.
"My ear's fine, honey," he said. "He just got a little taste of it."
Later, at the news conference in Burbank, Emani's mother explained to her that Holyfield was not yet champion of the entire world because he owned only two of the three belts but would try to win the third from Lewis.
That didn't seem to matter much to Emani. Before she left her father, she gave him a picture that she had drawn of him at school. Written underneath it in yellow crayon were the words, "My Champ."
Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com