Evander Holyfield is dignity. Mike Tyson is drama. The champion commands our respect. The challenger commands our attention.
Tonight's WBA Heavyweight Championship will be both a rematch and a revelation. It should enable us, at last, to put Tyson in proper perspective. It ought to tell us whether he is one of boxing's most brilliant performers, one of its wasted talents, or both.
It will tell us, too, whether there will be another heavyweight fight worth our time in this century. Unless Tyson wins - and thereby forces a conclusive rubber match - the heavyweight division will likely turn from Pay-Per-View to Pay-For-Who?
The earnest, humble Holyfield has the makings of a heroic figure, but even Disney's mythmakers would be hard-pressed to translate him into a big box office hit. He interests us more as Tyson's foil than on his own merit, reprising the role Joe Frazier played against Muhammad Ali.
Watching Tyson is like watching a freight train at full steam on a hairpin curve. Instinct tells you it is bound for a bad end, but interest prevents you from averting your eyes. Seven years since he lost his aura of invincibility to Buster Douglas, Iron Mike remains the most compelling figure in the ring, if no longer indisputably ''the baddest man on the planet.''
''Sure, people will come to see Holyfield fight,'' Tyson says. ''But when I fight, everybody takes notes.''
Boxing needs Holyfield-Tyson
Holyfield is easily the more admirable character - pious and diligent and slightly dull. He does the bulk of his training in Houston, so as to avoid the glitz and excess of Las Vegas. Compared to Tyson's neon nightlife, Holyfield is the Gideon Bible in the desktop drawer. He is a role model; Tyson a parole model.
Boxing's problem is that it needs both of these men, and badly. Excluding the geriatric division - George Foreman and Larry Holmes - Tyson and Holyfield are the only active heavyweights who have made the slightest impact on the public consciousness.
Riddick Bowe has retired from punching to become a punch line, run out of the Marine Corps in record time. Michael Moorer, the IBF champion, is forever tarnished by being knocked out by Foreman. Andrew Golota is known for low blows, if at all. The heavyweight division has rarely been so lean for so long.
Holyfield turns 35 this fall. Tyson will be 31 next week. Both men are plainly beyond the peak of their powers, but they are still the best boxing has to offer. Their November bout was a classic of contrasting styles, with Holyfield enduring Tyson's opening artillery barrage and then slowly beating the bully senseless.
Tyson would have us think the first fight was a fluke, the product of inadequate preparation and correctable errors. He seems to have a lot of people convinced, too, for such is the anticipation for tonight's fight that the contestants will earn an estimated $30 million apiece.
''I know what I have to face now, and I'm prepared for it,'' Tyson promised. ''I know not to underestimate anyone. I've looked at the tape of the first fight a few times and I can see where I made some mistakes. I don't expect to make those mistakes again. I'm in great shape, and I'm predicting a sensational victory.''
Holyfield tamed Tyson's straight-ahead fury in November by picking his spots and biding his time. He allowed Tyson to punch himself out, and then he pounced. Tyson said later he couldn't remember anything after the third round. The bout was stopped, and none too soon, in the 11th.
History tends to repeat itself in heavyweight title fights. Of the 24 rematches to date, 16 have been won by the same man who won the first one (another ended in a draw). That Tyson is a 2-1 favorite this time around is mainly a function of his mystique. Simply put, he scares people.
''There's no doubt I'm a wild man,'' Tyson told reporters this week. ''I work hard, I play hard, I'll die hard. That's just the way I am.''
If there is more to Mike Tyson than that, tonight is his chance to prove it.