LAS VEGAS -- Before setting his sights on winning a medal in the 1984 Olympic Games, Evander Holyfield was earning $4 an hour pumping gas outside Atlanta.
In Columbus, Ohio, James "Buster" Douglas received $5.50 an hour cutting rugs for a carpet firm.
Tomorrow night, fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world, they will divide $32.1 million, with Douglas, the champion, getting $24,075,000 -- the biggest boxing purse in the history of the sport.
The Mirage, headed by Steve Wynn, a relative newcomer to professional boxing, made the record purse bid, with Dan Duva, of New Jersey-based Main Events Inc. as his only competitor. Duva, who also is Holyfield's promoter, bid $29.1 million.
"Duva was praying he wouldn't win," said rival promoter Butch Lewis. "Everyone's knocking Wynn, saying he's ruining the boxing business by overbidding, but, hey, I'm rooting for him to be successful. He's a real player."
Bob Arum, who along with Don King, has monopolized major boxing promotions the past 20 years, hardly shares Lewis' sentiments.
"Douglas-Holyfield is a debacle," Arum said yesterday after returning from Paris, where he watched middleweight champion Michael Nunn knock out Donald Curry.
"Wynn doesn't have a clue as a promoter or how to sell pay-per-view. He's spent $45.5 million on this match and could lose $20 million. If Wynn were a bank president spending money foolishly like this, he might be thrown in jail."
Arum's negative view of Wynn's boxing acumen was echoed by Duva, who suggested the casino owner would have been wiser to have bid simply for the site rights.
"He could have bought the fight for $12 million and saved himself over $30 million," said Duva. "And that's not even counting the $6.5 million he had to pay to King and Donald Trump to settle the court suit [initiated by King].
"He would have had the live gate and the gambling tables to make his money back. Instead, he's going to lose a bundle."
Mike Tyson, who originally was scheduled to fight Holyfield before Tyson was dethroned by Douglas in Tokyo last February, also took a roundhouse swipe at the championship match.
"They could hold this fight in a square box in Central Park," said Tyson, preparing for his Dec. 8 fight with Alex Stewart in Atlantic City, N.J. "Holyfield and Douglas don't sell diddly. They're a couple of unknown bleeps."
Through all the forecasts of financial doom, Wynn keeps smiling.
"It's terrific," he said, scanning the latest sales figures from pay-per-view companies across the country. "The fight has caught on like wildfire the last week.
"I don't think it's the fact that the World Series ended so quickly. This is the result of all the national advertising we've done. It's really paid off. And the fight has caught the public's fancy. It's not like Tyson's fights when he was an overwhelming favorite. The gamblers seem evenly divided between Douglas and Holyfield."
Originally, Wynn was prepared to accept a $2 million-$3 million loss, knowing that if Douglas wins, he is guaranteed a more-attractive rematch with Tyson, while also profiting greatly from all the stories mentioning The Mirage, his $700 million showplace replete with white tigers, sharks and a volcano.
"When we staged Leonard-Duran III to open the place last winter, we invited our friends," Wynn said. "Now we no longer have to send out invitations to the high rollers. They come on their own."
Still, Wynn admitted lacking the expertise in handling the pay-per-view television market that would determine the bottom line on tomorrow's title fight. For advice in this area, he awarded a $1 million contract to Mike Trainer, a Maryland attorney who helped build Sugar Ray Leonard into the wealthiest fighter of all-time.
"All the other promoters can't do what Wynn can with The Mirage, said Trainer, "and that is why they're so envious. This man simply has more guts and imagination.
"With an Arum or Duva, they have to put up letters of credit for the fighters' purses by securing pay-per-view guarantees from exhibitors, who then sell the fight to cable systems.
"But Wynn has got the up-front money and can eliminate the exhibitors. Typically, a promoter gets 38.5 percent of the charge to the subscriber. But Wynn can get 60 percent, and that's a gain of 21.5 percent on every dollar, and that's how he can cover his purse bid," Trainer said.
In breaking down the estimated revenue, Trainer said Wynn will receive $9 million from the live gate, $18.5 million from pay-per-view and closed-circuit television outlets, $3 million from foreign rights and $3 million from ancillary rights -- videotapes, merchandising and sponsorships.
That adds up to $33 million and doesn't take into account what Wynn expects to take in at his gambling tables in the three days leading up to the fight.
"The nightly action on the tables for Leonard and Marvin Hagler three years ago was $2 million at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas," said Trainer. "Wynn could easily triple that number at The Mirage."
The big point of debate is over the pay-per-view sales. Trainer said 14.7 million homes are available through the cable systems. He arrived at his $18.5 figure with a "conservative" buy rate of 6 percent, or 900,000 homes paying $35 to watch the fight.
Wynn said Monday that current sales are running closer to 7 percent, and that he might gross $20 million from pay-per-view alone.
"The way the sports market is today, with people paying close to $100 million for a franchise," he said, "the $32 million I paid for this fight won't seem like very much in a few years' time."