They have traded insults on television, derided each other's ring records and even had their pasts probed by a fortune-teller.
Tonight at the Baltimore Arena, Vincent Pettway and Eddie Van Kirk finally will fight. It is a scheduled 12-round bout for the Maryland welterweight title. But even more, it is for bragging rights in Baltimore.
This match has been a long time in the making, dating back to their amateur boxing days when they eyed each other suspiciously but never fought.
"We were always separated by a weight class," said Pettway, 25, who was considered a good enough prospect to be invited to the Olympic training site at Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1983 before a broken hand ended his dream of a gold medal.
The weight differential also kept them apart as professionals, although attempts were made in the past to bring them together to settle their growing animosity.
Van Kirk, 28, turned pro in 1982, three years before Pettway. He has compiled a 26-6-1 record, but seldom has risen above the club-fighter ranks.
He can tick off the names of all the small arenas he has fought in locally -- Steelworker's Hall, Teamster's Hall, La Fontaine Bleu, Pikesville Armory, Painters Mill Theater and the Omni ballroom.
Pettway (31-4-1) has enjoyed more publicity, fighting in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, N.J., and the Baltimore Arena, where his impressive victory over Horace Shufford in January 1988 earned him the No. 6 position in the International Boxing Federation rankings.
There was talk of a title shot against IBF champion Simon Brown, but everything quickly came apart for Pettway when he was stopped in three of his next four fights by Augustine Caballero, Victor Davis and Stefan Johnson.
Ultimately, the loss to Caballero was reversed to a technical draw when Cabellero failed the post-fight drug test. But Pettway's defeat by Davis in April 1990 -- a non-stop battle that was voted USA Cable's Fight of the Year -- dropped him from the rankings.
An eye injury he suffered in that fight kept Pettway out of action until last November, when he was matched against Johnson at (( Painters Mill.
"I fought and won on the under card that night," Van Kirk recalled. "I watched the first five rounds of the Pettway-Johnson fight and figured he was way ahead on points. I went to buy a hot dog, and the next thing I know Pettway's hanging over the ropes and the referee's signaling the fight is over."
This third loss in 15 months raised doubts over Pettway's ability to survive a stiff punch on the whiskers. At the same time, it also probably helped convince Van Kirk he was capable of beating his archrival.
"Let him think that I'm a sitting duck," said Pettway, who works as a fashion model and physical instructor for a national clothing chain.
"I'm 25, I only have four losses and my boxing career is a long way from being over. Everyone thinks I'm going to be gun-shy. But that's never been a problem for me, going back to fighting on the streets when I fought guys a lot bigger.
"I had only myself to blame for losing to Johnson. I wanted to impress my friends by showing them how smart a boxer I can be. I didn't make him pay for his mistakes. He caught me on the ropes, but when the fight ended, I was standing."
Van Kirk, whose only shot at the big time came in a fifth-round loss in November 1989 to former IBF lightweight champion Vinny Pazienza, said he believes he can bully and beat Pettway with his aggressive, walk-in style.
"He can only fight one way, but I won't run from him," said Pettway. "He's going to walk right into something. He's wide open. I'll use my jab to set everything up. It will be like playing with a bull."
Off past performances, getting Van Kirk in shape and into the ring has been more of a problem than the actual fight.
"Eddie's always had more problems outside the ring," said Tony Pulaski, his latest manager. "He's got the heart of a lion, but you've got to constantly stay after him.
"He thought he could train and manage himself, but he found out it's not that easy. We've straightened out most of his problems, and he's going into this fight with a clear mind.
"You know, he was supposed to be fighting Victor Davis tonight. But I look at Davis falling out [retinal surgery] as a good omen. Beating Pettway will mean a lot more to Eddie. After tonight, there'll be no room for argument who's the best fighter in Baltimore."
Site: Baltimore Arena, first bout, 8 p.m.
Main event: Eddie Van Kirk (26-6-1) vs. Vincent Pettway (31-4-1), 12 rounds, for Maryland welterweight title.
Promoter: Don Elbaum
Tickets: $20, $25, $40, $60, available at Arena box office and TicketCenter.