ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- "The Battle of the Ages" -- the theme for Evander Holyfield's title defense against former heavyweight champion George Foreman Friday night -- now bears a subtitle on the T-shirts worn by Holyfield's supporting cast.
The message reads, "War For Respect."
"Yeah, respect, that's what this is all about," said Lou Duva, Holyfield's head trainer and self-appointed spokesman.
At 28, Holyfield is recognized as champion by professional boxing's three major organizations, but there is still an army of detractors who consider him fortunate that his road to the heavyweight title did not lead through Mike Tyson.
Tyson was dethroned in an upset by James"Buster" Douglas in Tokyo 14 months ago. Eight months later, Holyfield needed less than two rounds to burst Douglas' bubble. But Tyson is lurking in the background.
"We've already promised to fight Tyson next," said Dan Duva, Holyfield's promoter. "There are only two people who can keep it from happening -- Foreman and Don King."
Dan Duva made it clear that promoter King is the bigger hurdle.
"He's always got to be in control of the situation," Dan Duva said, "making sure he has both fighters tied up before he arranges a match.
"King had 'Razor' Ruddock signed to a number of options just in case he beat Tyson," Duva said. "He'd want Tyson to get the same purse as Holyfield and be an equal partner in the promotion, but there is no way that will happen."
Duva said unbeaten and untested Tommy Morrison would be Holyfield's next title rival. But Holyfield's preference is to fight Tyson if it meant winning universal respect.
"You can go back through my whole life," Holyfield said, "back to when I was fighting as a kid in the amateurs. Someone was always saying I was too small or too nice to be a fighter. Now, they say I'm not tough enough to beat a Tyson. Always something."
Even when he destroyed Douglas with a classic combination, critics suggested the bloated Douglas was looking for a soft spot to land, his short fall cushioned by his $20 million purse. But Holyfield just shrugs and goes on to the next challenge.
It is possible, though, that Holyfield might be distracted from his bout with Foreman by divorce proceedings with his wife, Paulette. But Holyfield's divorce has not created headlines in the supermarket tabloids in the sensational style of the Tyson-Robin Givens breakup.
Holyfield also has suffered recent business setbacks. Two Atlanta-area car dealerships in which he shared an interest went into receivership, but Holyfield seemingly remains unruffled.
"There have been good things and bad things. Everything balances out. When you come down to it, it's been fair. Nobody in the world is without problems."
"His biggest advantage is his mental toughness," said Lou Duva. "He can block anything out of his mind. I first saw that in Los Angeles, when he got disqualified in the semifinals after knocking a guy out and lost a chance to win a gold medal.
"Anyone else would have gone crazy and screamed in protest. But Evander took it philosophically. He just said, 'If that is what's meant to be, I have to accept it.' That convinced me he was something special."
Lou Duva also saw Holyfield's single-mindedness at work when he was booked to fight former Olympic teammate and friend Henry Tillman in 1987.
"Tillman had already asked Evander to be best man at his wedding," Duva said. "They still went through with the fight, and Evander destroyed him. But when he showed up at Tillman's wedding, they were best friends again."
But Holyfield first had to prove that he had the resolve to win a battle of wills with a championship at stake. His first severe test came when he challenged Dwight Qawi for the cruiserweight crown in 1986.
The fight was scheduled for 15 rounds, not the current 12-round limit. At the time, Holyfield had not fought more than eight rounds.
It was a brutal battle from the opening bell, with the two fighters standing toe-to-toe and averaging an incredible 154 punches a round.
"By the fourth round," Holyfield recalled, "I was thinking to myself, 'Qawi is so strong and so bad. I can't get him off me.'
"I understood what Muhammad Ali meant when he said fighting Joe Frazier was like experiencing death. I started praying just to get through the fight. I was looking to survive, not to win. But when I endured the 15 rounds and won the title, that helped me to build my determination.
"Get through it once, you can do it again. I had another rough fight with Michael Dokes. He rocked me a couple of times. But my attitude is that if I'm in the ring, I'm going to fight until I can't fight anymore."
"Being heavyweight champion can be hard at times, but I tell myself that if I can be as strong outside the ring as inside, I'll be OK. If I can treat life the way I treat boxing, everything will work out for the best."
Nov 15 Lionel Byarm W 6
Jan 20 Eric Winbush W 6
Mar 13 Freddie Brown KO 1
Apr 20 Mark Rivera KO 2
vTC Jul 20 Tyrone Booze W 8
Aug 29 Rick Meyers KO 1
Oct 30 Jeff Meachum KO 5
Dec 21 Anthony Davis KO 5
Mar 1 Chisanda Mutti KO 2
Apr 6 Jesse Shelby KO 3
May 28 Terry Mims KO 5
Jul 20 Dwight Qawi W 15
(Won WBA cruiserweight title)
Dec 8 Michael Brothers KO 3
Feb 14 Henry Tillman KO 7
May 15 Rickey Parker KO 3
(Won IBF cruiserweight title)
Aug 15 Ossie Ocasio KO 11
Dec 4 Dwight Qawi KO 4
Apr 9 Carlos DeLeon KO 8
(Won world cruiserweight title)
Jul 16 James Tillis KO 8
Dec 9 Pinklon Thomas KO 7
Mar 11 Michael Dokes KO 10
Jul 15 Adilson Rodrigues KO 2
Nov 4 Alex Stewart KO 8
Jun 1 Seamus McDonagh KO 4
Oct 25 James Douglas KO 3
(Won world heavyweight title)
(25-0, 21 KOs)