ATLANTA -- George Benton was talking yesterday about the problem of trying to sell the public on the subtle skills of his prize pupil.
"Here I am trying to give the people classical," he said, "and all they want is rap."
Leave it to wise old Benton to sum up in a throwaway line what columnists have been trying to express in reams of newsprint: Namely, the problem heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield is having selling records in the era immediately following the reign of terror of his predecessor, Rap Master Mike, aka M.C. Tyson.
The situation is not without precedent -- witness Gene Tunney following Jack Dempsey, Larry Holmes chasing the spirit of Ali or Benton's favorite parallel, Ezzard Charles trying to tread in the footsteps of Joe Louis. Nor is Holyfield without blame: The champion is laconic, almost indifferent, about his plight. It is not his fault, he reasons, if he can't convince boxing connoisseurs to sample his filet mignon because Tyson already has hooked them on raw meat.
"Tyson gives the people what they want," Holyfield said. "He's the type of guy who people are comfortable with as the heavyweight champion of the world. He said what he wanted to say when he wanted to say it. He fit the role they wanted. He knocked people out."
Although Holyfield fits Central Casting's image of what a heavyweight champion should be -- strong, solid, respectful and he knocks people out, too -- he himself is either secure enough, or realistic enough, or both to realize he cannot fill Tyson's shoes. Instead, he tries to walk his own path and hope enough of the public will follow along. Tomorrow night, Holyfield defends his title against Bert Cooper, a cut-rate Tyson, in a scheduled 12-round bout at the Omni in his hometown of Atlanta. It is being billed as The Homecoming, but don't expect Holyfield to eagerly assume the role of king.
"I'm the heavyweight champion of the world, but I still respect people as people," he said. "It don't give me no special privileges just because I can beat someone in a boxing ring."
Wednesday's news conference was a case in point. Most of the media swarmed around Cooper, anxious to hear the oft-told Cinderella tale of the Philadelphia club fighter facing the chance of a lifetime. Meanwhile, Holyfield sat alone and ignored.
Holyfield was supposed to have fought Tyson by now in what was expected to be the biggest and most lucrative fight of all time. By now, Holyfield's $30 million would have been in the bank, and he might have added another muscle car to his collection of a half-dozen exotic automobiles. He, along with the rest of the world, also would have known for sure just who The Baddest Man on the Planet really was.
But Tyson pulled out with a rib injury and then Francesco Damiani, lined up as a stopgap so that Holyfield's 12 weeks of training would not go to waste, twisted his ankle last week. Holyfield, having earned $28 million already since winning the title from Buster Douglas last October, could have called it a year.
But he insisted on fighting before his hometown fans, where he has not displayed his talents since winning the cruiserweight title in a grueling battle with Dwight Qawi in 1986. And Cooper (26-7, 23 KOs), although unrated, is considered more dangerous than Damiani.
"If a fight ever goes through these changes again," he said, "I probably won't fight. But I wanted to fight in Atlanta, and I probably won't get the chance to do that again."
According to the promoters, about 11,000 of the 17,000 seats are sold, at prices ranging from $25 to $250, bargain basement by heavyweight title standards. But Holyfield (26-0, 21 KOs) is not fighting for the money, although the $6 million he is getting from HBO will provide nice Christmas presents for the four little Holyfields.
"The money is ridiculous anyway," he said, seemingly embarrassed by his own wealth. "I got more than I'll need for the rest of my life. The reason I'm fighting is because it's less risky than not fighting. If I don't fight, I'll never get any better. Each and every time out, I improve. That's my goal, to get better and better."
Evander Holyfield knows that if he hits the right notes, sooner or later the public will get up and dance.