Awaiting word of Mike Tyson's sentencing in Indianapolis yesterday on a rape conviction, his estranged manager, Bill Cayton, focused on a fight poster hanging in his New York office that showed a scowling Tyson squaring off against Jose Ribalta before their non-title bout in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1986.
"Before that fight," Cayton recalled, "I predicted that one day Tyson would take his place among Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time.
"The media mocked me, but after Tyson, at 21, owned all the championship belts, they were all writing the same thing. He could have been the best ever if he had stayed away from [promoter] Don King."
What might have been may never be, now that Tyson, 25, has been sentenced to six years in prison for raping a teen-age beauty-pageant contestant. Even with time deducted for good behavior, Tyson will serve a minimum of two to three years in an Indiana state prison.
World Boxing Council president Jose Sulaiman, an ally with Tyson and his promoter, King, had stubbornly maintained Tyson as the WBC's No. 1 contender, placing an asterisk next to his name, pending his sentencing by Superior Court Judge Patricia Gifford.
Now the asterisk will be formally removed, as Tyson begins serving his term. Conceivably, he could resume his boxing career at 27 or 28, or even in his early 30s -- relatively young compared with former champions Larry Holmes, 42, and George Foreman, 43, both actively campaigning today. In fact, Holmes is next in line for a shot at the title of the present undisputed champion, Evander Holyfield, June 19.
Tyson, however, with his power and ferocity had been boxing's most marketable commodity, in these days of pay-per-view television, even after he lost his title in a 1990 upset by Buster Douglas in Tokyo.
With Tyson removed from the heavyweight scene, Holyfield's financial backers were forced to call on warhorses like Foreman and Holmes to attract a wide audience.
It has long been a boxing axiom that as the heavyweight division goes, so goes all of boxing. But Holyfield is often criticized for lacking charisma, and none of the younger heavyweight hopes possesses Tyson's box-office appeal.
Donovan "Razor" Ruddock, expected to assume the WBC's No. 1 ranking, has a devastating punch, but lost twice to Tyson.
The rest of the best -- Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Michael Moorer, Pierre Coetzer and Tommy Morrison -- have dutifully avoided fighting each other, preferring to await Holyfield's summons as a challenger in a lucrative title match.
Of course, the managers of all the top contenders talk a tough fight and blame each other for failing to reach an agreement.
Sulaiman is seeking a showdown between the WBC's top-ranked fighters, Ruddock and Bowe, by April 4, with the winner guaranteed an opportunity against the survivor of Holyfield vs. Holmes.
But Ruddock's representative, Murad Muhammad, and Bowe's spokesman, Rock Newman, remain in opposite corners.
Said Muhammad: "Whether it's in the ring or out, I predict Ruddock will knock Bowe out. Right now, it looks like it will be out of the ring."
"Holmes is getting a title shot because of either the stupidity or arrogance of Newman," Muhammad was quoted in yesterday's New York Post, referring to a report that Newman turned down a $6 million offer for Bowe to fight Holyfield in June. "Now Bowe finds himself between a rock and a hard place. The rock is Newman, and the hard place is Ruddock."
However, Newman, who has matched Bowe (29-0) against journeyman Conroy Nelson (17-14), of Canada, in Atlantic City, April 7, said he has not talked to Muhammad in a year, and doesn't want to.
"He is the manager I least respect, and, in boxing, that's saying something," he said.
"We tried to work out a deal to fight Ruddock, through his spokesman, Bill Cayton, after Ruddock beat Greg Page last month, but nothing happened," said Newman. "Riddick is salivating at the prospect of fighting Ruddock, but it won't happen."
Instead, Newman is negotiating with Foreman for a possible fall match in RFK Stadium. But first Foreman faces an April tuneup against shopworn Alex Stewart.
Newman says Foreman is trying to cut his ties with promoter Bob Arum, after Arum was responsible for Holmes getting his crack at Holyfield.
If a Foreman fight fails to materialize, Newman might turn his attention to Coetzer, a lightly tested South African, who is ranked No. 1 by the World Boxing Association and No. 2 by the International Boxing Federation. "Riddick is only 24 years old," said Newman. "If he gets a title fight by next summer, that's just fine."
Ruddock, in turn, is eyeing a fight with Lewis, the 1988 Olympic champion from England. The WBC reportedly would anoint the winner as the logical challenger to Holyfield for his next mandatory defense.
Holyfield said recently that he would like to retain his title long enough to give all the young contenders a chance to knock him off the throne.
But the soft-spoken champion needed a fight with Tyson as a measuring stick to assess his place among the heavyweight legends.
A Holyfield-Tyson mega-match, projected to gross $100 million, was scheduled twice last year. The first postponement resulted from a rib injury to Tyson. A new date was set, but canceled after Tyson was indicted for rape.
In Tyson's absence, boxing fans may have to wait a long time for a significant heavyweight fight. Holyfield, and his backers, promoter Dan Duva and manager Shelly Finkel, remain boxing's major power brokers. The odd man out is King, who must now go searching for a Tyson clone.