LAS VEGAS -- By process of elimination, Riddick Bowe, the unbeaten (30-0) title contender from Fort Washington, Md., appears next in line to take a whack at undisputed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, who is planning his next defense here, Nov. 13.
And after watching Holyfield's uninspiring 12-round victory over flabby ex-champion Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace on Friday night, Bowe's manager, Rock Newman, was all but measuring Riddick for his heavyweight crown.
Holyfield won a unanimous decision, but also mounting criticism from many at ringside and the majority of the estimated 14,000 fans for failing to overwhelm Holmes, a 42-year-old grandfather who last owned the title seven years ago.
In fact, in the closing rounds, Holyfield, 29, looked every bit as tired as Holmes, and just as thankful to hear the final bell. It was Holmes, a 6-1 underdog, who won the last two rounds on the scorecards that favored Holyfield, 9-3 and 8-4.
"I think it was a terribly boring fight, between two boring fighters, followed immediately by a boring press conference filled with boring people," Newman said.
The fight might not have been a total bore, but it lacked the suspense of Holyfield's last two successful defenses against journeyman Bert Cooper and George Foreman, another over-40 ring relic, who had the champion in imminent danger of being knocked out.
"If a washed-up old fighter like Holmes can hit Holyfield," said Newman, "then when Bowe hits him, he'll knock him out."
Holyfield, who had to go to the hospital late Friday night to have his sliced right eyelid stitched after catching an errant elbow in Round 6, blamed his listless effort on Holmes' dogged defensive posture and unwillingness to engage in a mid-ring slugfest.
"Evander tried too hard to impress people," said veteran trainer George Benton. "He thought he had to prove to the world he could knock out Holmes after failing to stop Foreman. It would have been a piece of cake for Evander, if he had simply moved and boxed Holmes, but he insisted on making it hard."
But Holyfield, who gave away 23 pounds and considerable reach to Holmes, got caught up in the public debate over whether he's a light-heavyweight masquerading as a heavyweight.
Except for his third-round knockout of a bloated Buster Douglas to win the title two years ago, Holyfield has not exhibited a heavyweight's punch.
He caught Holmes several times with solid hooks flush on the chin, and Holmes barely blinked.
"Larry just wouldn't let me hit him with good clean shots the way I caught Foreman," Holyfield said.
Holyfield (28-0) simply did enough to win, but his lack of flash and power makes him a marketing liability for the casino owners.
"Evander is very difficult to sell on his own merits," said Caesars Palace sports director Rich Rose. "You've got to have a strong opponent to do any business."
In defeat, Holmes tried to be kind in appraising his victor, but ultimately suggested that Holyfield would not even have been a contender in the 1970s, when the heavyweight division featured the likes of Muhammad Ali, Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, and, of course, a young Holmes.
But today Holyfield only has to contend with the likes of Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Razor Ruddock and Michael Moorer. Except for Ruddock, who lost twice to former champion Mike Tyson, these fighters have never beaten a quality opponent, carefully avoiding each other to maintain their lofty rankings.
Bowe, who has beaten the usual suspects, save for Tony Tubbs, from whom he won a questionable decision last year, has a July 18 date at The Mirage against rugged, but unschooled Pierre Coetzer of South Africa.
If Bowe escapes unharmed, he should get the fall title date with Holyfield by default since Lewis and Ruddock are tentatively scheduled to fight in London, Oct. 31.
"Evander is 29, we can't ask him to wait around for Lewis or Ruddock to finish their business," said Duva, who, not too incidentally, is also promoting the British-born Lewis these days. "But it's not the money that's the issue. It's who is available to fight Evander in November."