LAS VEGAS -- Evander Holyfield plans to fight on, no matter how long it takes or how bad he looks.
He became a champion again Saturday night by beating John Ruiz in a rugged fight that clearly exposed him as a fading fighter nearing the age of 38. The problem is, Holyfield said he will keep fighting until he is once again the undisputed champion.
"I will fight until I win it," Holyfield said.
The latest in a string of mediocre performances by Holyfield -- who has gone the distance in his last four fights -- hardly established him as the heavyweight champion of the world in the eyes of anyone other than the WBA.
The real champion would be Lennox Lewis, who last year made Holyfield an ex-champion and seems to be coming into his own just as Holyfield's skills and reflexes seem to be fading.
"There will be little or no public recognition of him. Not even in America," Lewis said.
Holyfield needed a late rally to barely eke out a unanimous decision over Ruiz, who was basically hardly more than a journeyman fighter who had worked his way up to the No. 1 contender spot by fighting a series of no-name boxers.
If Ruiz had won the 12th round, he would have won the fight. To Holyfield's credit, he did show the poise of being in his 20th title fight by coming on strong to win the bout.
But the fighter who staged thrilling wars with Riddick Bowe and pulled one of boxing's biggest upsets against Mike Tyson looked just like what he has become against Ruiz -- an aging fighter whose reflexes are increasingly suspect.
"Everything is hard for me," Holyfield said. "I'm accustomed to it. If it's not hard, it's probably not worth it."
Holyfield won by four points on one ringside scorecard, but only one on the other two. On those cards, the fight was even after the 11th round and Holyfield's quest to become the first heavyweight to win a portion of the title four times was in jeopardy.
"I'm just a little bit better than my opponent, I don't claim to be a lot," Holyfield said. "If I get an opportunity to fight him again, I'll be better."
Ruiz asked for a rematch after the fight, and Holyfield said he was considering it, which might say something both about the state of his boxing skills and the legitimacy of the WBA title. Lewis held all three titles before a judge ordered him to vacate the WBA crown for not defending against Ruiz.
In a fight that was entertaining, if not technically great, Ruiz gave it everything he had but seemed to run out of gas in the crucial 12th round. A left hook by Holyfield appeared to knock him down, although referee Richard Steele ruled it a slip.
"I fought my heart out," Ruiz said. "Let's set another date and let's make it for real."
Holyfield's goal is to win the undisputed title again and retire, and he said during the week of the fight that if it took him until 2003 or 2004 to do so, he would still be fighting.
It might take that long, since Lewis holds the other two belts and has already fought Holyfield twice in the last 17 months. Holyfield got a controversial draw the first time, then lost a decision.
Lewis, though, doesn't really need Holyfield anymore, and since neither Holyfield-Lewis fight was a classic, it's doubtful a third fight would be any more attractive.
Still, "Who else is he going to fight to make money?" Holyfield asked.
Money, of course, should be the least of Holyfield's concerns. Since beating Tyson, he has earned $100 million in the ring, including $5 million for the Ruiz fight.
Holyfield hasn't looked sharp in the ring since beating Tyson, and his last four fights have all gone the distance without him knocking down any of his opponents. He nearly dropped Ruiz in the third round, but backed off and had trouble beating him to the punch the rest of the night.
"I'll fight anybody," Holyfield said. "I'll fight Lennox or Mike Tyson if those fights can be made."
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