Thursday, Dec. 24, 1998 | 9:10 a.m.
Having finished his workout, Frans Botha appeared happy to take care of some optional business.
He signed a few autographs.
And exchanged small talk with fans and well-wishers who had just watched him go through his paces in a tent adjacent to the Monte Carlo.
After all but his camp members and a reporter had cleared out, he sauntered over with a look of satisfaction lighting up his face.
"Did I tell you my prediction for the fight?" he asked.
When the response was "eighth-round knockout" he made a quick correction.
"No, not anymore," he said. "Seventh-round knockout."
The implication: He's feeling even more confident about his chances as his Jan. 16 fight with Mike Tyson at the MGM Grand Garden draws near.
"I know he's a lot better than when I last saw him," said former cruiserweight world champion Orlin Norris, who is serving as a sparring partner for Botha in a mutually beneficial arrangement in that Norris has a Feb. 13 fight in London with heavyweight Herbie Hide.
"Botha's been doing very well," Norris said. "The biggest thing about him and being in a fight of this magnitude is that you have to rise to another level.
"And I know he already has. I've seen it. I've sensed it. And I've felt it."
While Norris could have groaned with the memories, he smiled.
"I'd say he definitely has a good chance to win," he said. "Tyson's had a lot of wear and tear and Botha's looking sharp. He's got good power and he's awkwardly fast, throwing punches at angles you don't expect."
Norris will remain in Botha's camp for another two weeks and his presence is even more valuable now that fellow sparring partner Ed Mahone withdrew his services after a mere three days on the job.
Mahone is a heavyweight with an 19-0-1 record.
"The great Ed Mahone," said Botha's trainer, Panama Lewis, putting a sarcastic slant on his words. "He figured sparring with a white boy like this would be easy money, but after three days of getting beat up he packed and left Monday night.
"He didn't even ask for his check (for $750)."
Mahone's defection seemed to tickle Botha.
"I hit him with every punch," he said. "He doesn't have a chin."
If Botha is using -- if not abusing -- his sparring partners, reports from Phoenix where Tyson is training indicate the former undisputed heavyweight champ is sparring only every other day and that the quality of his opposition is suspect. If that's the case, it only adds to the contrasts between the rival camps.
"Botha couldn't be having a better camp than this," said his manager, Sterling McPherson. "He's a married man who doesn't chase women and doesn't drink and is in bed by 9 o'clock. He's doing everything, exactly as we've asked him to do it."
McPherson, a former fighter, knows that's an abnormal devotion.
"Most fighters won't let you do what's right for them," he said. "Usually, you can make all kinds of recommendations or demands and the fighter will listen to some and disregard the ones he doesn't like. Botha is cooperating 100 percent and that's a major difference from the typical fighter.
"He has the character it takes to raise his game to the type of high-stakes level you have to be at to fight Tyson. I love him to death."
So does Lewis.
"Tyson's taking my man lightly," he said. "But we're not taking him lightly. Botha's fighting the big dog now and you can't beat Tyson by training lightly.
"So we're working hard, every day."
Yet he's also conscious of not overdoing it. When Botha fought Michael Moorer for the IBF championship two years ago, he later complained that he left his game in the gym and it cost him a victory.
The South African is 39-1 overall; Tyson is 45-3.
"It's simple," Lewis said. "I watch him very closely and when I see bubbles of sweat it's time to stop. He's also resting better than he did back then, and everything he needs is right here in the Monte Carlo (where he's staying and training daily at 12:30 p.m.).
"He's also not using a strength coach like he did before he fought Moorer. Botha beat himself in that fight but part of the reason is that the strength coach was a mistake. It didn't work."
Lewis has Botha working on specifics, such as countering Tyson's looping punches and uppercuts and handling those times when he'll be against the ropes.
"We have to figure Tyson will corner him," Lewis said. "When that happens, Tyson can feel like a freight train. So I put Botha against the ropes or in a corner and force him to fight his way out."
Botha's primary sparring partner, Norris, has been agreeable to the tactics and even provided a few of his own.
"The other day he came out right at the first bell and tried to surprise Botha with a big left hook, just like Tyson might try to do," Lewis said. "I liked that. It showed Norris was thinking and that you always have to be prepared."
If preparation counts for anything, it appears as if Botha is in good shape with the fight now only 23 days away.