LAS VEGAS - After a 30-year absence, the King Tut exhibit returned to the United States, with many of the "boy king's" golden artifacts on display at the Franklin Institute through September.

The "Golden Boy," however, does not do extended engagements. And nobody, it seems, wants to miss what could be the final ring appearance of boxing's aging boy king, 34-year-old Oscar De La Hoya, against his mouthy but supremely talented opponent, Floyd Mayweather Jr.

It only seems Tut-long since boxing truly mattered, since it commanded our attention to the level that is has for tonight's likely-to-shatter-records matchup of De La Hoya (38-4, 30 KOs), the WBC super welterweight champion, and pound-for-pound ruler Mayweather (37-0, 24 KOs).

You can't escape the hype because, well, it's everywhere. Images of the fighters, standing back to back, look up at you from the sides of beer cans. They're omnipresent on billboards, on television. Interest has been heightened by an 11-city press tour, including a stop in Philadelphia, that was open to the public and drew more than 200,000 fans, and by a four-part HBO documentary series that provided more behind-the-scenes looks at boxers than ever before.

Even Sports Illustrated, whose editors seemingly lost interest in boxing when Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard retired, put De La Hoya and Mayweather on its cover this week. It's the first time in years that SI has devoted such prime space to a mere fistfight.

For the accountants, every indicator points to a box-office grand slam. Even if the PPV count (suggested retail price: $54.95) does not surpass the 1.98 million buys for Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson in 2002, the fight likely will gross more than $100 million. The MGM Grand Garden's 16,700 seats sold out in hours, even though the face value of most seats was $2,000. Prime ringside locations reportedly are going for as high as $35,000 to well-heeled fans. The live gate set a record of $19.068 million, topping the previous record of $16.8 million for Lewis-Holyfield II in 1999.

De La Hoya-Mayweather will be shown in more than 1,500 closed-circuit locations in the United States, eclipsing the previous record by about 400. And, although most fights are shown in 30 to 40 foreign countries, this one is going out to 176. Each country pays a licensing fee to receive the HBO feed.

"When you start adding these things together, it's unbelievable," said Richard Schaefer, CEO of De La Hoya's promotional company, Golden Boy Promotions.

But perhaps most significant is the buzz on the street, which even a $30 million advertising budget can't buy.

People aren't asking "Will you watch the fight?" as much as "Where will you watch the fight?"

Said Mayweather, who seemingly has embraced his image as the gangsta-rap-loving, profanity-spewing villain to De La Hoya's matinee-idol hero: "It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's a green thing. I understand that's the business."

Almost lost amid the bean counters' giddy speculation about torrential revenue streams, however, is the prayer offered up by hardcore fight fans waiting for a sign that their favorite sport finally is on the rebound.

True believers won't mind increasing their cable bill - again - if De La Hoya-Mayweather delivers action on a par with the hoopla. They not only want to believe the combatants can back up their bold talk, they need them to.

Because the next night like this might be a long, long time coming around again.

Even though Schaefer and De La Hoya have gotten promises from several of their major sponsors to remain on the boxing bandwagon, a dull, tactical bout could be a dagger to the heart instead of defibrillation. In any case, it will be interesting to see how many of the faithful and newly curious return, wallets in hand, for Golden Boy's presentation of the July 21 light-heavyweight matchup of Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins and Winky Wright.

That puts more far pressure on De La Hoya and Mayweather to produce between the ropes than in TV commercials.

"All eyes will be on that ring, on boxing," De La Hoya said. "All we have to do is perform. Now it's up to us."


Oscar De La Hoya weighed in 154 pounds, the class limit, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. weighed 150, the heaviest he has ever weighed for a fight . . . Philadelphia heavyweight Malik Scott won a 10-round, unanimous decision over Charles Shufford (20-7-1, 9 KOs), of Las Vegas, last night at the Palms Casino Resort. Scott, who won 28 of the 30 rounds on the three judges' scorecards, improved to 28-0 with 10 knockouts. It was the first 10-round bout of his career. *