When Roy Jones Jr. and Antonio Tarver square off in the ring this Saturday in Tampa, Fla., the specter of death will be dangling in the air like one of those aerial microphones high above the crowd. A boxer named Leavander Johnson was killed recently from injuries he suffered in the ring and his memory is seeping into the interior monologue of this fight like a dark fog. Couple that with Jones having been knocked out in his last two bouts and the buzz for this light heavyweight match sounds like the worrisome gasp of someone drawing in their breath.

Great boxers always have one more trick they can turn before they retire, but the image of Jones lying unconscious after he was knocked out by Glencoffe Johnson last year is enough to wish that Jones was back home playing with his chickens rather than playing a real life game of chicken on HBO Pay-Per-View.

While Jones and Tarver are the focal point of the show, heavyweights Vinny Maddalone and Brian Minto will be fighting each other further down the undercard. Originally scheduled to fight Shannon Briggs in the co-main event, Maddalone will fight a rematch with Minto for less money and considerably less prestige.

Fighters put their lives on the line every time they dress for combat, but Maddalone and Minto came closer to dying than most the first time they fought.

The sheer pace of that fight, the volume of punches thrown was dizzying to watch, and Maddalone and Minto, two courageous fighters who don’t possess the boxing skills of Jones and Tarver, will surely duplicate the original in a match that has transfixed hard-core boxing fans, but is a footnote compared to Jones-Tarver. Despite evidence that Maddalone and Minto will be more cautious this time, their styles say otherwise.

“Let him think that I’m going to move around like I did the first time,” Minto said in a telephone interview. “That’s what I want him to think. I don’t want to give away my game plan, but this fight is going to be a lot shorter than the first one.”

The initial fight was a marathon of attrition that came down to who was in better shape. It was quite simply one of the best fights of 2004.

Moments after losing to Minto last year in Atlantic City, N.J., Maddalone, who is from Queens, was seen striding up and down a hallway in the Trump Taj Mahal Casino, shaking hands and howling about the fight.

The skin surrounding his eyes was lavender and his trunks were splattered with blood, but Maddalone, who had been KO'd in the 10th round, was in a good spirits, behaving as if he had won the  fight.

Meanwhile, Minto was tucked away in a brightly lit dressing room, hallucinating while his trainer, Tommy Yankello, fed him water and applied ice to his head. A reporter attempted to ask him a question, but Minto was so parched that all he could muster was something about Jesus and heaven and surviving a war. His wife, Heidi, joked that she would kill him if he and Maddalone ever fought again.

Maddalone appeared and slapped Minto's hand. “What a fight!” he said. “Next time we do this again it will be for HBO money!”

Moments later Minto was whisked away to Atlantic City Medical Center for dehydration and Maddalone went to his dressing room to change his clothes.

“This is what you work so hard for,” Maddalone said in a phone interview in early September, “to be able to fight in front of a lot of fans on HBO. It's a dream come true.”

At the time of the call, Maddalone, 31, was scheduled to meet Briggs, a former crown price of the heavyweight division who came within a follow-up right hand of defeating heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis in 1998.

Briggs apparently backed out because of a disagreement over money, opening the door for Maddalone and Minto to fight again.

“These guys know what's at stake and they'll both be hungry tigers when that bell rings,” promoter Joe DeGuardia said. “Someone is going down. Expect to see a repeat of the rock-em-sock em, knockdown bloody war that they fought last year.”

Since their fight, Maddalone (25-2, 18 KO's) has changed trainers, from Bob Jackson to Al Certo, and Minto (20-1, 11 KO's) has signed with Duva Boxing and gone through three trainers, ultimately landing with Yankello after a dalliance with Tommy Brooks and Buddy McGirt. A smallish heavyweight, Minto squandered whatever goodwill he manufactured from his win over Maddalone by losing a split decision to veteran Tony Tubbs in his very next fight.

For his part, Maddalone has won four consecutive fights, the last a highly entertaining scrap with Shannon Miller on ESPN2 in August. The fight with Briggs was called off on September 13. The bout with Minto, 30, was signed a day later.

“I'm in the best condition that I can be in,” Maddalone said on September 21. “I'm learning that I don't have to knock everyone out. What's wrong with winning every round and winning a decision? Al Certo has me sparring five times a week, and I feel more relaxed in the ring. I'm just looking forward to giving the fans their money's worth. It's going to be a great fight.”

Maddalone was leading on all three scorecards when Minto, who is from Butler, Pa., leveled him with a left hook in the 10th and final round. Maddalone got up on one knee and fell back down. He beat the referee's count of nine, but the fight was deemed over.

Maddalone built a lead with the judges by dropping Minto in the first round, but by the fourth he was gasping for air. Upset over the way he is being treated by Duva Boxing, Minto has a chip on his shoulder that he intends to hurl at Maddalone on Saturday.

“Vinny hasn't fought anyone since he fought me,” Minto said. “I'm ten times better than I was when I fought him. I saw him fight Miller on TV, and he looks like a shot fighter. He looked pudgy, and he was getting hit too much. Some guys get better and have a long career in this business, and some guys get worse and have a short career.

“He still doesn't know how to take punches. I don't mean any disrespect. I like Vinny; he's a nice guy, but this is business, and Joe (DeGuardia) has protected him a lot. I don't expect the fight to be as tough as it was the first time.”