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Can Yang dance with the heavyweight champ?

The Yahoo CEO is standing up to threats from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. He's about to find out what it's like to go toe-to-toe with a real corporate titan.

If Jerry Yang and Yahoo really get into a hostile takeover fight with Steve Ballmer and Microsoft, my money's on the big guy from Redmond.

The first time I met Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, I was running on two hours sleep from a nasty bout of food poisoning. Now if you've ever met Ballmer, a big, garrulous man with a booming voice and meaty hands that always seem to be waving in the air, you'd know he's not the kind of guy you want to be interviewing in a weakened state.

Steve Ballmer is ready to brawl with Yahoo Dan Farber

I'm trying to imagine Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang -- a not so big, not so garrulous man with neither a booming voice nor meaty, waving hands -- in a room with Ballmer and asking myself: Just how far over his head is Yang? Will he come out this bloody and dazed, a sad imitation of boxer Michael Spinks' 91-second loss to Mike Tyson in 1988? Or will he be Rocky, the moral victor but ultimate loser in a (let's be clear here folks, it was just a movie) fictional match with Apollo Creed?

Does Jerry Yang have a prayer in a takeover bout with Steve Ballmer?

We all figured it would come to this: While you were enjoying the spring weather over the weekend, Ballmer sent a letter to Yahoo's board of directors threatening to go hostile in three weeks if the search company doesn't sit down for substantive takeover talks. Yang, not so surprisingly, responded in a letter Monday morning that implied Ballmer was guilty of obfuscation at best and lying at worst about whether meetings had already occurred between the two companies.

Despite the endless possibilities of Barbarians at the Gate metaphors, boxing seems more appropriate for now. It hasn't quite come to mounting the heads of Yahoo execs on pikes alongside Silicon Valley's Rte. 101. But the dueling letters are starting to reveal a level of snippiness not seen since Ballmer and Bill Gates were trading snarks with Sun CEO Scott McNealy over who did what to Java and when.

Is this about to get nasty? You bet, which brings me back to that meeting I had with Ballmer. It was 2004, in a windowless conference room at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco. The other guy at the table was then-Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy. The bitter and very public rivals had just announced they were settling their longtime feud over antitrust issues and Java for $1.95 billion and an agreement to work on technical issues.

Jerry Yang will be tested in a fight with Microsoft Dan Farber

McNealy is a giant personality, one of the funniest people you'll ever meet in the tech industry. He's also a tough nut, an amateur ice hockey player with a reputation, friends tell me, of being that guy who drives you nuts on the ice. But in a room with Ballmer, he looked...small. Despite McNealy's considerable success and deserved confidence, there was no question who was the big personality in the room.

Jerry Yang isn't Scott McNealy. Not even close. He doesn't have the track record in the corner office (remember that before Terry Semel, Tim Koogle was actually running Yahoo) and he doesn't command the respect McNealy did in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. Yang, many believe, is a fine technologist who was supposed to be a placeholder until Yahoo president Sue Deckerwas ready to take over the company. But a corporate titan? No way.

Now Yang is getting close to stepping into a hostile takeover fight with Ballmer. The squeamish part of me wants to look away, but the voyeur is really wondering what Yang look like when this is all over.