In 1965, when George Foreman left Houston, there was only the one Dairy Dream, and a man had to be purposeful indeed to gather about him a burger and fries. But by 1977, when Foreman returned in retirement, that great city had put folks on the moon, developed indoor baseball and constructed fast-food restaurants on every available corner. A man could simply mean to drive down the street for stamps and somehow there would be this bucket of Original Recipe on the seat next to him.
It was the dawning of a great era, a time when a hungry man, say a man newly released from a training regimen, could order from a menu at one intersection, move along for a few blocks until the sack was exhausted and then drive through a Wendy's or a McDonald's. And the great thing was, he never had to be embarrassed by his appetite. It wasn't like he was returning to that same Dairy Dream for a refill 20 minutes later. Would you look who's back! Better take another steer to the kill room! No, the great thing was that he could just keep driving down the street. And if it did get to the point where a man might be recognized by his gluttony, well, he could simply speak to that most non-judgmental of all kitchen service, the curbside clown.
And the variety was astonishing. Foreman, in fact, was pleased to see that his own particular boulevard of broken seams, Westheimer Road in southwest Houston, was welcoming the fast-food fish franchises. Not since Wendy's introduced its double-meat burger had Foreman seen the industry make this kind of leap of innovation. It was quite a time. Try to picture a Rolls-Royce Corniche, a big round man in overalls at the wheel, gliding down Westheimer Road, two trips a night, the car nosing into drive-throughs: a Burger King or a Jack-in-the-Box or one of "the Kentucky fellas" or—brand new!—battered halibut.
So you understand how Foreman might have gotten out of fighting trim. But was this the worst of it? No, it was not. Foreman had forsaken boxing for the pulpit in 1977 and in time gathered his own flock under the banner of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such parishioners as he had often called on him for help with spiritual problems, but it was Foreman's observation that these problems were frequently solved somewhere between the stove and table, without much help from him.
"This is the truth," he says. "I'd walk through the door and smell the chicken, the biscuits, the gravy, and soon I was at the table. And it was: You want another of these ham hocks? Or: Can I give you another slice of cornbread? Then nobody could remember what the problem was and they'd say. Well, we're having this or that next week, and I'd be back for a couple of weeks. And I wouldn't lie to you but that's the way it was for about seven years."
So of course a man would grow large, what with his lay ministry and his high-caloric cruising of Westheimer. By his own reckoning, Foreman, a magnificently proportioned 220 pounds as the heavyweight champion of the world, had ballooned to "300-and-some-odd pounds," and the "odd" is generally believed to be in increments of 20. He was huge and, as entrepreneurs identified new foods to deep-fry, was getting bigger.
None of this was anybody's business but his tailor's until the day Foreman decided to make a comeback. Then he became what has been one of sport's more cherished icons, the boxer/buffoon. Fat, foolish and 40, and all that stands in his way is Mike Tyson, a nice little package of youth, conditioning and violence. Folks, the gag writers whispered among themselves, there will be comedy tonight.
There is an unnecessary cruelty in this, a meanness that Foreman is able to shrug off. About all he ever wanted to do was to get enough to eat. He remembers Saturday nights, waiting for his mother to come home from a restaurant where she worked. "She'd buy a gigantic hamburger, big and round, and bring it home," he says. "We're talking about seven children. And she'd give everybody a little piece. And I'd sit there and nurse that little piece, kiss it a little bit, smell it and finally eat that little piece. There was nothing more I wanted in life than to be able to have enough food."
The gag writers allowed Foreman no special courtesy because of this leftover hunger. And so they gathered together two years ago when, after a 10-year layoff, he entered the ring for a bout with Steve Zouski. Foreman had apparently cut back to one trip a night up and down Westheimer and had gotten down to 267 pounds. But the gag writers were nonetheless delighted with the remaining flab that jiggled before their eyes. Most of them couldn't help but point out that George Foreman, lovable as he had become in retirement, had finally bitten off more than he could chew.
The comeback has now gone 18 fights without a loss, all of them won by TKOs. It has been barnstorming more than anything else, with Foreman appearing in such venues as Sacramento; Orlando, Fla.; Springfield, Mo.; and Phoenix. The opponents have been roundly ridiculed while Foreman himself remains ridiculously round—253 at his last weigh-in.
Hardly anybody sees progress—some, in fact, see fraud—yet it is agreed that a Foreman-Tyson match is becoming inevitable. As in the old days, before casinos became the sites of choice, countries are expressing interest in sponsoring the fight. Boxing being what it is. Foreman is becoming an economic imperative.
Perhaps, also, there are people who remember that Foreman, every so often, stops to remake himself in one image or another. He has done turns as mugger, patriot, boxing champion and preacher. None of these remakes has involved much advance planning, but they seem to have been prompted by all kinds of corny happenstance—a television commercial, for one. But whenever Foreman does decide to turn his life upside down, he does it with conviction and with success. So, if he wants to be a 40-year-old heavyweight champion....
Question: Why be a 40-year-old heavyweight champion? The boxer/buffoon is sitting in the George Foreman Youth and Community Center, a stucco building near Houston Intercontinental Airport. The building is one of the few in the neighborhood that is not up on blocks. The humidity is daunting. Foreman has just finished three rounds of shadowboxing in the youth center's boxing ring, which, along with some weights on the side, is the center's principal apparatus. The sweat is pouring off him, and you wonder why he isn't a light heavyweight instead of, well, what he is.
Foreman has answered the question a dozen different ways. When he was practicing his measured savagery in the '70s—knocking down Joe Frazier six times in two rounds to win the title, in Kingston, Jamaica—he was hardly known for his comedy bits. He had instead adopted former stablemate Sonny Liston's approach to public comportment, which was to glare a lot and issue sweeping statements of doom. But now he has worked the comeback into a kind of lounge act.
He mentions the taxes on his ranch in Marshall, Texas; he mentions his girth; he mentions his wife; he mentions his many children. He also has a routine about middle age and how every man with salt and pepper in his beard will be able to look in the mirror after Foreman destroys Tyson and yell, "Yippi-i-ti-yee!" It's acceptable material. But seriously, folks.
"O.K. Biggest reason? Biggest reason was my brother Roy. He had a gym on the south side of town." Foreman explains. "I don't know why he got into boxing. Soul-searching, I guess, trying to help kids. Someone gave him a building and I even gave him a bag from my days. Told me he was helping children, getting them into an amateur tournament, something of that sort."
Foreman felt a vague distaste for boxing at this stage of the game, and he was dubious about Roy's efforts to help kids by teaching them to fight. After his last fight, a 12-round losing decision to Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico in 1977, Foreman had had a religious experience in the dressing room, and from then on he had put as much distance between himself and boxing as possible. He wore suits, and he shaved his head and face, so nobody would confuse this storefront preacher with that moving mountain of malevolence from the '70s.
"I figured I could never be involved again in boxing because what would my congregation say," he says. "Me, a preacher, helping kids learn to hit one another." Strange talk, of course, from someone who once roamed Houston's Fifth Ward as a one-man scourge. "But one day I stopped in from doing some business, and Roy was signing up kids for his boxing program and this lady came in to bring her boy. I guess for a certain age, the mothers had to sign for them. And this was a young mother, but you could tell she was upset. This boy, he was maybe 14 or 15 years old, and the mother, she gave me a look as if to say, George Foreman, you could really help this boy, maybe take him off the street, make a good boxer out of him. keep him out of trouble. And I looked back to her as if to say, If you really want to help this boy, bring him to church. You don't need athletics, you need church. You need someone to tell him about the Bible and what's right and wrong. I remember walking away, thinking that."
Some months later Foreman thought to ask his brother, Whatever became of that kid, anyway? Roy reported that the boy and an accomplice had held up a gas station in George's own proper suburb of Humble, and that the attendant shot the accomplice and the would-be boxer shot the attendant. Roy thought he was doing about eight years. "All these lives were devastated because I didn't have time or I was ashamed of what my congregation would think of me." he says. "That was 1983, when I stopped being able to sleep at night."
Foreman has made a fortune in boxing; he and Muhammad Ali pulled down $5 million apiece for their fight in Za‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤re. He spent a fortune, of course. He had properties scattered throughout the West; he bought a lion and a tiger, and he got a prize bull just because he admired its musculature. He bought a German shepherd for $21,000. This in addition to the usual extravagances: enough cars to start his own dealership, and all appliances as soon they were invented. To this day, friends will mention a piece of electronics by saying, "The first VCR [microwave, camcorder, etc.] I ever saw was in George's house."
"But there was always a pocket that wouldn't go, the money for me and my family to live happily ever after on," says Foreman. So out of that pocket, a low-six-figure income, came funds for his youth center, which he operates with Roy, funds for scholarships, funds for whatever the kids needed.
"I had it going real good, but each month it was starting to eat into my principal a little more," Foreman says. He thought there was plenty of principal left until one day his attorney came down to the center, stood over by the basketball hoop, and said that Foreman would have to let this place go because he was a lot closer to becoming Joe Louis than Father Flanagan. "I almost cried. Well, I said, I'll just start supporting it more. And I took on speaking engagements, booked myself around the country, just preaching.
"So this guy near Georgia invited me out and told me he would pay me so much for three nights. He'd donate it to the center. Well, O.K. He told me he already had the money, but when I got there, he started collecting. He didn't have the money. He looked at the collection and said, 'Now look here. George Foreman is doing so much for these kids, they're your kids, help him with this program.' He counted it again and then said, "Wait a minute, you can do better than this.' Man, I never felt so hurt and embarrassed in my life. And I made a vow. I said, I'll never do this again. I know how to make money. I went back and put on my boxing trunks."
Why be a 40-year-old champion? The short answer is, So you can sleep nights.
This latest life change is the least of Foreman's remarkable transformations. He used to be one of those kids he now aims to help. Not the kind who might shoot up a gas station. That would have been a considerable upgrade for his character. He was quite a bit worse, even if unarmed.
Lester Hayes, the Los Angeles Raider defensive back and another famous athlete to survive life in the Fifth Ward—a gritty section of small frame cottages on the north side of Houston—was six years younger than Foreman but hardly removed from his reach. Hayes, like everybody else, was a member of a gang, one of about 12 in the neighborhood, each representing a specific interest. There were fighting gangs, of course, but there was also a dancing gang, whose members spent the day fast-stepping down the gravel streets. The great spectator fun came when a dancing gang accidentally shimmied into a fighting gang. Hayes's gang specialized "in doing mischievous things." Like? "Oh. pillaging the neighborhood 7-Eleven, things of that nature," Hayes says. But Foreman's Hester House gang—George was the lead enforcer in a gang named after a nearby athletic center—wreaked a more practical kind of mischief.
"First time I met George Foreman I was in the seventh grade, hanging around a neighborhood store." Hayes says. "Up walks George Foreman and he asks me to loan him a nickel. I was eating a greasy-spoon hamburger, too, so he asks me for a bite of that. He took the entire burger.
"The next time I saw George, the idea of a nickel was null and void. I loaned him a quarter. It seemed to me huge inflation was taking place. Of course, I would have gone home and found a quarter for him if I didn't have one on me. He was a very, very big kid and had a reputation for savage butt kickings. That was his forte. So by the early age of 12, I had met George Foreman twice and I found both occasions extremely taxing."
Foreman was "the neighborhood small-change collector." Hayes says. "Anybody on George's turf had to pay a silver coin toll, tax-free income, and then take a terrible beating. I will say this of George: He was a smart gangster in that he would tax you first and then kick your butt. But he wasn't a very nice thing."
Foreman and a small circle of friends used these coins to get a start on the day's serious mugging. They bought cheap wine and then, emboldened, found victims of more financial means than pips like Lester Hayes. When Foreman tells the story, it is not to marvel at his meanness but at his ignorance. "We didn't even know this was wrong," he says. "I remember once, two boys and myself, we robbed a guy. Threw him down. I could hold the guy because I was strong, and the sneaky fella would grab the money. And then we'd run until we couldn't hear the guy screaming anymore. And then we'd walk home as if we'd just earned some money on a job, counting it. We didn't even know we were criminals."
His ignorance astonishes him still. "I thought a hero was a guy with a big. long scar down his face, a guy who'd come back from prison, a guy maybe killed a man once. Can you imagine, my goal was to have a scar on my cheek? I tell you, I wore a Band-Aid across my cheek until the day I could get a real one."
By most accounts Foreman wouldn't have had to wait long for a scar of his own. His father was living apart from the family, and there was just so much a mother could enforce on this growing boy. School wasn't much of an influence; he hardly went. Sports meant nothing to him. And he was even outstripping his gang's small-change ambitions.
Yet he didn't feel resigned to this life. He was surprised to realize that, after a cousin caught him sneaking back into his bedroom after lunch on a school day. She told him. Go ahead, go on back to sleep. And he said. No, you got it wrong, I was on my way to school, really. She said. Don't lie, don't bother. Nobody in this family, nobody from around here is gonna become anything anyway, so go on back to sleep. Don't fight it. You know you're not gonna be nothing.
Foreman became furious. "I got my clothes back on and left. I'd show her. I didn't go to school, of course, but I wasn't going to sit there and let her tell me I wasn't going to be anything. I just didn't know anything to be."
Shortly thereafter, Foreman saw Jim Brown in a commercial on TV. Brown was a hero to Foreman. Saw him back over a goal line once, three defenders hanging on to him. Foreman walked like Brown, talked like him. Listened to him. There was Jim Brown on TV saying, Hey, why not be somebody, join the Job Corps. On the strength of that, Foreman packed himself off to Oregon. He didn't know exactly what he could be, but he could at least be it somewhere else.
What he was in the Job Corps was principally a thug in a new outfit. But Foreman was coming into contact with potential influences—like the Mr. America who showed up and delivered a corn ball speech about being an American. Ninety-nine kids in a hundred would have hooted the guy right out of town. The guy did a few push-ups with the biggest kid in camp on his shoulders, things like that. He closed with this spiel about being an American. Don't worry what other kids call you, he said. You're an American. Nobody can take that from you. Cornball. But Foreman felt so disfranchised that the news he was an American—the idea that he belonged to anything—struck him with bulletin force and made him weep. "To you it doesn't mean anything," he says. "You got to understand, a person whose only heroes are bandits, guys with scars across their faces, and here's a person telling you you're an American." It had never even occurred to him. Up to that point, Foreman didn't have any use for the national anthem. "It meant the end of the broadcast day."
What was it with Jim Brown, with this Mr. America, interfering in the life of George Foreman? They couldn't sleep nights?
All of George Foreman's famous fights were staged in exotic locales. He won the Olympic gold medal in Mexico City—no small feat in that he had had less than two years of training in the sport. But it became even bigger when Foreman walked around the ring waving an American flag. This was the season of black-gloved fists, remember.
When he beat Frazier for the title in '73, it was a tremendous upset. The match had been intended to kill time until Frazier and Muhammad Ali could fight again. Foreman was high-quality stuff, but unpracticed and generally considered to have been set up with soft touches. This was to be a $375,000 payday for the young patriot, and then he would be sent on his way. But Foreman demolished Frazier, whose reputation for violence was then worldwide. The Fifth Ward survivors must have shrugged over that one: What did we tell you?
For a guy who waved the flag, Foreman hardly ever fought under it. He defended his title in Tokyo, in Caracas and then in Za‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤re. Ah. Za‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤re. The big brute completely neutralized by the cunning of Ali. What could the Fifth Ward survivors have made of that?
THEN THERE WAS AN EXHIBITION IN TORONTO—five men in one night—his swan song in San Juan against Young, and the immediate spiritual revelation that followed. He also had a pretty big fight back in 1966 in Pleasanton, Calif., a fight not much reported and seen by only a dozen or so youth counselors. The Job Corps may have saved Lester Hayes's skin but it didn't guarantee everyone's safety. On this particular day Foreman was administering a terrific butt kicking to some kid who probably wished Jim Brown had never been born.
Doc Broadus, a man who fancied berets and riding quirts, was a Job Corps supervisor at the time. His special interest was developing boxers. He figures that's why the panicky counselors finally came to him that day, explaining that this great big guy, this 16-year-old, was endangering a fellow volunteer's life that minute. Ten counselors couldn't handle him.
So Broadus left his gym and walked out to see what was happening. Broadus was prepared to be more disgusted with the helpless staff—"all these educated counselors"—than with this great big guy. But the level of violence on which this great big guy was working truly impressed him. "He was stomping the kid, being very brutal about it," Broadus says. He remembers thinking that there was a state prison, Santa Rita, across the street, and what Foreman was doing qualified him for immediate admission there, no waiting.
Broadus walked into the middle of this, parted the terrified counselors who stood helplessly by and walked right up to Foreman. "Hey, big man," Broadus said. "Why don't you pick on somebody your own size."
You are tempted to look through George Foreman's life and ask, Why did these certain words, or this commercial, or that speech galvanize him? What was it about these small meddlings that kept turning his life around?
Well, Broadus's approach wouldn't make one think of Mr. Chips, but for Foreman, it would have to do. Foreman let his poor victim drop to the ground and turned to look at this strange man. Broadus remembers that look, and he remains surprised by it to this day. "It was a look, like asking for help. It was all over his face: Help me. Here he was, big and strong, everybody afraid of him, and he was giving me this look. It kind of tickled me. It was like he had been waiting all his life for this."
Broadus put his arm around Foreman and said, "C'mon, big fella, let's walk and talk."
Before you knew it, Foreman had become Olympic champion under Broadus's supervision, and then heavyweight champion of the world under Dick Sadler. He was rich and famous. Because somebody told him to pick on kids his own size? Because Mr. America told him he belonged somewhere? Because Jim Brown made a commercial? Sure.
There are probably all kinds of people who can help a kid who's a little down and out. But Foreman found he was newly adrift when he became rich and famous. Where are the role models for somebody who turns 25 and is offered $5 million paydays?
Take the idea of buying things. Foreman says the experience is highly overrated, and he gave it a pretty fair chance, too. As the money rolled in he bought, by his guess, 10 cars. A 32-foot mobile home. Quarter-million-dollar homes in Houston and Livermore, Calif. Exotic animals. He boned up on the breeding of German shepherds and finally bought that prize dog from Germany.
He was going by the book. "People said. You become champ, you'll need you a fleet of cars. So I got to be champ and that's all I looked for, a fleet of cars. Nobody told me about nothing else. Maybe a house with a pool, so I got that. It was the idea of having that scar again. About like that."
It wasn't as satisfying as it should have been. Foreman knew for sure something was wrong with this setup when Jim Brown, his old hero and now a Hollywood personality, came to his spread in Livermore to do a TV piece on him. Brown surveyed the layout and said, "One day I'm gonna have it together like you." Foreman was stunned. "What did I have together? A shack? Some rocks around a swimming pool, which I didn't even use? I had to pay people to come out, just to eat my potato chips. It was all frustrating, buying, buying, buying, and you still feel something is missing. But that day I realized fame was not going to give me anything if Jim Brown didn't already have it."
If it's no fun being 24 and champion of the world, try being 25 and former champion, which was what Foreman became rather quickly. Who teaches you how to handle that? Where was the Doc Broadus for a young millionaire with a newly reopened hole in his psyche?
You can hardly talk about Foreman without talking of his loss to Ali. Although Ali was thought to have been in it for little more than a quick payday, there were strange factors at work. The scene in Za‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤re was one Foreman couldn't handle, not with Ali doing the staging. Nobody realized it, but Foreman was doomed.
Bill Caplan, his longtime p.r. man, says. "He was feeling bewitched. Ali was doing all these things with witch doctors, and George was feeling very uncomfortable." For some of the pre-fight campaign, he withdrew to government quarters and surrounded himself with Za‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤rian secret police. He was entirely inaccessible. Caplan remembers seeing him in a hotel lobby—Foreman had moved out of the government quarters one morning when he looked up from his bed and saw a lizard hanging from the ceiling above him—and passing him a note requesting him for a press conference. Foreman wadded it up and dropped it on the floor.
It was a bad time. Nobody spoke. "The one area where we did have contact was Ping-Pong." Caplan says. This was the big sport in the Foreman camp. Archie Moore, Foreman's chief strategist then as now, used to walk around with a wicker basket, like Little Red Riding Hood, and make a great show of producing his paddles and getting a game going. It was Moore's belief that Foreman's psyche was better served by allowing him to win.
For some reason, Foreman preferred playing Caplan, even though the only way they communicated those days was by note. Caplan would see Foreman arrive with his secret police cadre, and a game would soon be on. "I beat him every day." Caplan says. "Archie would say. Let him win. No way." It was the p.r. man's only available dignity.
There were many curious things about the fight. All's rope-a-dope is the most talked about after all these years. Foreman would later complain of food doctored by "whoopee powder," of ropes loosened by "professional slickers," of sabotage in his own corner. He complained that Sadler, his manager, failed to get him up in time after Ali knocked him down in the eighth round. When he was counted out, the only person who seemed concerned was Caplan, who was first into the ring to console the fallen champ. Actually, he was the only one doing any consoling. Foreman's corner had disappeared in disgust.
Still, what do you make of this? The fight ended, and some 200 newsmen crowded into Foreman's sweltering dressing room. The sullen intimidator, the man who would be Sonny Liston, was lying on a table; the silence was as dramatic as it was uncomfortable. He finally sat up and said. "I have a statement to make." Pens and pads were poised. "I just want to say that tonight"—big pause—"I found a true friend in Bill Caplan."
Even with a true friend, though, it was several years before Foreman learned to live with that defeat. He would wake up in a sweat, thinking about the fight. In fact, it wasn't until 1978 that he was able to let it go. He was talking to a reporter, and he found himself saying, "Man, he whipped me fair and square. He'd probably whip me again." And the weight of that loss seemed to slide off him.
By then he had suffered another remarkable defeat, the decision to Young, lost in the heat of San Juan in 1977. At first it didn't seem to amount to much. "He got the decision," Foreman remembers, "but only because it got so hot in there and I wanted to get out." Foreman was not at all disappointed in how things had gone.
But, as in Za‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤re, the postfight minutes were confusing and surprising. Foreman was cooling off and saying to himself, Man, who cares about a boxing match? I still got everything. If I wanted to, I could retire now, go to the country. I could retire and die.
Now, where did the idea of dying come from? And then Foreman felt himself plunged "into a deep, dark nothing, like out in a sea, with nothing over your head or under your feet.
"Just nothing," Forman says, "nothing but nothing. A big dark lump of it. And a horrible smell came with it. A smell I haven't forgotten. A smell of sorrow. You multiply every sad thought you ever had, it wouldn't come close to this. And then I looked around and I was dead. That was it. I thought of everything I worked for. I hadn't said goodbye to my mother, my children. All the money I hid in safe-deposit boxes! You know how paper burns and when you touch it, it just crumbles. That was my life. I looked back and saw it crumble, like I'd fallen for a big joke.
"And then I said, I don't think this is death. I still believe in God. And I said that and I was back alive in the dressing room. And I could feel the blood flowing through my veins."
It was a wonderful sensation. Says Foreman, "For a moment, I felt I was somebody."
Gil Clancy, his trainer for that fight, says Foreman was suffering from heat prostration. Foreman smiles at the idea. Even as he was undergoing this experience, he knew nobody would believe him. "You know that feeling I was supposed to get from being champion? What that scar was supposed to give me? I had that feeling in that room. They thought I was crazy, and I don't blame them."
From then on he has led the life of a preacher, appearing on Houston street corners and eventually in his own church, a small metal building a block from his youth center, where he conducts three meetings a week. With a good sermon, he says, he can sometimes get a little bit of that feeling. "To this day I've been searching, trying to get that feeling and keep it."
Except for expenses eating into his principal, the case of George Foreman would have ended there, with Foreman chasing that spiritual high. There certainly were no regrets about leaving boxing. "I hadn't balled my fist in 10 years," he says. He didn't have a TV for some time, so the passing parade of heavyweights went by largely unnoticed.
BUT, THERE WERE THOSE EXPENSES. Foreman is not the first aging heavyweight champ to return to the ring—nor the first fighter to donate his earnings to a youth center—and rarely has it been a good idea. The boxing establishment seems to have come down solidly against his comeback. NBC boxing commentator Ferdie Pacheco says he always thought that Foreman and Rocky Marciano were the only guys who ever got out of boxing on time. But to come back now? Quite simply, Pacheco says. "This is pathetic. It shouldn't be allowed. He's overage, inept. This whole thing is a fraudulent second career to build a money fight with Tyson."
Emanuel Steward, trainer of Thomas Hearns, among others, is similarly disgusted. On hand for the latest of Foreman's fights, a two-round TKO of Bert Cooper on June 1, he said, "A traveling road show. It just proves, you keep something out there long enough and the people will start to believe. Never in the history of boxing have there been so many handpicked bums."
Foreman has been choosy about his opponents—to a fault, some say. Bob Arum promoted some of his early fights but grew frustrated when Foreman began nixing possible opponents. Arum had a fight made for Foreman and Anders Ecklund. "But lo and behold." says Arum, "he said Ecklund was too tough. Hits too hard."
Arum got to like Foreman, actually; here was a fighter who would book economy for a flight to an ESPN fight and then upgrade with his own money. But after a while it became clear that Foreman was not going to stand for any competition on his way to a blockbuster fight. Arum dropped him.
Foreman defends his choice of opponents by saying he has had to start from the ground up, so of course he would have to take it easy. "I didn't come back and say, I want the Cadillac in the window," he says. Not right away. "Anyway, I heard this same stuff the first time I came up."
Yet men more pragmatic than Arum have come to accept a Foreman-Tyson fight as inevitable. Dan Duva, who promotes Evander Holyfield, came nosing around one of Foreman's fights. Would he be interested in Foreman as an opponent? "Sure." Because Foreman is for real? "I make no editorial comment about George Foreman's abilities," he said, laughing. "But this is the biggest fight out there."
There are other elements to the Foreman scenario. Rick Kulis, who distributes the pay-per-view on the West Coast for big fights, says, first, there are very few opponents left for Tyson. "And Foreman represents the old guard, when you had clear-cut champions. He also represents the link to, you could say, integrity, when a champion was a champion outside the ring as well. And he's one of about four fighters independent of Don King."
The people who will have to sell this fight will not overlook Foreman's evangelical calling, especially as it plays against Tyson's bad-boy image. A story line never hurts the promotion.
"I used to think that George would have to fight a Top 10 guy." says Kulis. "But it looks like George was right. He knew they'd eventually have to come back to him if he remained unhurt and undefeated. As it looks like there is no one out there to take on Tyson, the feeling becomes more and more. Why not George?"
Because of Foreman's style and size—he is 6'3" to Tyson's 5'11"—there are some who believe that he is the one man made to topple Tyson. Trainer Angelo Dundee says, "I give him a shot, because George Foreman is devastating against short guys. I'm open-minded. I can be showed."
Then, too, there is a school of thought that says Tyson's list of victims is no more impressive than Foreman's is.
"Tyson has fought and knocked a lot of guys out," Foreman says, "but they were prey. He's never seen anything like me. I'm not the best of fighters, by any means. I'm just the only one of my kind that's around—guys who throw punches. Sonny Liston. Cleveland Williams. Hooks that break your jaw. Joe Frazier. Predators."
Foreman has indeed been a thumping presence on this comeback, yet every critic eventually comes around to this: He has yet to stop anybody with a 10 count. All stoppages have been by referees. The worst was his last one. when Bert Cooper sat on his stool after two rounds and refused to come out. He said Foreman's punches were "buzzing" his brain.
Still, even these critics think that Foreman, though he can't win, will hang in there with Tyson. "In truth, I don't think Tyson could take Foreman out that quickly," says Arum. "Foreman will give you rounds, even if he has absolutely no chance."
Kulis agrees. "I cannot picture Mike Tyson running across the ring and knocking him down in 73 seconds." This is a fight that evidently has a grudging appeal. "I'd be eager to promote it," Kulis says.
Foreman is eager to have it, and with it the millions he can use to sustain the youth center and open others. Whereas he was once driven by a rage he couldn't understand, he is now fueled by compassion. Is this going to work? There is nothing about him that would seem to suit him for the desperate work he will have to do on fight night, not anymore. And never mind his age or size. Here is a man who used to train attack dogs. but who is now shopping for a "floppy kind of dog" more suitable for his kids. "I don't want no dog that will bite somebody," Foreman says. Is this the personality required to face down Mike Tyson?
But maybe there are other kinds of desperation. After all, who knows what a man goes through, a man who can cry at the spoilage of youth, at the waste, at the thought of all those kids with scars on their cheeks, kids who never heard Jim Brown, Mr. America, Doc Broadus, maybe George Foreman. Who knows what a man goes through, a man who can't sleep nights?