George Foreman'scomedy act closed in Atlantic City last Friday night, and at the end no one waslaughing at the 42-year-old fat man in short white pants. Following months ofone-liners about senior citizens and junk food, Foreman got into a seriousfistfight with heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. After 12 rounds, anexhausted Holyfield was still champion; Foreman, the middle-aged Texaspreacher, his face swollen, had to settle for folk hero.
It wasn't supposedto happen that way. It was not supposed to be a fight but a spectacle: an F-15versus a Goodyear blimp. Before the bout, even Foreman had to laugh, and hedid—often. Even while eating, which he did—often.
Because of his ageand immense girth, the heavy-punching Foreman was expected only to tease thehopes of his faithful, and then depart quietly in about the fifth or sixthround. The audience at the Atlantic City Convention Center expected anexecution; Foreman gave them a war. The fight was a classic battle of two bigmen taking turns pushing each other to the brink of disaster, only to be savedby their tremendous courage and strong chins.
The event wasnotable for reasons that went beyond the fight, indeed beyond the sport ofboxing. Early reports from TVKO, Time Warner's new boxing pay-per-view venture,indicated that the bout drew well in excess of the record 1.2 million homesthat had paid to see the Holy-field-Buster Douglas title fight in October (page15). As an estimated 10 million fans watched on TV, Foreman seriously hurtHolyfield in the second and seventh rounds, and in other rounds appeared to bebut one blow away from recapturing the title he had held from January 1973until October 1974. After nine rounds, the marvelous old man, battered butunyielding, still had a chance of winning by decision. Foreman came out ofHouston, Texas, with a dream. For 36 minutes he was Holyfield's nightmare.
Before embarkingon his comeback in 1987, Foreman had not boxed for 10 years. In the first fightof his second career, he beat up a pug named Steve Zouski in Sacramento. Hemade $22,005, weighed 267 pounds, and you could time his punches with asundial. For four years Foreman fought nobodies, sharpened his comedy routineand talked about fighting Mike Tyson. He was the scourge of tomato cans,knocking out 23 of 24 opponents.
Then last yearpromoter Don King said to Tyson, "We can fight George Foreman." Tysonlooked at him and replied, "You like him so much, you fight him. No!"Instead, Tyson fought Douglas, who knocked him out and took away hisheavyweight crown.
"We can fightForeman," promoter Dan Duva told Holyfield. "Why not?" saidHolyfield, a few months before he knocked out Douglas.
So it was set:Holyfield, 28, the body beautiful, would defend his title against Foreman, thePied Piper of the aged and overweight. Holyfield was the champion of the WBA,the IBF and the WBC; Foreman was the champion of the AARP.
Two days beforethe fight Foreman weighed in at 257 pounds. He was guaranteed $12.5 million, ornearly $50,000 a pound, on Friday night. Holyfield, at 208 pounds, wasguaranteed $20 million, or slightly more than $96,000 a pound.
"I'm notfighting for money," said Foreman, who had lost his title to Muhammad Aliby an eighth-round knockout in Kinshasa, Zaire. "You've got to have afocus. You just fight for money, you get hurt. You focus on the title, you'lljust naturally make money doing it."
The expertsfocused on his waistline, which he claimed was only 38½ inches. They laughed athis wit, which is exceedingly keen, and at his chances, which appeared slim.They watched Foreman work out, tossing a soccer ball back and forth with asparring partner, slowly. He hit the heavy bag, slowly. He sparred with anyonewho volunteered, very slowly. He paused a lot to think about food. He ran theboardwalk of Atlantic City, slowly. He smiled a lot, a sweet smile,sincere.
"I likeEvander Holyfield," he said. "He's a nice young man. None of thepunches I throw at him will be in anger."
Bang! He hit theheavy bag, causing it to shudder violently.
"It doesn'tmatter who wins or loses, you pray, 'Thy will be done,' " said Foreman, anunordained minister in Houston.
Smack! The hugefist dug deeply into the heavy bag.
"There arealways people sneaking up behind you, hugging your pocket," said Foreman, aformer teenage street thug.
Boom! The heavybag twisted and groaned.
"If they bringin Holyfield hanging from a chain, I'm picking Foreman," someoneremarked.
As usual,Holyfield trained as though he were about to enter a bodybuilding contest,right after a title fight, just before competing in a triathlon. Holyfieldemploys a conditioning coach, a strength coach, a flexibility coach and twotrainers. "I got a strength coach," Foreman said. "My wife. Shegets big chains, and at night she puts them around the refrigerator. They areso strong, I can't break them."
On the night ofthe fight, each man prepared in his own way. Lightweight champion PernellWhitaker, WBA welterweight champion Meldrick Taylor and former WBA welterweightchampion Mark Breland joined Holyfield in his dressing room. The four had been1984 Olympic teammates. They laughed a lot. A boom box boomed.
In a room nearby,Foreman repaired, with needle and thread, a tear in his old protective cup.With him were Archie Moore, his 77-year-old trainer, and cut-man Angelo Dundee,68, Ali's former trainer. Moore is the oldest man ever to fight for aheavyweight title; he was 13 days from his 43rd birthday when Floyd Pattersonknocked him out in 1956. His equipment repaired, Foreman wrapped his own hands.The three men talked about other fighters, other fights.
When it was timeto enter the ring, Foreman wrapped his upper body with a white towel and donnedan old red terry cloth robe. He draped another black robe over his massiveshoulders.
The undefeatedHolyfield arrived wearing a short white satin robe and a smug expression. He isnot an arrogant man, but he had heard all the fat jokes, and, after all, howlong could a 42-year-old roly-poly last against fists that had KO'd their last12 opponents—including all the heavyweights Holyfield had fought since movingup from the cruiserweight division? Only four of 25 men had gone the distanceagainst Holyfield, and three of those were in his first five bouts.
Armchairstrategists had predicted that the fleet Holyfield would box Foreman from adistance. They were wrong. "Out there, he kills you," Lou Duva,Holy-field's adviser, had warned his fighter. Before the introductions, Duvaled Holyfield to the center of the ring and pointed down. "Make believethis is the Budweiser circle," he whispered.
At his camp,Holyfield trained in a ring with a four-foot wide Budweiser logo in the center.He had been instructed to fight within that circle; his trainers wanted himthat close to Foreman. They wanted Holyfield punching because Foreman, whenhe's under attack, crosses his tree trunk arms in front of his head and upperbody. "When he's hiding, he ain't hitting," said George Benton,Holyfield's main strategist.
Holyfield came outhard, circling as ordered, jabbing, hammering Foreman up and down. It didn'tlook good for the challenger, who seemed able to move in only one direction:forward. In Holyfield's corner, after the first round, Benton told the championto jab more. On the other side of the ring, Charley Shipes, Foreman's chieftrainer, told his man the same thing. "When he throws that littlehook," said Shipes, "he's made for your jab."
In the second,Foreman used his quick, sledgehammer jab to get Holyfield in trouble early. Ajab snapped Holyfield's head back, and Foreman caught him on the head with twoclubbing rights. As Holyfield tried to close in, Foreman drove him back with aforearm to the throat. Foreman the preacher fights like a dock-worker. RefereeRudy Battle warned him repeatedly about hitting low, hitting with his elbows,rabbit punching and the ungentlemanly use of his ham-sized forearms—none ofwhich was done in anger. In the 11th round, Battle would take a point away fromForeman for a low blow.
After Foreman'sbig second round, Holyfield began to nullify Foreman's jab with a goodright-hand counter to the head, and soon, despite urging from his corner,Foreman threw the jab less often. It would cost him; the jab is the one weaponForeman still throws like a young man.
Undaunted byHolyfield's punches, Foreman continued to press his slow but relentless attack.Holyfield hammered him hard, and still he came. Foreman found the champion withcrushing blows, but none solidly to the jaw and never more than one at a time.Near the end of the third, a hook staggered Foreman, and Holyfield swarmed inbehind a 15-shot volley and a head butt. Unsuccessful in an attempt to grabHolyfield, Foreman cut short the assault with a hook high on the champion'sprotective cup. Trudging back to his corner, where he refused to sit, Foremanappeared spent.
Late in the fifth,Foreman, under attack, hurt Holyfield with a hook to the head. A big right handjust missed the champion's head, but another hook bounced him off the ropes.Foreman moved in, pounding Holyfield with both hands. All the punches hurt, yetnone found the right target, the chin.
Before theseventh, the best round of the fight, Shipes told Foreman, "The miracle isgoing your way, George. You just got to get closer." Foreman did his best.He hit Holyfield with a solid right to the head, sending him dancing five stepsback. Giving chase, Foreman got off 27 punches and four pushes before Holyfieldcould get off a hook in return.
Foreman hadexpected Holyfield to fold in the face of such a barrage. Instead, the championgathered himself and drove his tormentor back with a hook to the head, followedby 18 unanswered punches. At the end of the assault, Holyfield, momentarilyspent, fell against Foreman, who refused to clinch. Pushing Holyfield away withdisdain, he pressed forward. It was magnificent.
Two rounds later,with eight seconds to go, Holyfield nearly ended the fight. A right hand to thechin over a lazy jab froze Foreman, who dropped his hands. Springing forward,Holyfield slammed home 11 more punches before the bell. Battle paid a visit toForeman's corner. "You all right, George?" he asked. Foreman's nod sentthe referee on his way.
In the 10th, thetwo fighters took turns testing each other's heart. A Holyfield right snappedForeman's head back. A moment later Foreman missed with a right hand, and thenscored with a hard hook to the head. Holyfield responded with two hands to thehead.
In the finalrounds both men—hurt and exhausted—continued to attack, until the last sevenseconds of the bout, when, supposedly in a clinch, they sort of hugged eachother. Before the scoring was announced, Foreman put his massive arms aroundHolyfield and Duva and said, "Thank you for giving me the opportunity. Youwon."
"Absolutely," said Duva.
The judgesapparently scored a few rounds for Foreman with their hearts: Tom Kaczmarek hadit 115-112, Eugene Grant 116-111, Jerry Roth 117-110. Roth's score waserroneously announced as 117-100. "Oh lord," he moaned. "If theyhear that back in Vegas, they won't let me judge another fight."
Foreman leftAtlantic City early Saturday morning to fly back to Texas, where he preached inhis Church of the Lord Jesus Christ on Sunday. Holyfield went to church in LosAngeles. After the bout Holyfield said, "I prayed a lot before the fight.So did George. I know a lot of people wanted to know which side the Lord wouldtake. He took both sides."
Only one hand wasraised in Atlantic City last Friday night, but there were two winners. Nobodylaughs at folk heroes.