Nearly 10 years after they fought in Zaïre, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali met again. Foreman carried 278 pounds and wore black shoes with a hole in the right sole. His hair was shorn nearly to the skull, emphasizing the gladness in his eyes. His tie was loosened and his top shirt button undone to allow for the freedom and frequence of his laugh.
He walked past the gilded furniture in All's Los Angeles mansion, the antique chairs with ropes between the armrests to prevent anyone from sitting in them. He continued past great vases, flowing draperies, Renaissance paintings and Oriental rugs, a gleaming Steinway and two children's games—Chutes & Ladders and Rrib-bit. He chatted with the caged cockatoo and parrot while waiting for his host. Foreman had flown from Houston, where he is a preacher in a small church, to Los Angeles, where he was to receive an award, and something had impelled him to see this man.
At last Ali appeared, taking small, slow steps like sips from a drink he no longer wanted. He wore slacks and a sport shirt and carried his shoes. His eyes seemed glazed, almost as if he were in a trance, but they flickered when he saw Foreman, and the two men embraced.
Ali lowered himself slowly onto a sofa and said, "I'm getting old."
October 7, 1984
Foreman leaned forward, struggling to follow Ali's slurred rasp. "You're supposed to enjoy that," he said with a grin. "Where's your son?"
"You need to take him everywhere you go," Foreman suggested softly.
Ali reached for a satchel of thick religious books and he inadvertently knocked over a lampshade with a shoulder. "Let me show you my stuff," he said. He opened a Bible to a verse in Exodus warning man not to honor false images—and the two men began to circle and stalk each other once more.
"This's wrong," Ali said, handing Foreman a picture of a white Jesus Christ. "Why are all the saints and the angels and Jesus Christ always white? Won't it blow all their minds to get up there and find out He's got kinky hair?"
"You don't need that stuff. You're not black, you're not white, you're a giant." Boom, boom, like a jab, I had him going. Foreman would say later.
"No, man, for 300 years the white man has been putting that junk on us. I gotta go now to the mosque and pray. You come with me now and I'll come to your church sometime."
"I don't want you to come to my church. I want you to join God first. Tell me you love Jesus, Muhammad." Even if I was imposing, I had to get that punch off. You only get one opening—it's just like boxing.
"I don't wanna know about Jeeezus. I wanna know about God."
"He's alive. He's not dead. He wants you. Don't fight it."
"I've got peace. The translation of Islam's peace. Come pray with me. I pray five times a day, George."
"But no one answers you," Foreman said. "You've been knocking at the wrong door, champ. There's no one behind your door. Come knock on mine. My god answers me." I had him there. I got my lick in. He was shaken.
"Man, are you for real?" Ali asked. He put his hand near Foreman's ear to perform one of his magic tricks, rubbing two fingers to create a sound like that created by static electricity. Then he did the same trick he does every time he has an audience, making a red scarf disappear.
"I'm late, I gotta go," Ali said abruptly. He walked swiftly outside with his Moroccan aide, Abdel, got in his gray Stutz Blackhawk, waved goodby to Foreman and roared off.
"Wait!" cried Abdel, gesturing wildly. "You've forgotten me!"
Ali hit the brakes, reversed, picked up Abdel and shot off once more. Foreman watched him disappear, shaking his head in sad wonder.
"Man, it makes you want to cry. Did you see that house? It was dead, like a trophy case. Did you see the way his hands were shaking? Did you see his eyes?" He gazed down at his hands. "I wish I'd never hit him. How would you feel, knowing you'd contributed to that?
"To be honest, when I'm around him, I feel like he's my child. I love him, but I wanna spank him and say, 'Straighten up, let's go home now.' I know he's thinking about suicide now—I could hear a man dying inside him. Thank God, thank God I didn't win that fight. . . ."
The fight still dances across the memory in bare feet, to the beat of drums. In the belly of Africa, under a pale pre-dawn moon, 60,000 shadows rose and sent up a roar into the chaos of darkness. There in the ring, on Oct. 30, 1974, stood the glowering, powerful, 25-year-old Foreman, the heavyweight champion who'd dribbled Joe Frazier's head six times upon the canvas and bludgeoned Ken Norton senseless in less than two rounds—both of them men who had already beaten Ali. Before the Ali fight, unbeknownst to all. Foreman claimed he had handed his trainer, Dick Sadler, $25,000 to give to referee Zack Clayton—not to bribe him, but to make sure he pulled Foreman away from Ali so Foreman wouldn't hit Ali when he was down and be disqualified. Foreman was the 1968 Olympic heavyweight champion, undefeated as a pro, winner of 25 of his 40 fights within two rounds. "My opponents didn't worry about losing to me," he said. "They worried about getting hurt."
And in the other corner stood Ali, at 32 a danced-out and fading ex-champ needing to stiffen every sinew, conjure up every wile to do the undoable.
The crowd was Ali's. It sat, thunderstruck, as Foreman plodded out at the bell and hammered Ali with rights and lefts as Ali laid his back against the ropes, buried his face in his gloves and accepted the barrage. Years later Foreman would remember hitting Ali with a savage right, and looking beyond him into the crowd to see one of his own friends booing and screaming at George to stop.
"What you doin'?" Ali's cornermen—and most of the watching world—cried to their fighter between rounds. "You gotta dance!"
And then, slowly, Ali's plan revealed itself. Near the end of each round, with a wicked smile, he would come out of his shell and play a quick riff on Foreman's head. By the sixth, Foreman's own flailing had sapped him. By the eighth, he lay on the canvas, beaten, blinking up at the compassionless stars.
A decade later Foreman still believes his downfall was prearranged. He remembers the water Sadler gave him to drink before the fight tasting strange, and of feeling drained from the beginning. He remembers Sadler and Archie Moore, his adviser, beating on his legs between rounds, and urging him to keep whaling at Ali instead of conserving his energy. He remembers being told by Sadler to stay on the floor when he went down, and trusting his trainer to tell him to get up just before the count reached 10.
"I didn't know what to do when I got tired," Foreman wrote in his diary right after the fight. "Ali had his tricks working like magic. I'll go on as though nothing happen. I be alright when the swelling goes down. I prayed and asked God to guide me [before the fight]. Now I don't know for sure how to pray."
George Foreman had grown up a street-corner wino in Houston's worst neighborhood, a junior-high dropout who'd never learned to trust human beings. He'd turned to animals for love, once keeping 10 stray mutts in his backyard until his mother called the ASPCA. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he had won adulation by mauling people in a boxing ring; now that he had lost for the first time, he lived with a quiet terror. He couldn't stop spending money or conquering women. Every day for the next 30 days he went to bed with a different woman—some days, two. He flew to Paris for a week, to Los Angeles for a week, to Houston for two weeks and then back to L.A. He felt embarrassed to face porters at airports, let alone anyone he knew.
He wired ahead to Houston for his people to have a new $56,000 Rolls-Royce waiting. In L.A. he had a custom-made Lincoln designed by the same man who had created the Batmobile for the Batman TV series. He rented an apartment in Hollywood to go with the house he owned in Beverly Hills and the $250,000 ranch he owned in Livermore, Calif., not to mention the $250,000 house in Houston. He bought a 32-foot mobile home and a Mercedes to keep his Rolls, Cadillac, Excalibur, two Pintos, Capri, pickup truck and other Mercedes company.
He bought cars for his three sisters, his brother, his ex-wife, his aunt and two nephews. He bought a lion and a tiger for his ranch and had special food for them flown in from the St. Louis zoo.
He carried $30,000 in cash in a plastic bag, sometimes pulling it out to smell it. "He spent $400,000 in three months," says his brother Roy. "He was afraid people woudn't love him anymore."
Then, six months after the Ali fight, he beat up five men in one night in a Toronto exhibition that bordered on vaudeville. Six months later he lifted a 500-pound steer onto his shoulders and walked around with it for a publicity shot. He was flailing at love and acceptance the same way he did at Ali, thinking he could win them by exertion of muscle and might. He'd drop a thousand-dollar bill on his mama's dresser and shake his head when she made him sit and wait while she used it to buy him pork and french fries. He'd peel off a grand for his daddy and watch him use it to buy whisky in the same old half-pint bottle.
"He wouldn't open up back then," says his mother, Nancy. "I wouldn't dare to go to his house or call him, he'd get in moods so mean. Then he'd drop by and buy me a Cadillac. I didn't want no Cadillac, I didn't want the neighborhood to think I was some big shot. But after that Ali fight he didn't come to see me for a month, he felt so ashamed."
He fought Frazier again, and instead of going to the neutral corner when he clubbed Frazier to the floor, he stood over him and sneered at the audience that had booed him. "I was one step away from putting my foot on the man's chest," he recalled. "I thought if I killed a man it would only make me more vicious. After I'd lost to Ali, I'd decided I needed more hate. I'd hit you in the kidneys or on the back of the head. I'd beat women as hard as I beat men. [He paid a woman $30,000 in a settlement stemming from an assault and battery charge.] You psych yourself to become an animal to box, and that's what you become. A lion sleeps 75 percent of the day, the rest he eats and breeds—just like a boxer."
He began to notice the changes coming over him. Before, he had always gone into the loser's dressing room to console him. Sometimes he even paid losers extravagant fees to become his sparring partners—so he could ease his guilt. Now he couldn't bear to witness the damage he had wrought. It was taking him longer after each fight to regain control of his speech. To camouflage it, he'd glower into the camera and give curt answers, then go home and recite The Spider and the Fly over and over into a tape recorder, horrified at the way the words wobbled out. The word "optimistic" would come out "omomistis" until five years after he retired.
Even though he was winning again, the picture he kept in his trophy case—the one of him heading toward the floor, with Ali standing over him—kept flashing back. It seemed that every time he turned on one of his eight televisions, Ali's face was there to mock him.
At an inner-city clinic in Washington, D.C., a little boy said to Foreman, "Big as you are, strong as you are, you should of whipped him."
"You sound like Muhammad Ali yourself," Foreman said. "He's got all you kids brainwashed."
"When you whip Ali," the boy taunted, "you can brainwash me, too."
Foreman walked away, stung.
"I hated Ali," Foreman would admit later.
He was in his mid-20s, surrounded by people but feeling attached to no one, aching to make sense out of the confusion of his life. The most efficient knockout puncher the sport has ever known had to keep a bodyguard with a pistol and German shepherds trained to kill at the front gate of his ranch, and was afraid to let anyone shake his hand. When he gave his friends money, some said, "Is that all?"
A few months before the Ali fight, Jimmy Brown had arrived at Foreman's sumptuous California ranch to do a television interview with him. Brown was Foreman's idol; it had been Brown's commercials for the Job Corps in the '60s that had motivated Foreman to get off the streets, sent him to the Corps and launched his boxing career. To imitate Brown, he had grown a mustache. And now, as they strolled around the swimming pool, Brown said to him, "You know, George, I intend to get it all together like you have one day soon."
Foreman was crushed. "Man, I didn't have anything together," he says. "Here I am trying to be like him, and he's saying he wants to be like me. Now I was The Man, and still I had no fulfillment. None of it felt as good as when I was poor and had just won that [Olympic] gold medal, when I wore it so long I had to have the ribbon restitched.
"But then it became all hollow. I investigated Islam, Buddhism, Christianity. I kept searching for one person to give me the answer. I thought I'd find him in Africa, meet some great leader. I even kept a Bible under my bed in Zaïre. But I was lost. I'd buy a $21,000 German shepherd and watch it chewing the scraps in my garbage can."
"The man," Howard Cosell pronounced at the time, "has been deeply disturbed by Ali. He's got unfathomable personal erraticisms now. He needs a shrink and a trainer, in that order."
On March 17, 1977, with a proposed $13 million rematch with Ali awaiting him, Foreman entered a ring in San Juan, P.R. to belt around the clever but punchless Jimmy Young. Twice he cornered Young for the kill, in the third and seventh rounds, but each time he relented. He wanted to go 12 rounds and silence those who had scoffed at his stamina ever since the Ali embarrassment.
He miscalculated the heat of the TV lights and the Caribbean night, the cunning of Young, and found himself in his dressing room, the loser of a 12-round decision, subject to alternating waves of heat and cold, gasping, throwing up. He heard a voice in his head say, "You might as well die."
Suddenly he couldn't shake the thought of death. He felt blood trickling from his forehead, as if there were a crown of thorns on his temples. He felt life oozing out of him and he struggled to keep it in. Every sentence he uttered contained the word "death." He began babbling passages from the Bible he didn't know he knew. His skin felt like rubber. His handlers looked at each other, terrified. "Jesus Christ is coming alive in me!" he shouted. He fought off his handlers and ran into the shower.
"Hallelujah!" he hollered. "I'm clean! Hallelujah! I been born again!"
Foreman called it a miracle.
The doctor called it heat prostration.
On the kind of Sunday morning all Sunday mornings want to be, filled with sparrow soprano and sunlight and a soft spring breeze, the Reverend George E. Foreman stood outside his tiny metal prefab church admiring the potted hibiscus he had brought from his house just to borrow the blossoms' beauty for the day. The three-year-old nondenominational Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is on a one-acre plot in an old middle-class neighborhood on the northern rim of Houston, and the sign out front makes no mention of its famous preacher's name.
It was 15 minutes past 10 a.m. service time and there still weren't enough folks to work up a good gospel-hymn sweat, but Reverend Foreman didn't much mind. "Everybody's groggin' around, they may get here at 10:30, but that's O.K. I don't chastise them—they might chastise me. We want 'em to like church. We'll do a few songs, a sermon, and then when the little kids get itchin', we'll sneak 'em all out. I thought people would knock down doors to come, but now it doesn't bother me. I just wanna be in it. Go on in, make yourself at home. It's not Madison Square Garden, but I like it."
In a small room with bare white walls, two small flower stands, a podium, bongo drum, electric guitar, two speakers, five rows of wooden pews and 13 people, the service began. Foreman's nephew, James Steptoe, played guitar and began singing I Woke Up With My Mind on Jesus, and George pressed a trumpet to his lips. Sincerity and serenity oozed out the other end, along with some of the worst notes anyone had ever heard. But the music caught hold and the congregation began to stand and sway, augmented by twos and threes with each squeak of the door. A lady in the second row was rapping a tambourine, and a little boy near her was beating drumsticks on the head of a little girl, and children were scrambling on the floor. George was up front, an arm around his daughter, Freeda, leading everyone through "Yes, Jesus loves me, this I know, 'cause the Bible tells me so," and a lady in row three calling out, "Say it, child, say it for Jesus!" and everybody clapping in rhythm except George's daddy, J.D., who couldn't seem to get it right, and George moving over to pound the bongo drum, smiling and hooting, "Hey, all right! Amen!"—in short, everything religion was meant to be before the white man got ahold of it.
"They found that King Toot over there in Europe," Foreman boomed in an anecdote-filled, life-affirming sermon, "but how'd they find him? Dead. We're all gonna die, and if all we think about is new cars and houses we've missed the whole boat. I don't wanna just lay in that coffin and have nobody meeting me on the other side. Jesus is not dead. He's just as fat and proud as ever, hasn't lost a pound in 1,900 years.
" . . . You got a dime, a nickel, a quarter? That's good," he said at collection time. "The smaller the better. The Lord doesn't want your money. He want you." The service ended, and everyone walked back into the sunlight smiling.
Life and religion haven't always been this relaxed for Reverend Foreman; it has taken the 10 years since Zaïre for him to learn to let go. When the spirit first flooded him, he thought he had to sweat and pant and wince for it, the way he had for boxing. He had done everything in his life to an extreme—why should he gulp Jesus Christ any slower at 28 than he had gulped Strawberry Hill wine at 14 or Joe Frazier at 24? Soon after his last fight in 1977, he joined a charismatic church in Houston where the members spoke in tongues and writhed on the floor and foamed at the mouth for God. He stayed up all night reading the Bible and within a week was quoting it from memory. He set up a speaker and microphone on street corners and thundered apocalyptic-warnings, turning the other cheek when street punks blew cigarette smoke in his face. Once a drunk approached him and started boxing with him. Foreman held him at arm's length and continued belting out the Word. Another time, when the police ordered him to leave, he refused and was arrested.
"He'd stop his car in the middle of the street when he saw someone he knew, pull out the Bible and start preaching," recalls his brother Roy. "I used to drive the other way when I saw his car. He'd say, 'You're a devil.' He wouldn't even go to my wedding because it wasn't at his church. Man, his church reminded me of The Exorcist—people were throwing up and stuff. Once he offered me $15,000 to go there with him."
Foreman gave the church $100,000, and a $90,000 loan that wasn't paid back. He shed his fat rings, traded in his lion and tiger and fancy cars, and put on raggedy shoes, old socks and overalls. When people asked how he could drive comfortably in his tiny Ford Fiesta, he'd answer, "Jesus Christ rode on a jackass." His second marriage, to a former Miss Black Teenage America, dissolved after six months.
Perhaps he acted so maniacally to resist the whisper that kept beckoning him back to boxing. Friends and relatives upon whom he had once bestowed $100 bills told him it was God's will that he be the champ again. Ali wanted Foreman to remug Norton so Ali wouldn't have to fight Norton again. "You don't have to quit boxing to be religious, champ," Ali implored. "Look at David, how he slew Goliath. Look at Joshua at the Battle of Jericho. Samson beat up all them people for Gawwwd."
Don King, who had promoted the Ali-Foreman fight, called with breathless news.
"George, I just had this vision!"
"What you see, Don?"
"It was like a dream, George."
"Tell me, Don, tell me."
"It looked like Mr. Hayward Moore [a friend of Foreman's who had recently died]. He was leading you and me together, and you were back in boxing, entering the ring with a cross on your robe and trunks. . . ."
"Don," said Foreman, "you don't put the cross on your robe. You put it on your heart."
But in quiet moments alone, Foreman wavered. Sometimes he missed the adoring fans and the servile maître d's ushering him to the best table. He told himself he could return and raise money for charities and churches. Then, in February 1978, Leon Spinks beat Ali and became champion, and the simplicity of reclaiming the title made Foreman's hands open and close. He reentered the boarded-up gym on his ranch in Marshall, Texas, and began skipping rope and punching the heavy bag. "In the past," he says, "I'd always pictured the bag as an opponent. But now the bag was just a rag. My fingers wouldn't even stay in a fist. I looked in the mirror and was embarrassed. But then I'd go out and run and get my weight down to 240 and my adrenaline would start pumping and my arms would start shadowboxing—pow-pow—and it hit you like a freight train, like a flashback from Vietnam. I'd say, 'Uh-oh, I caught you, devil.' "
His weight rocketed to 296 and he had his suits tailored to hang loosely; it was easier to crush the temptation that way. The mere sight of muscles became distasteful. When a boxing match came on a TV set in a delicatessen where he was eating, he hurried out. He dodged every shaft of limelight, even refusing offers to speak at other churches.
One man could lure him back to the glare. He heard that Ali was visiting a nightclub in Houston, and he set up his speakers outside the door. Ali recognized the voice and popped out.
"Leave boxing alone," Foreman begged him.
"What you talking about, George?"
"One day that body of yours is gonna go in the ground. Sure, you're good-looking now, champ, but the best-looking men go in coffins too. There's something greater than sports, you gotta find it.
"I almost had him," Foreman would say later. "Every question he asked, I had an answer. Then I got too close, and he went crazy and started yelling.
"It's strange, but I keep having visions about Ali. Just before he fought Larry Holmes, I had a vision of him lying in a coma, and I called him up right away."
"If that's true, George," responded Ali, "God's gonna mess up a good man, because I'm gonna give all that money I make to poor folks."
"If you buy five million hungry people hamburgers," Foreman said, "the next day five million people are still hungry. God wants you, not your money. Test your god, champ. He says you can kill anybody that harms his temple. My god says, 'Love your enemy, no matter what he does.' Which is best, champ?
"I almost had him!" Foreman would exclaim later, smacking a fist into a palm. "But he couldn't accept Jesus then. He needed that Holmes fight for cash; he was almost broke.
"I don't know why Ali has remained such a presence in my life. I know our fight was the turning point in my life. That night I first realized I wasn't powerful enough to control everything, that there was something bigger than me."
In 1978, in response to an invitation, Foreman took a plane to Zaïre. A few yards from the place where Ali had knocked him out, he stood and preached to 60,000 people.
Muhammad Ali sat at his writing desk, doing what he has done for three or four hours nearly every day since he retired after his last fight in December 1981. He tore open a letter from another child seeking his autograph, turned it over, wrote a two-line verse—"Love is the net where hearts are caught like fish"—then signed his name and drew a happy face. He looked like he was about to fall asleep for a decade.
"George Foreman wants me to leave Allah for Jesus," he said. "I love George, but he's the biggest fool on earth. I'll convert him to Islam before he'll convert me to Christianity. If George saw all the friends I have, if he read all the mail I get, he'd envy me. They say life begins at 40—I'm just two years old.
"George thinks I'm not happy. I'm so happy—I've got my children [one son and seven daughters, whom he rarely sees except in the summer], my beautiful wife, my house, my cars, my 88-acre farm in Michigan with three big houses and four big barns and an Olympic-sized pool . . . and I've got my mail. Look at this." He picked up a pile of envelopes from the desk. "Come over here. Am I bored? Look at this." He opened a chestful of mail nearby. "Come to my cellar. . . . Look at this." He swept his hand over boxes and boxes of mail. "What man wouldn't be happy?" he asked.
In the afternoon he drove at 40 mph on Santa Monica Boulevard to the Joe Louis Memorial Gym to work out. Drew (Bundini) Brown, his sidekick in the old days and the manager of the gym, watched Ali in the ring, boxing shadows. "I just wish he had more to do," Brown said. "He should be an ambassador; the country should offer him a position. But this brain damage rumor is hurting him. [According to recent, incomplete tests at New York's Columbia-Presbyterian hospital, Ali is reportedly suffering from Parkinson's Syndrome, a condition possibly caused by repeated blows to the head.] Anybody gets hit in the head for 20, 30 years, it's gotta have an effect, but it's not as bad as they say. I could go up to that ring right now and make him talk like 20 years ago.
"But once you've seen everything and done everything, things slow down; you get a little disappointed with the world. He's alive, but he has no place to put his feelings. He needs something to love. Somewhere, somebody needs him as bad as he needs them."
As Ali did sit-ups, IBF junior welterweight champion Aaron Pryor and Mark Breland, later to become the Olympic welterweight champion, showed up to work out, and he invited them to follow him home for a magic show. He invited a man from the gym he'd never met before, he invited a reporter, and then, on the ride home, he pulled alongside three total strangers and opened his window.
"Follow me!" he yelled, "Come to my house!"
They looked at him like he wasn't real, then joined the six-car, 20-person convoy headed toward Ali's mansion. In the backseat of Ali's car, 12-year-old Muhammad Jr. cupped his mouth and called out like a circus barker, "Everyone follow the great Muhammad Ali!"
By 1980 Reverend Foreman had begun to realize that spewing passages from the Bible wasn't enough and had left his first church, bought an acre of land and the prefab building, and started a church where no one spoke in tongues or frothed at the mouth. But he still couldn't let go of the distrust of people he'd built up on street corners and in boxing gyms.
He married for a third time in 1981; his first marriage, in 1972, had produced one child. His second, in 1981, was childless. Six months after that third marriage he lay on the floor of his bedroom for an entire night, sobbing and clutching a bedpost. She, too, had gone. Then, in 1982, he got married for a fourth time, to Andrea Skeet, from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. In June of '83, he came home to find his house emptied of wife, their two children, Freeda and George III, pictures and clothes.
He sank to his knees and stared through his tears at the wreckage of his life. The man who had ranted "Love thy neighbor!" on street corners couldn't properly love the mothers of his children. The four women he had married and his five offspring—two of his children were born to women George hadn't married—were gone. He was alone.
A frenzy seized him. Suddenly, all salvation seemed to lie in finding Freeda and George III, whom his wife had taken to St. Lucia. He knew he must act quickly or he might never see them again. It would be dangerous; Andrea's family played a prominent role in the island's government, and the moment the ex-world champion stepped onto the tiny island, everyone would know.
He flew to Barbados and chartered a plane for the 100-mile flight to St. Lucia, where he sneaked past customs. He hid behind a tree on the beach while his luggage was checked through, then he was whisked to a hotel and checked in under a false name. He looked at himself, lying and hiding, and wondered what had become of him. But something he couldn't comprehend drove him.
Handing out thousand-dollar bribes, he discovered the hotel where Andrea and his two children were staying. That night he went there with Erma Compton. a local woman who'd agreed to help him—ironically, she had once sued Foreman for beating her. Compton knocked on the door and told the kids' nanny she wanted to leave a note for the mother. Foreman burst in, swept up the children, and returned to his hotel.
"Baby, what you want?" he cried, hugging his children ferociously.
"I want a McDonald's," declared 6-year-old Freeda.
Now he had another problem—the plane he had chartered for his getaway wasn't leaving until the next day. George III, six months old, had a stomach virus and wouldn't stop crying. Foreman sat up through the night in his room, trying to hush him, envisioning the possibility of kidnapping charges. At 4 a.m. he heard a voice.
"This is the police. Your hotel room is surrounded. Give yourself up."
"These children want to go with me," he shouted back. "I have their passports and birth certificates. They're American citizens. The only way to get them is to break in and kill me!"
As dawn was breaking, he was at the hotel entrance, and in the uncertain light he saw a huge army truck, a detachment of men in black berets with cartridge belts across their chests and armed with semiautomatic weapons. It was the SSU, the island's special fighting force.
They marched toward him. He placed his children behind him, folded his arms and stood inside the double-glass sliding doors, praying, trembling. Just as they reached the door, he heard a command from behind them. They backed oil' and drove away, telling him they would return with an order for him to be in court at 9 a.m.
"My wife's cousin was the top lawyer on the island," he would say later. "I knew I'd lose the case and never see my children again."
Foreman began shelling out thousand-dollar bills again. He left the hotel as if heading for the court, then, on a desolate stretch of the road, switched his children to a van he had arranged to have waiting and lay down on its floor. The van raced to the airport. George III screamed and vomited. The driver hopped out to locate the pilot, and returned, his eyes wide with fear. "Mr. Foreman," he said excitedly, "the police say no airplane can leave the island until you have been apprehended."
"I thought, 'This is it,' " Foreman would recall. "I can't light anymore. I used to be heavyweight champion of the world, and now here I am, sweating, hiding from the police, cleaning up diarrhea. Freeda kept saying, 'I gotta tell the police this is my daddy,' and 'I want a Big Mac and french fries.' "
The driver had another idea. He pulled away from the airport and headed toward the sea. An old 50-foot boat with a two-man crew was about to leave for the nearby island of St. Vincent. A government official had already stamped the list of departing passengers, but for $5,000 the captain stashed Foreman and the children in the boat and added their names to the list.
The boat shoved off, and soon Freeda became seasick. She would vomit, then look up and sing, "George Washington, George Washington, we honor you today," and "Lincoln, Lincoln, I've been thinking." Foreman hugged her and cried and they sang a duet of America the Beautiful, with George III squalling in accompaniment.
Finally, Foreman poked his head up to look around. He saw St. Lucia becoming a brown speck, and the crew, two half-naked Rastafarians, spreading marijuana out on the deck to dry. The fundamentalist in him wanted to snarl at their dirty nakedness and drugs. The human being in him wanted to embrace them. Something inside him began to melt away.
Eight months later George Foreman sat on the grass next to the pond on his 200-acre ranch in Marshall. His battered boots made a V for his fishing rod to rest in as he patiently adjusted the reel. Then he lifted the rod and zinged a baited hook into the water, near the fleet of honking geese. His 16 horses were spread across the pasture behind him, and his little partner, Reddie—a sheepdog trapped in a poodle's body—made mad barking rushes at the horses when they came too close.
The bass weren't biting, but Foreman didn't care. He was explaining how the experience in St. Lucia had changed him.
"The people who helped me were ones I used to call devils," he said. "The Rastafarians were sitting there with drugs. But they all cried with me and protected me. It hit me—converted or not, people are the best creation I've ever seen. I wouldn't trade the human race for nothing, whether they're holding Bibles or not. Before I was so tucked away into religion, all I could see in other people was a threat to it. Now I don't want to share Heaven with no angels—just people.
"We're all like blind men on a corner—we got to learn to trust people, or we'll never cross the street. I've come to find out love is allowing yourself to be weak and vulnerable and hurt. I used to think that was weakness, even after I'd become a preacher. All those women that were leaving me were just trying to get me to say 'I love you' like I really meant it, instead of just giving them things.
"Now I've found a lady, and I'm practicing giving myself before I'm married again. Even if you're a preacher you've got to hold her hand and sneak kisses. If I last 10 years with a wife I'll kiss her and buy her flowers every day. Probably have to buy me a greenhouse."
Foreman is finally coming out of hibernation, accepting awards and requests for personal appearances. He is on the board of directors of a company selling dialysis machines; he visits the patients suffering from kidney failure and urges them not to give up. "I feel so good, it's time for me to go out," he said recently. "I don't want to make a big deal about my name, but since the day I laid in that van in St. Lucia, thinking, 'Man, don't they know I'm George Foreman,' I don't mind taking advantage of it to help people anymore. I don't even mind talking boxing if people want.
"I want to live to be 144, so old there won't be a pair of dentures that fit my mouth, no double-clutch hearing aid that'll help me, so old I'll have lost all my weight and I'll hit the ground like a piece of cotton. I want to use up everything—don't want to donate nothing to science. If you live, you can outlive any problem. I don't fear death. I just love life."
Foreman spends most of his life in two houses, an $81,000 suburban home in Humble, just north of Houston, and the ranch in Marshall, a four-hour drive away, where he sleeps on a simple mattress on top of a box spring, which rests on the floor. His fishing boat is a rusted old can with a long tree limb for a paddle. In the only picture he shows visitors of himself as a boxer, he's on his way down with Ali standing over him.
He lives comfortably, but not extravagantly, off the monthly paycheck he began receiving last January from the $800,000 trust fund he created while he was boxing. Freeda and George III live with him part of the year.
In his present frame of mind, every piece of ground he walks on is hallowed. "Living in the suburbs is fine," he said, "I get to have kids throw rocks through my windows and leave their bikes on my lawn."
He flicked his fishing line out once more and reeled it in bassless. "C'mon, I'll show you my old gym," he said. "I've got an idea that's going to put it back in use again."
Within a year, he plans to have an athletic center for underprivileged kids built behind his church in Houston, and he'll bus them out to the ranch on weekends to teach them to fish and ride horses. The old gym will be their bunkhouse. "I'll do it all with my own money—I think it's a crime for a man who's made as much as me to ask for donations. I want kids with murder on their faces. I'll trick 'em with boxing and sports to get them straightened out and going to school."
He walked to the entrance of the gym where he once trained and ripped off the boarded-up door. Inside, scattered on the dusty floor around the boxing ring, were an old People magazine with Frank Sinatra on the cover, a water bottle, an open jar of Vaseline, tattered clothes, towels, trash bags—and an ancient teddy bear.
Foreman walked into the center of the ring, lifted both arms and proclaimed, "Ladeez and gentlemen, weighing such-and-such pounds, Geo-o-r-r-r-ge Foreman!" His laugh echoed. "Man," he said, "this is the first time I've been here in years. So many thoughts go through my head. . . ."
"Sure, I could get in shape and box now. I could be champ"—he stopped and smiled sheepishly—"isn't that what you're supposed to say? And nine months from now you'd be embarrassed for me. I've got nothing against boxing. but you should make your million, then run and hide.
"Ali . . . man, I'm trying to find the right words. He was a tough old boy—I'll be honest—a better fighter than me. But now I just feel sorry for him, I just want him to have some dignity. I'd like him to bring his boy out here. I'd like to teach Ali how to fish. He needs something so he don't just sit there staling into space. I think that's why my mind keeps going back to him. Deep down, me and him are the same kind of person."
Nearly 10 years after they fought in Zaïre, Foreman and Ali meet once more. ABC has invited them, along with a score of other former Olympic medalists, to appear at a pre-Games gala in Los Angeles for its affiliates.
On the stage, Jim McKay booms out a tribute to the Olympics. Concealed by curtains at the back of the stage, the athletes are seated in the order they will be introduced.
Ali and Foreman are one seat apart, leaning over the man between them, almost chin-to-chin as they parry for the Prophet Mohammed and the Lord Jesus Christ. The man between them, 1964 slalom bronze medalist Jimmy Heuga, leans back and rolls his eyes. "What have I gotten in the middle of?" he asks.
Ali's eyes are shiny and vacant, two rain-streaked windows in an abandoned building. He's wearing black pants and a black sport shirt—like the one he wore when he came to the stadium on Oct. 30, 1974 in Zaïre—no socks and high-lop sneakers with one of the laces undone. He keeps interrupting Foreman to sweet-talk a pretty girl from ABC.
Foreman spots the unlaced sneaker, leans forward to tie it, catches himself and pulls back. McKay introduces Ali, and Foreman notices the shirttail of the man who once humbled him hanging out like a puppy's tongue.
His hands reach out—he can't stop them this time—and tuck the shirt in, and Ali walks onstage to the roar of the crowd.