Seeking to Understand George Foreman

WASHINGTON POST

In 1977 George Foreman went to Puerto Rico to fight Jimmy Young. Foreman thought if he won he would get a chance to regain the heavyweight championship. It was hot. Extremely hot. The fight was indoors and there was no air conditioning. Foreman lost. In the dressing room afterward, a strangeness came over Big George--he may not have been as big as he is now, and certainly not as big as he was a couple of years ago when he weighed 315 pounds, but even then he was Big George.

No one in the room knew what to make of Big George except that he was very hot, very agitated. He walked back and forth, fast. He had a look that said beware. Was he stricken with heat prostration? Or some terrifying ache of defeat? Was he just plain beaten? Naked and perspiring, he looked like a bear that had wandered through a car wash.

They didn't understand him any more than he would have understood if someone then and there had told him that on Monday night, Jan. 15, 1990, he would fight Gerry Cooney. Gerry who? Big George might have said. Or, But in January 1990 I'll turn 41 years old. Surely you have the wrong man.

No. Bob Arum, who once sold Evel Knievel against the Snake River Canyon, believes he has the right man. He guaranteed Foreman and Cooney a reported $1 million each. People had heard the names. Maybe in the privacy of their homes they would pay to peek at a curiosity--or what some would say is pornography.

Foreman fighting? Cooney's reappearance may be even more improbable. At 33, Cooney hasn't fought in 2 1/2 years--some would say longer. He's put in 12 rounds total in the last 7 1/2 years. When last seen he was panicked before being knocked out by Michael Spinks. Then he looked relieved of misery. Foreman-Cooney stretches the concept of seniors boxing. Yet the winner (improbability being on a roll) may get a shot, sometime, at Mike Tyson. That's what Foreman wants.

But what did Foreman know or care of the future in that dressing room in Puerto Rico? He thought he was dying. "Y'all," he screamed, "I'm fixin' to die."

In the retelling, "die" rolled off his tongue in many syllables. "I'm fixin' to d-i-i-i-e.

"I was trying to cool off, because after something like that you can't sit down. Whew. Whew."

You could feel his breath when he went "whew" even though he was sitting several feet across his hotel room. He is that big a man that his "whew" is like the breeze from a fan.

But if Foreman always seemed big, he definitely did not look the way he does now. The Foreman of memory or old photographs is a youthful Foreman knocking down Joe Frazier six times in two rounds in 1973 to become heavyweight champion and some said an imperious George. Or the Foreman getting knocked out by Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974 and becoming a humbled George. Or the Foreman in the dressing room in Puerto Rico who seemed the berserk George.

Instead, he's lived to a ripe-enough age so that now he looks the way he does. Which is round. He has a shaven round face, a shaven round head, a round body.

As big as he is and as round as he is, you might think he'd look meaner. But he has a gentle face. It's a face that's seen things, a worn face and a wise face. A nocturnal man, he had the curtains drawn against a sun that cast shimmering light on a gray ocean. Still, the room was bright enough to see that this big man whose breath you could feel was indeed the George Foreman who fought a generation ago when he had hair and thought he was dying young in his dressing room.

As he paced that room in Puerto Rico the word "die" crept into his thoughts. "I kept trying to push it out," he said. " 'I'm George Foreman,' I said to myself. 'I got a lot to live for.' And within my thoughts I hear a voice: 'You believe in God. Why are you afraid to die?' And I started to feel my life go away from me like a smile off your face.

"But I had hid money in a safety deposit box, and had hid the keys to the cars. I said: 'I can't die in this dressing room. I have nice homes and I'm in this dirty old dressing room. Doesn't even have hot water. And I'm about to die.' I walked back and forth faster and faster. I didn't say anything because nobody would have believed me. I said to myself, 'I'll make a deal with this voice.' I said, 'I'll keep boxing and give money to charity, for cancer.' And I heard this voice say"--and this he said from deep within his cavernous body--" 'I don't want your money. I want you!' "

Hearing that, Big George felt his legs give out. He fell "into a deep dark nothing, just like in a sea. All I can remember is this hopelessness, this nothing, and a horrible smell that went along with this nothing. Like a big dump yard of nothing."

The people in the room lifted him--imagine!--back on to the table. Foreman sighed at the recollection.

When he regained consciousness that night in Puerto Rico, all the faces were looking down at him. He said, "I'm dying for God." He heard somebody say, "Champ, it's all right." And: "Don't worry, Champ, you'll win another fight."

Eight men couldn't hold him down. He leaped into the shower and shouted "hallelujah."

The others approached him warily. In time they coaxed him to a hospital. Nothing was found wrong with him although he came to realize that given a choice of dying for the Lord or living for Him, he'd rather live. "This little monitor thing kept going ding, ding, ding. I kept thinking, 'If that thing stops dinging, I'm dead.' "

He went home to Houston happy, happier even than when he threw his hands into the air after he'd become heavyweight champion of the world. He'd found God, but he didn't plan to do anything about it. He didn't plan to retire from boxing. He didn't plan to become a street preacher. He just felt contented. But the feeling that he should do something kept growing. So he told his church-going sister Gloria about this feeling and she referred him to Revelation. He said, "Where is that?"

All he knew was that things were different with him. He wasn't the street kid of Houston's tough north side Fifth Ward who wanted to have a scar across his face so he'd be admired. Or who wanted to do time in prison and come back so he would be admired even more. (He managed neither, but sometimes wore a bandage on his face as if he had a scar to hide.)

Nor was he the George Foreman who got rich quick and owned more cars than he sometimes knew he had. "I had five houses and each house needed at least two cars." He also owned a lion and a tiger.

"The lion attacked me once. I was trying to save my brother from the lion, and this animal that I had raised from a baby and had hugged and squeezed--he was about 400 pounds--he jumped off the ground and his teeth came up like big knives.

"I screamed with all of my might. And I swung. I missed him and spun all the way around. And I don't know whether I scared him or I was out of his territory, but he stopped dead in his tracks." The lion even went back into the cage. Big as he was, Big George felt a great relief. Worry about fighting 10 rounds with Gerry Cooney? "As long as you stand up to a lion, you're no longer fearful of nothing."

He had passed from his second adolescence into a new epoch. He opened the George Foreman Youth and Community Center. He became pastor of the non-denominational Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. He preached in the stadium in Africa where he had lost to Ali. This time no one booed him.

People around Houston invited him into their homes to talk with troubled loved ones. His trouble was his appetite. Invariably he was invited to stay for dinner. He doesn't remember declining an invitation.

"George, you want some more chicken?"

"Oh, just one more piece."

He ate so much sometimes he'd have to undo the button at his waist and pull his shirt down low.

His was a familiar face at fast food drive-throughs.

"Here you go, sir."

Sometimes he'd order the menu, as if he was ordering for a lot of people. He'd eat on the west side of Houston, and drive and eat his way to the east side of Houston. "It was like a dream come true."

Big George put on bib overalls.

"There was no stoppin' then. There was no belt."

By 1986 he realized he needed more money because he had sunk so much into the youth center and he wanted to educate his eight children (he has three boys, all named George, so including him there's the Four Georges) and he wanted to keep living in a comfortable style (although without a lion). He tried on his boxing trunks. They didn't fit. He ran some and boxed some and then . . .

"I bought a scale, a state-of-the-art scale. When I jumped on it, it spoke to me. It said, 'Three-oh-five.' I said, 'Liar.' I took the scale back. I went and bought a real scale that didn't talk. I said, 'I'm not going to get on this for a long time.' "

One day he put on his boots to run and told his wife, Joan, to pick him up 10 miles out from their home in the Houston suburb of Humble. By the time she came along he'd already run the road and circled back toward home. She was surprised. Eventually, his new scale read 296. He'd dropped under 300 for the first time in 10 years. For his return to the ring in March 1987, he weighed 267.

He stopped a man named Steve Zouski in four rounds in Sacramento. Some people thought he should fight in, say, an Alaskan hinterland where there might not be a cameraman. But as he won 19 straight against a lot of Zouskis, he was revealed on taped highlights of TV sports shows. People laughed.

After one fight he called home and got his oldest daughter Michi, l7.

"How'd I look, honey?"

"Daddy, I thought I had the wrong station because I thought it was sumo wrestling."

But Big George felt good about himself. "I was having the private laugh of my life," he said.

For this comeback Foreman called up the guys who are with him now. Among them: Archie Moore, "The Old Mongoose," swift and clever, who fought until he was 49 or 52 (it's his secret), who was 36 or 39 when he won the light heavyweight championship, who is either 73 or 76, who taught George tricks of punching as long ago as the late '60s after George had won his Olympic gold medal; a retired welterweight and a trickster himself, Charlie Shipes, the trainer; Brent (Bruiser) Bowers, a roly-poly sparring partner who's a pipe-fitter and has written a screenplay and dreams of Sylvester Stallone playing the lead; the 6-foot-7, 290-pound Mike White, who looks like a pivotman for the Detroit Pistons and once was for Eastern Kentucky University, who imitates Cooney and who has experienced being hit on top of his head by the 6-foot-3 Foreman who reached up, swung down and bounced him off the canvas like a ball.

Gil Clancy, who once trained Foreman but had retired to being a television analyst, is back--but training Cooney. Foreman isn't too worried. "When you look at Gil Clancy," he said, "you look at years of caution. Years of pouring it into a bucket. You can't pour it out in a second. So Gerry Cooney's going to be overwhelmed with caution. What I'm going to try to do is make him be what he is, Gerry Cooney, the puncher. And he'll be proud of himself even if he should last only minutes."

In preparation for what is billed as "The Preacher and the Puncher"--or, unofficially, "The Geezers at Caesars," even though the fight is not at Caesars--Foreman has found his friends to be a great help and joy. For instance, a few days before he fought Bobby Crabtree in Springfield, Mo., in September 1987, Foreman got word: Bobby Crabtree is a southpaw. Foreman had trained for a right-hander. "Go check him out, Brent," he said to Bruiser Bowers.

Bowers went to the lobby. "May I have your autograph please?" And Crabtree obliged, taking the pen and signing with his left hand. Bowers felt his heart skip. He hurried back to Foreman's room.

"Champ. Champ. He's a southpaw."

"Pull out of this fight," someone said.

Big George sat to think.

"Aaaah, forget it," he said. "I'm all ready."

Foreman stopped him in six. Showed him his own right-hand jab. "He weaved," laughed Foreman, "and weaved right into my left hook. That was the unveiling of me being tricky too."

Speaking of tricks, here came Moore padding down an aisle and up to a ring, preceding Foreman downstairs to a workout. He wore a purple beret. Another older man was waiting for him. "Hey, Archie."

Moore squinted into the dim light. The two walked toward each other. "Hey, Robert, is that you?"

Robert F. Head. He'd come down from Harlem on a bus. They held hands. In the '30s the two sparred. "Everytime Archie came into Indianapolis, they couldn't get anyone but me to step in with him. He was 155 when I met him and I was 130."

"Hey, George," said Moore, "meet somebody. We were fighting the same year, 1937."

Moore knew Jack Johnson. His idol was Kid Chocolate. He fought almost everywhere and everybody. He lost to Rocky Marciano. He was 45 or 48 when he lost to Ali in 1962. This was after he had taught Ali. Already a pro, Ali came to Moore's 120-acre training camp outside of San Diego which he called "The Salt Mine."

"One day I wanted to test his stamina. There was a hill, straight up. I said, 'Run up that hill and come back.' Da-da-da-da-da. He was up and back. The guy wasn't even breathing. He said, 'Want me to run up again?'

"I took him into the gymnasium and let him strike the bag. He hit the bag but he didn't hit it properly. I said, I know what I have to do. I have to show him how to throw punches underneath and stuff like that. I didn't want to give it to him all in one day. I had him washing dishes and straightening up his bed. He said, 'First time anybody made me straighten up my bed and wash dishes.' We laugh about that to this day."

There's laughter in the Foreman camp too. Who hadn't been around enough to know the worth of the moment?

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