Foreman myth heads for bout with reality


April 18, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Today is the day we suspend disbelief and pretend George Foreman has a chance. We'll do that because we like him. We'll do it because he stands for all the right things -- including the right to eat as much as you want and the right to never grow old.

Face it, he's Peter Pan with a truss.

Tomorrow, we'll deal with truth (a preview: If Foreman were any slower, as one writer noted, he'd be an oil painting). Today, we'll go with the con. Today, we'll pretend he belongs in the same ring with a real, live heavyweight champion.

We'll let him do his all-you-can-eat jokes. "When I'm in the ring," he says, "I feel like I own the place. It's like my private delicatessen."

We'll listen to the age jokes. This one from Billy Crystal: "Holyfield could be in trouble. He's never fought anyone with prostate problems before."

We'll hear from Foreman on his training techniques. "How far do I run?" he says. "It depends on how far the bedroom is from the icebox."

He can go on forever, and, fighting at age 42, it's probably safe to say he already has.

Today, it doesn't matter that Foreman is slow or that he's old or that he has built his comeback fighting guys who, with a few more wins, might officially qualify as nonentities. It doesn't even matter that these days he favors boiled fish over cheeseburgers or that he weighed in at a svelte 257 yesterday, instead of the 265 he had predicted. He's huge, but he's not fat. He's not Buster Douglas.

It doesn't even matter that Foreman is winking his way though this entire promotion, right down to the hotel buffet -- named, yes, the George Foreman Buffet.

"This is your lie detector," Foreman says, crossing his fingers. "You see this, you may not get the right answer."

Still, we believe he belongs in the ring. Because we want to. Somewhere, Foreman tapped into that. We believe in him the same way we wanted to believe Jim Palmer belonged on the mound and Mark Spitz in the pool.

And we want to believe in Foreman because he's so darn affable, not to mention that he's named all his sons George. There's a man with a sense of humor. Nobody is enjoying this more than Foreman, and not just for the $12.5 million. He has new life, and, gosh, isn't that the point? Particularly if you knew Foreman in the old life, back when he was a legitimate fighter, the heavyweight champion until he was rope-a-doped.

Back in those days, he was as surly as he is engaging now. He was a kid off the streets who had come to boxing as a natural progression. His idea of fun wasn't joking around with the boys, unless your idea of a prank was to put one of the neighbors to sleep, at least temporarily.

In a recent interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Foreman told us who he used to be, and his fingers, I'm guessing, were not crossed.

"There were a lot of people who liked that old mean streak," he said. "They liked that 'Go sic 'em' attitude. My heroes were Sonny Liston, Jim Brown. Guys known to throw people out of windows and everything.

"I had this mustache. I wore an Afro. I had a John Wayne walk that took me years to get down pat. I used to say, 'I'm gonna kill him.' That came from Liston. You see a guy getting by with something, you say, 'This is the way it goes.' It kinds of creeps into you."

He was bad. And now he's good. He's a preacher, and he has a home for boys. And he's fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world.

No one appreciates this impossibility more than Foreman, who, when he launched his comeback, said he expected no less. That's when he had his fingers crossed. You don't leave the ring for 10 years and regain hold of a championship belt, especially since he'd have to wear it as a headband.

"It's more than just a boxing match," Foreman says of the fight. "It's like Halley's comet or a total eclipse. It's once in a lifetime."

If he were to win, he says, it would mean we would have to rethink our values, re-examining whether we truly understand the natural order of things.

"He thinks it's boxing -- jab and move to the right," Foreman was saying of Holyfield. "That's not what you need to fight me. You need to be indoctrinated into history. You need some theologians."

Foreman is smiling. It wasn't a news conference. He had merely come to the press room to chat with whatever reporters were around. Part of that is promotion; part of it is that he likes the story so much that he doesn't want it to end.

It's probably going to come to a crashing end sometime tomorrow night. Evander Holyfield is probably going to hit him a lot of times in his belly, and eventually Foreman is going to fall. But we can root for Foreman all the same. And if you're among his fans, root most of all that it isn't a horrible fight, that it isn't an old Ali stumbling around the ring against a younger LarryHolmes.

We can root for the Foreman who, in the days before the fight, can say: "This is a cool job. I love it."

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