ATLANTIC CITY, N.Y. — ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- If this were a popularity contest rather than a heavyweight title fight, George Foreman would be an overwhelming favorite to defeat champion Evander Holyfield at the Convention Center tonight.
Nearly everyone falls victim to Foreman's self-deprecating humor about his age (42), weight (257) and gargantuan appetite for food and the good life. Crowds at his daily workouts far exceeded those attending Holyfield's sparring sessions in the same Trump Plaza ballroom.
Foreman, who was heavyweight king in 1973-74 and began a 10-year layoff in 1977 before beginning his improbable comeback, is the undisputed popular favorite.
But oddsmakers have established the unbeaten Holyfield, 28, as a 3-1 favorite to make Foreman his 26th straight victim.
Promoters can point to Holyfield's stoic manner and his lack of charisma when compared with former champions Muhammad Ali and the recently dethroned Mike Tyson. As Tyson's mentor, Don King, noted, "Holyfield can't draw flies in a dump." But Bob Arum, who has been the main force behind Foreman's comeback, said he thinks that if Holyfield continues to beat everyone put in front of him, fight fans would rally behind him.
"I'm from the school that if a guy continues to prove his ability and shows he's sincere and dedicated, the public will eventually support him," Arum said. "My proof of that is Marvin Hagler, who was also a non-charismatic guy. In the meantime, Holyfield [who has been guaranteed $20 million to Foreman's $12.5 million] will be laughing all the way to the bank."
But personalities won't decide this bout, and the only question surrounding it is whether Foreman (69-2, 65 knockouts), who devastated the likes of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in his prime, can catch Holyfield early with one of his sledgehammer blows.
It is one of the enduring cliches of boxing that the last thing a fighter loses is his punch. And that is the only reason Foreman is given a chance in this curious match, which is expected to attract a record pay-per-view audience paying $40 apiece for what promises to be a swift battle.
Holyfield, who has won wars of attrition with Dwight Qawi, Michael Dokes and Alex Stewart, once viewed Foreman as a one-dimensional fighter.
"I was 10 years old and in an amateur boxing program when Foreman fought Ali in Zaire," Holyfield recalled the other day. "Everyone thought Foreman would just roll over Ali the same way he did Norton and Frazier.
"But my coach, Carter Morgan, told me there was no way a one-dimensional slugger like Foreman could beat a resourceful boxer like Ali. He was right, of course. Ali outsmarted him with his 'rope-a-dope' tactics, wearing him down before knocking Foreman out."
But Holyfield, and just about everyone else, concedes that Foreman is a smarter fighter than he was then, economizing his energy and waiting a perfect opportunity to land a haymaker while using a cross-armed defense borrowed from adviser Archie Moore.
"George Foreman isn't going to out-trick you," said George Benton, Holyfield's co-trainer and chief cornerman. "All he can do is hit you with those wrecking-ball punches. To beat him, you've got to be able to stand up under fire.
"You can't be faint of heart and fight a George Foreman. We know George will be coming after Evander. Here's a guy earning $12 million. He knows if he loses, it's the end of the line. That's why George has nothing to lose, and he'll be throwing those awful bombs.
"I'm not a general, but if I were facing a cannon attack, I'd have my troops go in close. I'd tell them to let the shots go over their heads. But with George, you've got to start pitching. Even in his prime, he was always the pitcher, never the catcher."
And what will Holyfield, shorter and 49 pounds lighter, be doing to stay out of harm's way?
"We'll be fighting him in what I call our comfort zone," said Lou Duva, who coordinates strategy with Benton. "Evander will be slipping, sliding and making George miss, looking to counter, but not running from him.
"George is still very dangerous, and he'll try to bully our man. He can miss you with 99 punches and still kill you with his 100th shot. But he needs leverage. We want him to throw punches. He'll be swinging for the fence, and Evander will be chewing him up with singles and doubles."
Arum said he thinks Holyfield's handlers are "thinking more defense than offense, like UNLV when it got upset by Duke. That could be a fatal mistake."
Foreman -- who says he, too, has profited from Moore's preaching about "breathology," and "escapology" -- says he can now win a battle of brains, as well as one of brawn.
"People make the mistake of comparing me with the way I was 18 years ago," he said. "Despite my age, I'm actually in better shape now. People don't know how I used to go without water, without eating to keep my weight down. It was a death trap. I had to knock people out quick or I'd faint.