ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- George Foreman, who joked, jived and clowned for months about his improbable comeback and challenge to Evander Holyfield's heavyweight title, did not get the last laugh Friday night. He got more than that, though -- the respect of the boxing world.
At 42 -- 14 years older and 49 pounds heavier than the unbeaten champion -- Foreman surprisingly pushed Holyfield to the 12-round limit and was the sentimental winner even though Holyfield won the votes of all three judges by a comfortable margin.
"Even at 42, George proved you're not too old," Holyfield said. "He fought a good fight, and he has a great chin. He hit me with some good shots, but he was never able to follow.
"Was I surprised? Yes. Who thought he'd be able to go 12 rounds with me? He pressured me throughout and cut off the ring. He made me do a lot of things I didn't want to do."
Holyfield, 28, needed all of his stamina to withstand the relentless pursuit and damaging, clubbing punches of Foreman, who was heavyweight champion himself 18 years ago before losing his crown to Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974.
Ali was in the near-capacity crowd of 17,000 at Convention Hall, cheering Foreman, who returned to the ring in 1987 after a 10-year absence. His match with Holyfield (26-0, 22 knockouts) was dubbed "The Battle of the Ages," and it lived up to the advance hype.
Most boxing experts thought Foreman, because of his age and bulk (257 pounds), could win only with a quick knockout. But, surprisingly, he had Holyfield in constant danger, making him hold constantly under a withering body attack.
In the second, sixth, seventh and ninth rounds, Holyfield clearly was shaken by Foreman's sledgehammer blows. Typically, it made the champion fight back all the harder. But his expression and his weary walks back to his corner indicated that he might have found more than he bargained for.
Referee Rudy Battle penalized the challenger a point for a low blow in the 11th, making it a 10-8 round for Holyfield.
Battle had warned Foreman at least three times previously but did not penalize Holyfield for his extended clinching whenever he needed time to recover.
Holyfield denied that he ever was hurt, but he paid tribute to Foreman, who carried the promotion with his lengthy monologues.
"I hit him with everything I had," the champion said. "For five years, when I hit guys with my best shots, they went out, but George didn't.
"I thought he was going to be very slow and that I could rain punches on him like raindrops, but he wasn't. He was as tough as they come."
Holyfield had Foreman in serious trouble in the third, seventh and ninth rounds, but the former champion used his experience and cunning to get away, perhaps borrowing the "escapeology" tricks of Archie Moore, who is one of his advisers.
Foreman was the aggressor throughout, also using Moore's cross-handed defense to pick off a number of Holyfield's quick, lunging punches. But he could not land enough punches to discourage Holyfield, who won the title by stopping James "Buster" Douglas in three rounds in October.
Foreman, who lost for the third time in 72 bouts, said, "Senior citizens everywhere can be proud of themselves. I don't know what I'm going to do in the future. With all these growing pains, there's no telling where I'll go."
"We kept our dignity, and there was no retreat. We proved that the age -- 40, 50 or 60 -- is not a death sentence. It will be 50 years before the world sees something like this again."
Judge Jerry Roth gave Holyfield the widest margin of victory, 117-110, awarding Foreman only the second, seventh and final rounds. Eugene Grant scored it 116-111, and Tom Kaczmarek favored Holyfield, 115-112, which seemed the most accurate.
Holyfield was guaranteed $20 million for his first title defense, and Foreman received $12.5 million. But both fighters are expected to earn considerably more from the expected record pay-per-view receipts.
There were three other fights on the card.
Undefeated Tommy "The Duke" Morrison (27-0, 23 knockouts) of Kansas City, Mo., and a possible title heavyweight challenger for Holyfield by the end of this year, hardly looked ready for prime time in registering a fifth-round knockout of Yuri Vaulin of Latvia.
Vaulin (10-2), a left-handed fighter who was brought to the United States to turn professional last year, outboxed and out-punched Morrison through the first four rounds, badly exposing Morrison's lack of defense.
But a booming left hook early in the fifth round quickly turned the fight in Morrison's favor. Vaulin immediately went on the defensive. A vicious left to the ribs doubled up the Latvian, who turned his back as referee Steve Smoger gave him a standing eight count.
Vaulin seemed to recover, but another hook to the midsection draped him helplessly over the ropes, and Smoger signaled the fight was over.
"Tommy just had trouble solving a southpaw style," said manager Bill Cayton, who handled Mike Tyson before the former champion left him in favor of Don King.
When the fight was stopped, Morrison, who appeared with Sylvester Stallone in "Rocky V" and learned to fight as a teen-ager in "Toughman" tournaments, was trailing on all three judges' cards.
Morrison says he is the grandnephew of the late John Wayne.
Unbeaten Michael Moorer of Detroit, who abandoned his World Boxing Organization light-heavyweight title to campaign among the heavyweights, made an easy transition in disposing of Terry Davis of Vallejo, Cal., at 1:52 of the second round of a scheduled 10-rounder.