ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- For months, George Foreman ha heard all the ugly whispers. He had been accused of being a charlatan, conning his way into the hearts of the American public with his syrupy, self-deprecating wit to land a $12.5 million payday for fighting heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.
Cynics joked that the boxing's self-proclaimed prodigal son was really the fatted calf, an overweight relic whose comeback would be exposed in the same manner as those of pitcher Jim Palmer and swimmer Mark Spitz.
Foreman shrugged and said: "You can't go through life dwelling on negatives. Don't pull me down in the mud. You have to be positive and reach for the stars."
Indeed. Foreman raised his eyes to the heavens Friday night and almost pulled off one of boxing's biggest miracles. But after 12 bitterly fought rounds, Holyfield, caught in a no-win situation, survived with his crown intact.
In the post-fight news conference, Foreman, his jaw swollen badly, acted more like a winner than a loser.
"He had the points. But I made the point," said Foreman, who was forced to go the limit for only the fourth time in 72 professional fights dating to 1969.
"If you can live, you can dream. It was a good night for me. I came within inches of winning, and I would have if it wasn't for Holyfield's granite chin. I proved you didn't have to be ashamed of being a senior citizen. There was no dignity lost."
Foreman's future looks more uncertain than that of Holyfield, who will fight former champion Mike Tyson this fall if Tyson's promoter, Don King, agrees to accept less than a 50-50 split of receipts.
King would like to delay a megabucks match with Holyfield until Tyson's contract with estranged manager Bill Cayton runs out in February. Cayton still is getting 20 percent of Tyson's purses.
Holyfield's promoter, Dan Duva, mentioned youthful heavyweights Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer and Lennox Lewis as possible alternatives if King proves stubborn, but those names lack the sparkle and mystique that surrounded Foreman in his improbable mission to recapture the heavyweight title he owned 18 years ago.
Foreman flew back to Houston early yesterday morning to make certain he was in time to preach his Sunday sermon at his Houston church. But everyone else seemed willing to speculate about what's next on his agenda.
Promoter Bob Arum, who supported Foreman's comeback bid that began in 1987 after a 10-year layoff, said: "George is a very intelligent man. He has to realize there are big financial rewards to be made if he continues fighting. But, at the same time, he has an opportunity to quit boxing at the height of his popularity.
"George has already had lucrative offers from HBO to serve as a boxing commentator. He could also get countless endorsements, probably more if he stopped fighting and didn't risk his image.
"He probably gained more recognition by going 12 rounds with a fine champion than if he had knocked out Holyfield in two or three rounds," Arum added. "If George had won, he'd have to defend his title. If he fights again, is the motivation to win the title or strictly money?
"If this were baseball or basketball, and he was interested only in the economics of the business, it would be different. But boxing is an extremely dangerous sport, I would hate to see George ending up like Muhammad Ali."
Duva also suggested this was the ideal time for Foreman to wave goodbye to the ring.
"If I were a cold-blooded businessman, I'd say George Foreman could keep fighting," Duva said. "But from a poetic view, the story really ended Friday night. That was Foreman's shining hour. I don't think he can capture that moment again. He should move on to other things. He could probably make millions of dollars as a spokesman for senior citizens."
Although Holyfield, a 7-2 favorite, did not enhance his reputation by beating the oldest title challenger in history, he did not let this detract from his performance in his first defense since dethroning James "Buster" Douglas in October.
"George proved to me that you're not too old at 42," said the champion, 28. "You have to earn a knockout, and I didn't earn one, even though I did all I could to take him out of there. For five years, when I hit guys with all I had, they went out, but not George."
Holyfield appeared to be rocked several times in the lively fight by Foreman's stiff jab and clubbing, overhand rights, but insists he never was in mortal danger.
"He never really hurt me," Holyfield said. "He never caught me square on the chin, but when he hit me on the top of the head, it made me realize he had the ability to knock me out at any time. When it was over, I didn't think either of us had done anything to be ashamed of. I figure if anyone else feels they can go 12 rounds with Foreman, let them try."