LAS VEGAS -- That George Foreman, he really knows how to pick 'em.
In December, he pocketed $5 million to slap around a former replacement football player named Jimmy Ellis. That disgraceful mismatch was justifiably slammed by everyone who had the misfortune to suffer through it, including executives from HBO, who bankrolled it and should have been embarrassed to air it.
Next time, they insisted, things will be different.
Next time is tomorrow night, when Foreman fights Alex Stewart, one of the nicest young men to lace on boxing gloves in a long time, which of course means he has absolutely no chance against Foreman, who despite his polished and amiable demeanor is one of the most treacherous characters in boxing. Foreman knows Stewart has no chance, which is exactly why he chose him as his next opponent.
While promoters Bob Arum and Bobby Goodman shilled Wednesday, emphasizing Stewart's 28 wins, all KOs over palookas, but not his three losses to the only real opponents he has fought, Foreman stared straight ahead, his moon face a blank, his mischievous eyes glazed over.
Perhaps he was thinking back to what he undoubtedly was told by his brother Roy, who found himself in Stewart's dressing room only minutes before Stewart froze up and got steamrolled by Mike Tyson on Dec. 8, 1990. Roy Foreman, expecting to see a young, confident fighter ready to seize the opportunity of a lifetime, instead saw a reluctant, frightened boy.
"He was sitting there, breathing heavy and sweating, just scared to death," Roy Foreman said. "I never saw a guy lose a fight in the dressing room like that before in my life."
Roy Foreman, in the dressing room as an observer authorized by Don King, who promoted that fight, found himself in the position of delivering a pep talk to Stewart. It didn't help. Stewart was dropped three times in less than 2:30.
And George Foreman, working as an analyst for HBO, got to witness Stewart's pre-fight anxiety himself before Stewart fought Michael Moorer last July, when Stewart was stopped in four brutal rounds. That is why Foreman chose to fight a man whose record suggests he is dangerous but whose big-fight performances say he is not.
Wednesday, at the final pre-fight news conference, Foreman was gentle with Stewart, making no threats but instead telling a story of another young fighter, whom he did not name, who taunted him about his old legs and tried to force the fight into the later rounds, when it was expected the 42-year-old Foreman would tire.
"He was saying, 'Your legs are gone, your legs are gone,' " Foreman said. "I looked down and said, 'No they're not.' Then the fight ended. I knocked that young man out."
He also took a light jab at Stewart when he recalled fighting in Las Vegas against Bob Hazleton in 1969 -- "about when this kid was being potty-trained."
Stewart, 27, recognized Foreman's folksy-preacher approach for what it was -- a subtle psych job aimed at what Foreman believes to be Stewart's main weakness, his confidence. "I know he's trying to play mental games with me," Stewart said. "That potty-trained thing, whatever that meant. The only edge he's got is mental conditioning, but I'm going to surprise him physically."
But Stewart's statements didn't convince anybody that he believed he could knock out Foreman, especially since he has seen Evander Holyfield, another Stewart conqueror, hit Foreman many times without dropping him. "I cannot think that I've got to take him down to win," Stewart said. "There are other ways to win a fight. You can do a paint job on him, go the distance, out-point him. I know he's a very strong guy."
In fact, Stewart's lack of confidence already has cost him $150,000. Last October, while Stewart was contemplating retirement after the Moorer loss, he was offered $400,000 to fight Foreman Dec. 7. Stewart turned it down -- he says he weighed 255 and did not have enough time to train -- and the date went to Ellis. Tomorrow night, Stewart will get $250,000.
"But at least this time, I'm ready," he said.
If Foreman believed that, he'd be fighting someone else.
* HE'S NOT GUN-SHY: On the undercard is a middleweight title bout between a champion, James Toney, who gives a good shot and a challenger, Glenn "Big Bad" Wolfe, who takes a good shot -- literally. In 1985, Wolfe, wearing $30,000 worth of jewelry in Miami's Liberty City, was beset by two armed robbers. One of them pegged some .9mm shots at Wolfe. One shattered his right index finger and the other bounced off his skull, leaving a crease in his head but doing no other damage. Wolfe (27-2-1, 24 KOs) has never been down, from fist or bullet.
Toney (29-0-2, 20 KOs), however, has had a rocky road since winning the IBF title with a knockout of Michael Nunn last May. In subsequent fights, he climbed off the deck to win a narrow decision over Reggie Johnson in June; failed by a half-pound to make weight before an October defense against Francisco Dell'Aquila but was cut 8 ounces of slack by the IBF and went on to score a fourth-round KO; got a draw in a grueling battle with Mike McCallum in December; and was lucky to be awarded the decision over Dave Tiberi in a title fight in February. This will be Toney's sixth title bout in 11 months.
"He'd like to fight more often than that, like once a month if he could," said manager Jackie Kallen. "I have to convince him to slow down a little."