Schulz pulled from obscurity to fight Foreman

INSTANT OF CELEBRITY

April 20, 1995|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Angstlich: The literal translation from German to English is "scared," as in "scared stiff."

That was the initial reaction of obscure German champion Axel Schulz when he was surprisingly selected from a list of four undistinguished heavyweights to serve as George Foreman's opponent Saturday night in Las Vegas in Foreman's first International Boxing Federation title defense.

The enormity of fighting an American folk hero before a hostile crowd began to work on Schulz's mind when he started to train in February in his hometown of Frankfurt Oder near the Polish border.

As Schulz said through an interpreter: "There were times I felt truly desperate. I was having trouble landing a solid punch. I began to think, 'If I don't get better pretty soon, it could be a real bad ending for me.' "

In the early weeks of camp, the 26-year-old fighter had trouble sleeping, his every thought focused on the fight, and the burden of carrying the hopes of an entire nation on his shoulders.

"I could feel the tension in every muscle of my body," he said.

But now, only days before the battle, Schulz, a 7-1 underdog, looked surprisingly relaxed, good-naturedly answering questions from American journalists meeting him for the first time.

"Yes, I think I can win," he said. "Otherwise, I should just pack my bags and leave. But Sunday, I will leave Las Vegas and return home as world champion."

Brash talk from a boxer who was unranked and little-known even in his native land before the unlikely match with Foreman was announced in January.

"Schulz is what you Americans call an instant celebrity," said German free-lance journalist Hartmut Scherzer. "He became famous by doing nothing of note. When his fight with Foreman was first announced, the first reaction in Germany was, 'No chance.'

"But Schulz began appearing on every TV show, and was featured in leading papers and magazines like Der Spiegel and Stern. He was an intelligent, likable young man. Now everyone wanted to believe in him."

Heretofore, the introverted Schulz had merely served as a warm-up act for International Boxing Federation light-heavyweight champion Henry Maske, Germany's most popular athlete save for tennis star Boris Becker, Schulz's sports idol.

"He was always in Maske's shadow," said Scherzer. "Schulz would fight on the undercard of Maske's title fights, but got very little media attention."

But strong salesmanship by promoter Cedric Kushner has resulted in an army of 111 German print and electronic media and some 2,000 German fans following Schulz to this gambling mecca.

"Only when Germany is playing in the World Cup or Becker is competing at Wimbledon would we have more reporters," said Scherzer. "Now all eyes are on Schulz."

Schulz's chance for sudden fame came when HBO and powerful American promoter Bob Arum were seeking a less-than-dangerous opponent for Foreman, who, at 45, shook the boxing world last November with his one-punch, 10th-round knockout of Michael Moorer to become the oldest heavyweight champion in history. HBO considered Lou Saverese, Alexander Zolkin, Dane Nielsen and Schulz as possible rivals.

Kushner, who has promoted several of Schulz's matches, sold the German to Arum as "the best economic deal" since the burgeoning RTL cable network in Germany was willing to kick in $1.08 million to carry the bout. Of that sum, Schulz would receive a purse of $350,000, compared to Foreman's lion's share of $10 million from pay-per-view and the live gate.

Because he chose to fight Schulz rather than top-ranked Tony Tucker, Foreman was stripped of his World Boxing Association title, but he retained his IBF crown.

Although Schulz has a 21-1-1 record, his only noteworthy victim was a shopworn James "Bonecrusher" Smith, whom he decisioned in Germany last September.

His draw and only loss both occurred against English heavyweight Henry Akinwande, in 1992 and 1993, and British boxing writers who witnessed the two matches said Schulz would be about as dangerous to Foreman as a flea.

"He's a one-dimensional plodder without a punch, made to order for Foreman," said John Rawling of the BBC.

Understandably, Kushner rallies to Schulz's defense.

"You can't judge him off what he did against Akinwande, who is almost 6-foot-7," Kushner said. "Akinwande just smothered Axel. was more like wrestling than boxing."

Kushner is confident Schulz has the right stuff to beat Foreman. "It is more a case of believing Foreman has run out of miracles," he said.

Schulz was unwilling to reveal his strategy for upsetting the champion, but hinted he might copy the "hit-and-run" tactics Tommy Morrison used to defeat Foreman in June 1993.

"My advantage is my speed, conditioning and boxing skills," he said.

Said Kushner, "The thing to remember about Schulz is that, like Maske, he is a product of the East German sports factories.

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