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FOREMAN'S FIGHT OF A LIFETIME

The white Acura pulled into my driveway and slammed to a halt. David Ramras, the lawyer, leaped from behind the wheel.

"Here's the tape," Ramras said. "You're going to be surprised how good this fight turned out to be." Ramras, an extremely knowledgeable sports fan, was talking about the championship boxing bout between George Foreman and Evander Holyfield.

I had planned to see it on the night of the fight but things didn't work out. So, an hour later, I was sitting in front of the television set reading and waiting for the fight's preliminaries to end. Ramras had warned me they took a long time and suggested I fast-forward directly to the fight. I decided, however, to let the whole scene play itself out.

The announcers were filling airtime with interviews while waiting for the two fighters to appear.

"This will be the end of George Foreman's comeback," an editor from Ring magazine was saying. "He's finished after tonight."

At this moment, a roar from the crowd announced that George Foreman was approaching the ring.

I had been passing time reading David McCullough's The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. I had just learned that Steve Brodie, the only man to become famous for jumping off the bridge, probably never actually did make his famous dive. According to McCullough's research, a dummy had been thrown from the bridge by friends and Brodie himself had swum out to a rescue barge from shore. Since July 23, 1886, it has been one of America's great hoaxes. Perhaps, now I was about to see still another.

I looked up at the screen and caught sight of George Foreman and his entourage advancing with slow dignity toward the ring. It was eerily reminiscent of the famous night procession scene in Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God, when the Indian slaves drag provisions down a mountain path in a South American jungle lighted only by torches.

Foreman stood out. He was immense, at once menacing and yet somehow comforting in his enormous bulk. He wore a red hooded robe from which his huge shaven head protruded. Foreman might have been an aging king being led to execution. His head was down. His chin was on his chest and his eyes were closed in contemplation.

Foreman held both arms outstretched in front of him and his big hands were on the shoulders of the man walking directly in front of him. He moved in lock step at a pace set by his motley crew of supporters.

Cameras from pay television stayed with this march from the moment Foreman left his dressing room until he climbed through the ropes and stepped into the ring and began dancing lightly in his corner.

The hood fell back and that enormous head, glistening with perspiration, became so dominant it was impossible to avert my eyes from it. Then I realized something about this new George Foreman that had not occurred to me previously.

That shaved head is his secret. It gives him a presence, the way it did for Yul Brynner, the actor, and does for Michael Jordan, the basketball player. It not only renders Foreman as larger than life but also softens every aspect of his character.

"People are showing up in droves," said Khambrell Marshall, one of the announcers.

Len Berman, the ring announcer, took over. He spoke like a man who had just walked into St. Mark's in Venice for the first time.

"I've been to a lot of Super Bowls, big college basketball games," Berman said. "But this . . . this is really big."

I have grown so accustomed to sports announcers as jaded celebrities that I was shocked by Berman's naivete. He actually appeared overwhelmed to be in the presence of the celebrities he now began introducing.

Berman spoke reverently of each one as the camera panned over them.
They weren't hard to find. No doubt, they had all received complimentary tickets. All were seated in the same section, close to the ring.

"There's Kevin Costner with Donald Trump and Marla Maples," Berman said, excitedly. "And there's Gene Hackman, Jesse Jackson, and Merv Griffin as well as Billy Crystal and Joe Piscopo."

From the sports world, Berman spotted--and the camera noted--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles, Phil Simms of the New York Giants, Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A's, and Glenn "Doc" Rivers of the Atlanta Hawks.

Once inside the ring, Foreman strode back and forth purposefully, demonstrating that this was a place in which he planned to do serious work. Foreman measured the ring from corner to corner, checking to see how the canvas surface would be for his footing.

Foreman walked back to his corner. He stood there talking with Archie Moore, one of his advisers. Moore, now in his seventies, looks like Othello's grandfather.

Moore fought professionally for close to thirty years. He was so skilled and wily a fighter that, out of respect, he was called "The Mongoose." Moore was considered so dangerous that reigning champions kept dodging him. It wasn't until his last days as a pugilist that he finally got a title shot against Rocky Marciano. Moore's share of the purse, his largest ever, was $240,000--minuscule by today's standards.

Budd Schulberg, the author of On The Waterfront, who covered the Marciano-Moore fight for Esquire magazine, wrote: "There was tragedy in the way he [Moore] sprawled there with the fight and the will beaten out of him, a very old man of 42, who, some 30 minutes earlier, had been such an astonishing young man of 42."

Despite the severe pounding, Moore greeted reporters cheerfully in the dressing room. "Welcome, gentlemen," Moore said. "I found this evening most enjoyable. I trust you did likewise. Now, if you have any questions, I shall be happy to answer them."

Moore has remained loquacious to the present. At one point he even gave a critically acclaimed performance as "Jim" in a film version of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. His influence on Foreman's personal loquacity is apparent.

This point can't be exaggerated. Without Foreman's remarkable personality, this fight could never have taken place.

Earlier in the week, Moore had been asked to predict the outcome of Foreman's quest to regain the heavyweight crown after such a lengthy hiatus.

Archie replied without hesitation: "I'm stickin' with the Old Man. There is no doubt in my mind. Experience will carry George Foreman on to a most magnificent triumph."

A.J. Liebling, the most stylish boxing writer of this century, once explained his fascination with boxing.

It stemmed, he wrote, from the fact that all that separates all the heavyweight champions in history "is a series of punches in the nose."

Each champion from the days of John L. Sullivan, Liebling pointed out, was actually connected to the present champion by a long series of cut lips and right crosses to the jaw delivered while the title changed hands.

Perhaps that's why all the past champs keep showing up for every new heavyweight title fight. They are there to cast an aura of legitimacy over the present ceremony.

When Moore fought Rocky Marciano, among those present were former champions Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Max Baer, and Jim Braddock.

On this night of the Foreman-Holyfield fight, they brought out Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to be introduced in the ring. For some undetermined reason, Larry Holmes, another ex-champion, was consigned to a seat in the audience. His presence was barely mentioned.

As they introduced Frazier, he began to jog furiously in place with a fierce look on his face as though he were going to take part in the fight. Ali stood without showing emotion, his jaw slackened.

Foreman, once feared as the hardest puncher in boxing history, had won the title from Frazier. Ali, who actually held the title three separate times, took it away from Foreman a year later in the eighth round in Zaire, Africa, in what was called "The Rumble in the Jungle."

The night before that fight, Ali invited Jack Griffin, a near-poet who wrote a sports column for the Chicago Sun-Times, to his suite to watch films of Foreman.

Ali ran the films of Foreman winning the Olympic heavyweight title against the Soviet Union's Ionas Chepulis. Foreman was all raw power then.

Ali sneered at Foreman's clumsiness as he watched the films. "He ain't got no class, no class at all," Ali kept saying.

The film of the Frazier fight ran. At one point, Foreman actually lifted Frazier off his feet with a blow to the ribs.

Griffin told Ali he thought that showed Foreman had real power.
"You don't see what I see," Ali said. "Look, Frazier is down but he gets right up again. What kind of power is that? I knock a man down and he don't get up. Foreman don't lay a man out the way I do."

Sure, Ali was the best of them all. But he took so many punches to the head from Foreman in Zaire and from Frazier in their three great fights that he was sent on the road to his current destination, a debilitated state which boxing people call "queer street."

The great Red Smith was there in Manila in 1971 when Frazier had pulverized Ali for fifteen rounds before winning the decision.

"Losing, he fought the bravest and best and most desperate battle he has ever been called upon to make. In all his gaudy, gabby years as a professional, he had always left one big question unanswered: Could he take it? If ever he was hit and hurt, how would he respond?

"He not only took it, but kept it. Each fighter got $2.5 million for his night's work and earned it."

There was a time when Ali charged ringsides and leaped nimbly between the strands and danced about the ring with his arms high above his head as the crowds roared their adulation. Those times are over. Now they help him up the steps. He is hardly able to speak or understand.

I marveled at all the pageantry. Before pay television, you had to be in possession of a valid press card or the price of a ringside ticket to get an authentic feeling for the events unfolding at a heavyweight championship fight.

Had you lived in that pre-TV era, how much do you think you would have seen?

Speculate for a moment on your chances at getting within the sight line, much less within hearing distance, of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman--or Joe Frazier, for that matter--during the moments the fights were actually taking place.

Pay television has changed that dramatically. The price is steep for home viewers. But they heard and saw as much, and perhaps more, of Foreman's struggle to turn back time than all but a few boxing experts at ringside in previous title fights. They had a better view and they had the advantage of instant replays after each round. They also had the advantage of updated assessments as to how the fight was going.

The transformation of Foreman's personality from the days of his fight with Ali in Zaire is one of the amazing character switches. These days, Foreman clowns and talks incessantly. In the days when he actually held the heavyweight crown, he was sullen, menacing and, for some strange reason, surrounded by bodyguards.

Mailer, in The Fight, his book devoted to the Foreman-Ali battle, tells of meeting with Foreman and his entourage in a hotel lobby. Mailer attempted to shake Foreman's hand. At that time, no one was allowed to touch the champion.

"Excuse me for not shaking hands with you," Foreman told Mailer. "But you see, I am keeping my hand in my pocket."

Later, an interview was arranged for Mailer. Foreman's answers were limited to simple declarative sentences.

Some samples:
Q: "Your eye looks all right to me, George."
A: "Looks all right to me, too."
Q: "What do you think of your weight?"
A: "Once you're a heavyweight, your weight speaks for itself."
Q: "Ali claims he has met tougher fighters than you."
A: "I got a dog who fights all the time. He comes home whipped."

Archie Moore was in Foreman's corner for that fight with Ali, too. Angelo Dundee, who on this night was with Foreman, was with Ali.

Foreman lost his title then by a devastating knockout--the only one he has ever suffered.

"He started to tumble," Mailer wrote. "He went over like a six-foot, sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news."

That was seventeen years ago. Now, Foreman, or at least this new version of Foreman that smiles all the time and weighs 257 pounds, was here to fight for the championship again.

Holyfield was the champion, but only lightly regarded. This fight was all about Foreman and his comeback. At this moment, he was the biggest boxing story in a decade. Foreman moved finally back to his corner. He shuffled right by Muhammad Ali. Holyfield, bouncing madly about the ring, made a point of kissing Ali on the cheek. Ali practically ignored the gesture.

Despite his age, Foreman's battle record was astonishing. He had fought 69 times previously and scored 65 knockouts, most of them in less than four rounds.

When they introduced Foreman, he stood there, legs crossed, in his corner. He was disconcertingly calm. Holyfield had to notice that.

Once the fight began, Foreman's serene attitude remained unchanged. It was a fight in which, for twelve rounds, Foreman never stopped advancing.

He took a lot of punches to the head, some of them so hard that the perspiration splashed from his dome. But Foreman never backed away.

In the second round, Foreman came within inches of taking Holyfield out. In the third, Holyfield almost knocked Foreman down.

Between rounds, Foreman refused to sit down on a stool the way fighters always do. In the fourth round, they must have feared Foreman was tiring. They put a chair in his corner. He relaxed by putting one foot on it. He did that for all twelve rounds.

The seventh round was marked by great flurries of hard punches by both fighters. At one point, Foreman almost had Holyfield ready to fall. Then Holyfield stormed back.

At the end of the round, you could hear Archie Moore shouting into Foreman's ear: "Now don't get hit by no crazy punches."

The crowd was on its feet and chanting: "George! George! George!"
But Foreman was tiring. He got hit with a lot of punches for the remaining rounds and a lot of them weren't crazy.

The old man never backed off and at the closing minutes of both the eleventh and twelfth rounds it was Holyfield who was holding onto Foreman's neck as though they were participants in a marathon dance.

The judges gave Holyfield the decision. That was only right. But the crowd gave Foreman its heart. And that was only right, too.

There was a final act. The television camera invaded Foreman's dressing room a few minutes after the fight. Moore, the old Mongoose, was there with him. Their journey together has been a long one.

Before the interviewer got a chance to get going, Foreman was on his feet like a big cat. Now that he was out of the ring, Foreman no longer appeared so exhausted.

"We've kept our dignity and there was no retreat," Foreman said. "Every young man of fifty out there can be proud of himself. I had 'im out in the last round and he was really hurt. I didn't want to hurt him. I took pity."

Foreman was kidding, of course. He smiled through his swollen but unmarked face. It was true that it had become necessary for an exhausted Holyfield to hang on to Foreman through much of the final rounds. But Foreman had lost his hand speed. There was no way he could have thrown a knockout punch after the seventh round.

"One last question, George," began the befuddled interviewer.
Foreman wasn't waiting. He was on his feet and advancing to the camera, talking all the while.

"You have seen the total eclipse," Foreman said.
The interviewer attempted to interrupt. "George let me ask you . . . "
"The fight of a lifetime," Foreman shouted like the preacher that he is, " . . . the eighth wonder of the world. Never will you see this again."

"George," the interviewer said, "George . . . please . . . "
"It will take fifty years before another generation sees something like this," Foreman said. "A man closer to sixty than he is to twenty showed the whole world . . . going toe to toe, and a young man holding on for his breath.

"All senior citizens around the world can be proud of themselves. Hip, hip, hooray!"

And with that, Foreman was suddenly finished. He stopped talking and moved away from the camera.

The show was over. But George Foreman had certainly left everyone with something to remember.

must use the first two pullquotes, per Bodney

He took a lot of punches to the head, some of them so hard that the perspiration splashed from his dome.

The crowd was on its feet and chanting: "George! George! George!"

That shaved head is his secret. It not only renders Foreman as larger than life but also softens every aspect of his character.

Without Foreman's remarkable personality this fight could never have taken place.

The transformation of Foreman's personality from the days of his fight with Ali in Zaire is one of the amazing character switches.

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Tom Fitzpatrick