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FOREMAN'S FIGHT OF A LIFETIME

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"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.

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Tom Fitzpatrick