Tonight in Atlantic City, just weeks before his 49th birthday, the amazing George Foreman will climb through the ropes for the 80th time as a professional fighter. There's life yet in a career that began in June 1969. How could it be otherwise for the man who, because he never lost his world titles in the ring, is the last link to John L Sullivan and the first recognised heavyweight championship fight in 1885? Unless Foreman is beaten, he will take the linear title that he won against Michael Moorer in May 1994 into retirement with him. Middle-aged he may be, but Foreman remains the man to beat.
Erstwhile contemporaries such as Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton and Jerry Quarry today struggle with the basics of everyday life, apparently as a result of their time in boxing. But Foreman fights on, fending off the challenges of young lions such as 25-year-old Shannon Briggs, a 6ft 4in, 161/2 stone New Yorker, from the same Brownsville streets that produced Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe. Briggs, tonight's opponent, is 29-1. Foreman was 28- 0 when Briggs was born, 30 months after the former twice champion turned pro.
Accepted wisdom has it that heavyweights peak later than other boxers, but Foreman is taking the notion to extremes. Never before has a fighter competed for so long at such a high level. The lay preacher from Texas has become an American institution. Foreman is George Burns in boxing gloves, the oldest man ever to win the heavyweight title. In a country where an actor can become president, Foreman is a living legend.
While currently without a world title, Foreman is bigger box office than both Lennox Lewis, the World Boxing Council champion, and Evander Holyfield, his World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation counterpart. The 15,000-plus crowd drawn by Holyfield's April 1991 victory over Foreman remains an Atlantic City record. But attendances for subsequent Holyfield fights in this east coast gambling ghetto have never approached that high. To be there when Foreman fights is to be part of history. A history that is still being written.
With 68 knock-outs from his 75 wins, Foreman would have to be given a puncher's chance against even Lewis and Holyfield. Possibly more than that against the faded and currently unlicensed Tyson, who may yet face Foreman in what, truly, would be the richest fight of all time. Even before Tyson's determined descent into rape and cannibalism, the prospect of a meeting between the Brooklyn street thug and the Punching Preacher was sending marketing men's brains into overload. Previous estimates had such a match grossing in excess of $200m (pounds 118.3m). In a sport like boxing, can it not happen?
Foreman is a physical marvel. His bald head and bulging waistline belie an incredible natural athleticism and a fitness that the canny veteran constantly seeks to undermine with references to his apparently Presley- like eating binges. But Foreman is strong in mind as well as body. His shrewd exploitation of both the current lack of heavyweight talent and the American national psyche demonstrates as much.
To acknowledge the genius of Foreman's reinventing himself when he returned after a 10-year retirement in 1987, making a seamless transformation from mean machine to amiable grandad, is to doubt the innocent patriotism behind his waving of a miniature Stars and Stripes on the Olympic podium in 1968, at a time when other Afro-American gold medal winners were raising clenched, gloved fists.
"George Foreman is a self-serving phoney, surly guy who unfortunately has people snowed [fooled]," said Bob Mittleman, manager of the unbeaten heavyweight contender, Hasim Rahman. "But you never heard me say he wasn't smart."
Mittleman has right to feel aggrieved. Rahman was Foreman's original opponent for this date, until Foreman, a cautious matchmaker, decided Briggs might be an easier option. Certainly a more marketable one.
Briggs is better known as a celebrity than a fighter. Extremely media- friendly, the bleach-blond dreadlocked New Yorker has dabbled in modelling, acting and rap music - to the detriment of his boxing career, says his former trainer, Teddy Atlas. The pair parted company following Briggs's third-round loss to Darroll Wilson in March 1996, a fight in which Briggs was exposed as one who gives better than he takes.
But Briggs claims to be a happier man, more at peace with himself, now that a traumatic year, in which his mother, a long-term drug user, died on his 25th birthday, is over. "I learned a lot last year and I'm looking forward to this fight," he said. "I'm amazed at how old Foreman is and yet he's still a good fighter, fighting young guys and winning."
Current form suggests that Foreman's phenomenal punching power is not what it once was. His last two opponents - Crawford Grimsley and Lou Savarese - lasted the distance with Foreman, but were stopped by supposedly lesser opposition in their next fights. Yet there are so many doubts about Briggs, particularly regarding his strength of chin and heart, that it is hard to imagine him being able to stand up to Foreman's punches, even if they are less potent these days. Briggs has fast hands and, with 17 first-round KO victims, is no mean puncher himself. And at Foreman's age, the former champion could fall apart at any time. But at some stage in this 12-rounder, Foreman is bound to connect and it would be surprising if Briggs does not fold. The Foreman saga is unlikely to end this evening.