A fat man way past his prime

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The Independent Online
It says something about American tastes that Saturday's contest between George Foreman and Axel Schulz in Las Vegas for the International Boxing Federation heavyweight championship is a sure-fire seller on pay- per-view television.

This has less to with sport than obsession with celebrity. That Foreman is fat and in his 47th year explains the fascination. He is the idol of a middle-aged, you-can-still-do it generation. "A folk hero," said Seth Abraham of the cable network, Home Box Office. "George goes beyond the boxing audience. No matter who he fights, the numbers are right up there."

Part of Foreman's appeal is that he has an intrinsic comic quality. It was put forward as a critical difference between them when Larry Holmes announced the comeback that petered out two weeks ago when he unsuccessfully challenged Oliver McCall for the World Boxing Council title. "George is funny. You aren't," a friend said.

If Foreman's humour came from the womb, it has not always been evident. Until vanquished sensationally by Muhammad Ali in Zaire 21 years ago, his natural demeanour appeared to be one of scowling belligerence. "I don't speak no poems, I don't tell no jokes. I'm just the best there is at knocking people down," he liked to say.

Foreman had mellowed sufficiently by the time he fought Gerry Cooney in 1990 to accept that his relations with reporters had been the subject of frequent emotional disturbance. "You were such an asshole," one said. "That was then. This is now," the former undisputed champion replied.

In the company of a colleague, I came across Foreman in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel last November shortly before he knocked out Michael Moorer to become the IBF and World Boxing Association champion. "If I can do anything for you guys, just call," he said. As the challenger later proved reluctant to be observed in sparring, it could be assumed that benevolence was part of an act so far worth more than $30m by conservative estimate.

The Las Vegas promoter Bob Arum, who gets a great deal of satisfaction from promoting Foreman's contests, never passes up an opportunity to suggest that Mike Tyson should think seriously about challenging him. "With George's popularity and Mike's reputation, it would be the biggest event in boxing history," he said.

Tyson, of course, comes under the direction of Don King, who practises a kind of heavyweight crop rotation. He has fighters who are valuable properties now and can provide Tyson with lucrative employment in the future. Putting Tyson in with Foreman doesn't make any sense to him. It makes sense to Foreman at the moment, but not probably in the future. The future is however long it takes Tyson to get into shape.

Along with age, Foreman's shape is his fortune. He is a monument to fast food, a barrel of lard in boxing boots. Sport's supreme confidence trickster. The WBA thought so little of Schulz as a challenger they refused to sanction the contest and stripped Foreman of their title, leaving him to defend the IBF version. "Doesn't matter a hoot," Abraham said. "Tyson apart, George is still the biggest drawing card in boxing. Riddick Bowe, Oliver McCall, Lennox Lewis. None of them get near to him. He's a one-off. A hot commodity."

While the hyperbole may sound like everything else you have heard in the fight business, Foreman carries on serenely plucking at the heart strings of a nation, defying logic, a living contradiction of athletic values.

When a moderate heavyweight, Alex Stewart, beat up on his face until it resembled a Halloween mask, Foreman was expected to quit. He didn't. When he lost mysteriously to the weak-chinned Tommy Morrison, it looked all over. Instead, Foreman stayed around to dump Moorer when it was only possible to win by a knock-out. By the line of succession, he was proclaimed the true champion.

Having evolved as a character who is fuelled by equal helpings of showmanship and business sense, Foreman may fully represent the parlous state of heavyweight boxing.

You could say that time is at last running out on him, but of course that really started long, long ago.