Boxing: Foreman fighting for respect

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The Independent Online
A FIGHT with George Foreman is beneath any self-respecting heavyweight's dignity. Or so they were saying six years ago when old George concluded that it would be easier to go about God's work if he climbed back into the ring.

The consternation Foreman's comeback aroused was righteous and also loud. It drowned out his explanation that boxing was the best means he knew of funding the Youth and Community Center he had established as a preacher in Houston. 'I tried to raise money by speaking at dinners,' he said, 'trading on my reputation as a former heavyweight champion. Passing the plate around. But it was no better than begging, so I'm going to fight again.'

There was that and more, but few people wanted to hear about it. They could see none of the savagery that once filled the arenas where Foreman fought Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali and anybody else brave enough to step in front of his rolling thunder. They could only see a relic of boxing who, at more than 18st, looked like a monument to junk food.

The tone for the production was established early. Folds of blubber bounced around Foreman's middle as he trundled across the ring to stop Steve Zouski in four rounds, and his knee-length shorts looked just as ludicrous as they should have on a man who would shortly turn 40. Old friends and admirers wanted to know why the former champion refused to admit that rust never sleeps.

Maybe it was, as Foreman hinted, the sight of a heavyweight division that apart from Mike Tyson would not have amounted to an hors d'oeuvre when he was in his prime.

Yet, after 28 contests the second time around, and with an overall record of 72 wins and only three defeats, Foreman has grossed more than dollars 20m ( pounds 13m), and will meet Tommy Morrison in Las Vegas on Monday for the World Boxing Organisation version of the heavyweight championship.

As a prize it doesn't amount to very much at all, and yet a further dollars 7m will be added to Foreman's bank account, with the promoter, Bob Arum, confidently predicting that returns from the live gate and pay- per-view television will far exceed what his great rival, Don King, achieved last month when putting on Lennox Lewis's defence of the World Boxing Council title against Tony Tucker.

This proves yet again that in professional boxing you can fool most of the people nearly all the time.

For the last four years, Foreman has been sold so successfully as a symbol of middle-aged bravura that his contests have become among the most popular screened by Home Box Office, the American cable television network that generally has a decisive influence on promotional activity in the heavyweight division.

As a result Foreman is signed to more television commercials than any other sports performer in the United States, and will appear as the eponymous star of George, an NBC sitcom based on the life of a retired boxer. It is to be hoped that this commitment will persuade Foreman to bring down the curtain on his career in the ring. 'It would be nice to go out with a title,' he said this week.

A more likely possibility is that Morrison, however limited, will prove too strong for Foreman whose popularity stems from the exuberant good humour that contrasts with the sullenness he displayed when the undisputed champion 20 years ago.

Anyone who has watched Foreman since he began his comeback will also know that he bears little resemblance to the heavyweight who hit with tremendous power and looked unbeatable until Ali's resurrection in Zaire. For a long while he was able to avoid serious trouble by employing a great deal of kidology and cross-armed style attributed to his trusted retainer, Archie Moore, the former light- heavyweight champion.

Now, however, there are reasons to think that Foreman should take on the role television has imagined for him. The most obvious of them is a contest he had last November against Alex Stewart. Foreman outpointed Stewart but at the end of 10 hard rounds his podgy face was grotesquely distorted. 'Time for you to quit big guy,' Moore whispered to him.

At last, after all these years, Foreman knew the truth. In the ring he was running out of tomorrows.