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They'll cut Joe Frazier off at the pass; it will be the Fight of the Century. The talk is big, but so is George Foreman's knockout punch

In a small cold room at the back of the Boys Club in Hayward, Calif., a few miles south of Oakland, Archie Moore was taping George Foreman's hands. They were talking about Joe Frazier, the heavyweight champion.

"We're gonna cut him off at the pass, baby," Archie said. Archie was dressed with fair modesty in rose-colored trousers, a dun shirt, suspenders, a wide red tie and brown and yellow striped shoes. This was a workday, the second since Foreman had started training to fight Frazier. Foreman had on a T shirt, shorts and red, white and blue boxing shoes. In a few minutes he would be sparring with Stamford Harris, also known as The Big Bamboo from Jamaica, out in the gym.

"Gonna...what you call it? Drygulch him," said Foreman.

They laughed. Archie was stringing in astonishing amount of stuff onto Foreman's hands. Adhesive pads first, hen yards of gauze, adhesive tape, napkins, black electric tape, more wrappings and adhesive. They are big hands to begin with. Soon they looked like stone axes. Why all the stuff? Had the hands been hurt?

"Never been hurt and ain't gonna get hurt," Foreman said. "Down in Jamaica they won't let me kick."

A television crew from Germany had set up lights, tape recorder and camera in the room. Foreman would glance at the men now and then and smile softly as they discussed their meter readings. At last the interviewer moved up next to Foreman, tapped on the mike and said, "George, critics say you've been brought along too easy, didn't fight the toughies. Now, suddenly...Frazier for the title. I have to bring this up. Joe is a different caliber from the other guys you fought. What do you have to say?"

"What you want to say about it yourself?" asked Foreman.

"Well, it doesn't necessari...."

"You trying to be funny?" Foreman said.

"No, I'm not trying to be funny," the interviewer said a little nervously.

"Take that back, then. Say you're sorry, you didn't mean it," said Foreman.

"I'm quoting critics, George."

"You look smart enough to be a critic. What do you think?"

"I think you're entitled to the fight," the interviewer said.

"That's the word to say," said Foreman. "I'm entitled. I earned it, and I'm gonna get it, that's all. Speak the truth."

"Here's a very confident George Foreman," the interviewer said directly into the camera.

"Joe Frazier was built up the same way as George," said Archie. "He went through practically the same opponents. Where's the big difference in buildups?"

"Now Joe Frazier and me are fighting for the same position, that's all," Foreman said.

"Seriously, George...," said the interviewer.

"Frazier's no different from anybody else," Foreman said. "I'm gonna knock him stone cold."

Foreman went out to the basketball floor. About 50 people sat on folding chairs near a ring that had been built at one end of the gym. Archie Moore, a former light heavyweight champion, now with gray muttonchops and a comfortable stomach, followed him out with some towels and a water bottle. Archie is working for Foreman as a "technical adviser."

"Indeed I do see certain mistakes Joe Frazier makes that we can take advantage of," Archie said. "Without a doubt we will cut Frazier off at the pass and ride over the hill. George is an excellent fighter, just needs a little smoothing out, getting rid of a few chinks. Usually it's Frazier who cuts people off. But not this time. Too much dynamite here. This'll be one of the great fights in heavyweight history. Vicious punching—that's the story of this fight."

Foreman moved around the ring grunting and throwing jabs. The ring creaked and boards wobbled under his 230 pounds. He danced in a big circle, and it seemed that his feet might go through the floor. Then he came over to the corner to put on his gloves. As a pro Foreman has fought at weights between 216 and 220 pounds; he intends to weigh 218 for Frazier.

"Shaved down, the machine can't help but operate good," Foreman said. "I love training, anyhow. Before my first pro fight Dick Sadler had me out chopping wood. My hands got blistered. I didn't appreciate it. But I got a check for $5,000. You should of saw me run for that ax next time." Foreman has had 37 pro fights in four years and has won 34 by knockouts. "Wasn't any of 'em I could truly say was hard," he said. "The ones I expected to be hard, like Chuvalo, turned out easy. Hardest part has been getting good fights."

Sadler, who has been Foreman's manager ever since George turned pro after winning the heavyweight championship at the 1968 Olympics, stood on the ring apron, timing rounds with his wristwatch as Foreman and The Big Bamboo began cuffing each other.

"Listen, this talk about cutting Frazier off at the pass, that's just a joke from the Wild West shows," Sadler said. "The last guy you have to hunt for is Joe Frazier. He don't run, he comes straight to you. That's the way we like it. George has been the aggressor in all his fights, and this time he's finally gonna reap the fruits of his labors. George has been the No. 1 contender since the Olympics, when he was waving the flag, everybody loving him. George was the golden boy and Muhammad Ali was the draft dodger. But the courts vindicated Ali, and he got the title shot. Even though George was No. 1 we felt Ali ought to have his chance. Now he's had it. It's our turn for justice. Every fight George has had has been tough. Fighting over his head all the way. Getting ready in stages. Any mishap would have cost us the title shot. That's how come we don't regard this as any different from any other fight. Except that the title is waiting for us now, but we got to win."

The Big Bamboo missed a left hook and fell to his hands and knees.

"Time!" yelled Sadler. He wiped Foreman's face while the fighter scowled down at a kid in the crowd, playing with him. "George got a lot of heat because he pitched a shutout in his first fight, a 10-rounder, against Gregorio Peralta. I'll tell you what happened. Sandy Sadler, my cousin, was working the corner, like he usually does, and after the eighth round he told George, 'This is it.' George misunderstood; he thought it was the last round coming up. There were two to go. George went to punching wild, and Peralta rolled and ducked and lasted it out. I told him, 'O.K., son, that was fine, but now you got to cook.' He said no, no, that was all, the fight was over, he was spent. But he had to fight another round, and he was wore out and didn't look good. People said George couldn't go 10 rounds.

"The next time we fought Peralta, out here in Oakland, George had him out in the fourth round and out again in the seventh, but I pulled George up. You know, this was a 15-round fight for the North American title. So in the 10th I told George it's O.K. to go knock Peralta out. George finished him. We'd shown we could go 10. I carried Peralta for that reason."

The Big Bamboo was swinging left hooks. Foreman was leaning away and blocking and pulling Harris around, shoving gloves into the face as if The Big Bamboo didn't really weigh 240 pounds and have scars in his eyebrows. People on the folding chairs bent forward to watch. It was around this area in Northern California that Foreman first started boxing only six years ago. Two years before that he had quit school in Houston's Fifth Ward at the age of 16, joined the Job Corps in response to a television commercial by Jim Brown and had been sent out to Oregon for six months and then to Pleasanton, Calif. (near Hayward) for a year. Foreman has bought his mother a house in his hometown, Houston, and owns a place in his wife's hometown, Minneapolis, but he comes to Hayward for most of his training because that's where Dick Sadler lives.

"I love working with George," Sadler said. "I've had champions. I worked with Archie and I had Sonny Liston for a while. And I had Charlie Shipes, who lost a welterweight title bout to Curtis Cokes, and I had Freddie Little, the junior middleweight champ. Once a long time ago they sent Ali to us because of my great stable. Archie was going to a fight in Dallas. We took Ali. He was just a kid, but he run me stone crazy. I prayed to get rid of him. Back home my wife said she heard we was wanted to handle Ali some more, and I started sticking clothes in my bag to leave town. Wasn't no way worth it."

Foreman was out of the ring. Sadler hurried after him to the small room at the back, where George began rapping the speed bag. Sonny Liston used to play Night Train while he worked. Joe Frazier listens to Otis Redding. On this drizzly afternoon Foreman swatted the little bag to the rhythm of Dick Sadler, short-brim hat covering his smooth head, a sport coat flapping from his arms. Sadler was singing and doing the soft shoe to Alexander's Ragtime Band.

When routines were done George was laid in state, mummified in sheets on a table while people gathered around to look him over. "Hey, Pops," he said, calling to his cousin, Willie Carpenter, "bring me Tiger."

Pops rushed in with a tiny white poodle that had a blue ribbon in its hair. Foreman owns a bunch of dogs of various sorts. "I love dogs," George said. "When I call somebody a dog, it's a compliment."

Sadler says he tried to design Foreman's style after Sonny Liston for the jab, Archie Moore for defense ("keeping behind that shoulder and all"), Shipes for mixing punches between the body and the head and Freddie Little for "knowing how to feint and spin a guy." Of course, George is also bigger and taller than any of those fighters, is not slow and has knocked out 32 of his opponents in five rounds or less, 10 in the first round. "Ali's punches are all head shots. Frazier is all left hooks," said Sadler. "George can take you out with either hand, to the head or body. A lot of people think he's a converted southpaw because he has such a strong left. He isn't, and he's knocked out just as many with his right. He don't have to wear you down, just put one on you, that's all."

The next morning Foreman and his crowd had to fly down to Los Angeles for a workout in the auditorium of the Elks Building and an appearance on the Johnny Carson show. In the Oakland airport Archie was bouncing a Ping-Pong ball, and it went into the cuff of a woman's trousers. "You some kind of a Ping-Pong champion?" the woman asked. "If I was the champ, I wouldn't of done that. A real champ don't act that way," Archie replied. Foreman walked up. George stands very straight. People who don't know who he is look at him when he strides through a lobby with his hands in the pockets of a trench coat, his mustache and chin whiskers looking like small neat ornaments on a strong face. "I'd be just as happy if we didn't have to do this," Foreman said.

The Elks Building is in downtown Los Angeles, across the street from MacArthur Park and the big duck pond. It is an orange building, no longer containing Elks but hotel rooms instead, offices of a boxing promoter and the restaurant The Barons Castle, run by film heavy Mike Mazurki, the ex-wrestler. There is a vaulted ceiling painted with angels, much marble and stained glass and faded red velvet carpet. The ring was built upstairs in an enormous room where Foreman at once got into a discussion again with a television interviewer over the same question as before—what "the critics" say.

"You people keep asking me this question that I never fought anybody," Foreman said. "Why do you want it to be a question all the time? When I'm old and have a beard you'll still be asking—can Foreman take a punch? Can he get up off the floor when he's been hurt? Well, I never have been hurt in the ring. I don't get hit much. So maybe you'll never know the answer, because I like to make 'em all look bad, and Joe Frazier is right down the line with all the rest. He's got no style. He just comes on in, and I'll know right where to find him. I've only been fighting as a pro for four years, so I think I've made a little progress, don't you?"

"I wouldn't dare say no," said the interviewer.

Foreman's progress as a fighter has been unusually fast. Within a year after he started boxing he was Olympic champion. He had a mere 25 amateur fights, including the Olympics, and lost three decisions. He is unbeaten as a pro. All of it still halfway amazes Pops, his 22-year-old cousin. Sitting on a massage table watching the interview, Pops began talking about their childhood in Houston. "I sure was surprised George became a boxer," Pops said. "He's about the last one I ever figured to do that. We used to play a game called The Boy Can't Fight, and George was usually It. I'd beat up on him. When I was nine and George was 10, my mama passed away. I had to go to Dallas to stay with my auntie. George sat on the porch and cried. We never ran with a crowd. I didn't see him again for nine years. While I was in the Army he wrote and said he'd won the Olympics. That was just amazing to me."

By now Foreman was hitting the heavy bag. Sadler was clutching the bag, and Foreman's punches landed with noisy force and keen accuracy inches from Sadler's wide-eyed face. The blows would send both the bag and Sadler back a few feet; you don't see many who can move the heavy bag like that. Liston could make it fly. As an amateur, Foreman used to work out with Liston. Sadler recalls that shortly before Foreman left for the Olympics Liston told him, "Son, after what you been doing here to the champ, you're gonna kill them amateurs."

Foreman was a little late arriving at NBC, partly because of traffic on the Hollywood Freeway and partly because of his reluctance to go there. But he was at ease and chatted smoothly and handled the let's-put-on-the-gloves routine as well as could have been expected with the guest host, Joey Bishop. George excused himself and left the show a bit early to catch a plane back to Oakland. "The limelight's not really what I live for," he said, walking through the cables and fiats and coffee machines backstage. "I like to have it quiet with maybe a few friends around. I don't appreciate a lot of visitors."

He became known at the 1968 Olympics not only for winning his division but also for waving that American flag, a gesture Foreman says he didn't realize would be seen on television. Foreman's waving of the flag was interpreted as a rebuttal to the gestures of black militants. "What happened was I had on this old robe I still wear that says GEORGE FOREMAN THE FIGHTING CORPSMAN on the back. Doc Broadus, the man who started me to fighting, gave it to me. In the pockets I had my lucky beads and a little American flag. You were supposed to bow to the judges after each fight, and I did it, and after the finals I just pulled out the flag. People saw it and clapped, so I waved it. I didn't look at it as protest or antiprotest. It was just the way I felt at the moment. I'm not interested in politics or movements. I spend so much time trying to be a good fighter I can hardly be an intellectual."

Foreman, now on a plane, peered out the window at the lights of a string of tugs and barges below. From the stewardess he ordered a glass of water that, mixed with sugar, is the strongest drink he takes. He was asked if he likes fighting. "I like what I get from it," he said. "It's good as long as I'm winning. I've never experienced pain in a fight. Never, never, never. If I wasn't a fighter, I'd most likely be a businessman. I'd like to take businesses that are not up to par and build them up. I like to watch things grow. I'll get in business soon as I can. So far I've invested in myself, in the business of George Foreman.

"I like fighting right now because there's still something I haven't done yet. I want to keep fighting until I get to the top, reach the pinnacle. But Frazier and Ali, what do they have to accomplish? I saw Frazier fight Quarry. After the knockout Joe was so happy he could hardly talk. Same with Ali. After Ellis he hugged his manager like he couldn't believe it. How much water's got to go under the bridge? How many times you got to go in a gym and work on the same thing when you got nothing left to prove? The only thing Frazier could be fighting for now is money, and that ain't enough of an edge to keep a man going. You get hurt fighting just for money. You never get hurt fighting for pride and achievement."

He was reminded that he will collect $375,000 for the fight in Jamaica. "Oh, I know it. That's real nice," he said, smiling. "But money is the least of things. It comes and goes. Pride and responsibility and association with friends, those stay. There's more at stake in any sport than just money. Fighting just for money, you start getting all knocked down and bloodied up. I don't want to represent the sport like that."

As a fighter Foreman says he has been influenced by Joe Louis and Liston. "Whenever I've had an impressive victory, I would somehow imitate Joe Louis with his punching combinations and Sonny with the way he sets you up with jabs. I watch old fight movies. Other light I saw Jersey Joe Walcott holding his hands low, doing moves that people now think Ali thought up and called the Ali Shuffle. There's nothing new in boxing. It's a matter of taking what you like and using it. But people always think when a good champion comes along he can't be beat. They thought Liston was invincible. They thought Ali couldn't lose. Now they think the same thing about Frazier. Well, he's only a man, and a man's gonna fall."

Foreman's many one-round knockouts clearly interest him. "It's hard to knock out a guy who's fresh. You don't catch him off balance. But I like to go out and pop-pop-pop. Tell you the truth, I'm impressed with myself equally with both hands. But it ain't really me I'm trying to impress in this world. Most of all I guess it's my mother Nancy and my wife Adrienne. I met her on a blind date two years ago. It's hard being away from Adrienne so much. A few weeks ago I flew to Minneapolis to see her for one day. Hadn't seen her for a month before that. Won't see her again until after the Frazier fight. But it's got to be done. Be by myself while I train. In the end it'll be worth it to us."

This January is an extraordinary month for Foreman. Adrienne's first baby, a girl, was born on Sunday. His 24th birthday is Jan. 10. And on Jan. 22 Foreman climbs into the ring with Joe Frazier. Many think of this fight as a warmup for the Frazier-Ali rematch, the next Fight of the Century, the multimillion-dollar puncharama. Foreman doesn't look at it that way. Those critics he doesn't like have said that he is slow, ponderous and even clumsy. He is big, but in his training he was never slow, and he hit with an impact his record has always suggested. He believes—and there are powerful reasons to agree with him—that he will beat Frazier and assume the leading role in the spectacle himself.

"I'm worried none," Foreman said. "I thought, I would be, but I'm not. Last couple of times I saw Joe fight, he'd got to the point where he was just looking for that one good punch. It's the matter of a blind man trying to get somewhere. Keeps tapping his stick around. Soon as he puts his stick where he wants it to be, he's homebound. But I ain't gonna be waiting while he's tapping. I'll be punching. If I throw 10 punches in a row, I'll get him with six. Can't anybody stand up to that."

People were coming along the aisle to get Foreman's autograph, and he was signing in good humor on business cards, bags for air sickness, ticket envelopes. "Frazier has dined with kings and presidents, and now he's got to leave it," he said. "Nobody should keep the championship more than three or four years. A real champion should never have to be beaten. My goal is to retire undefeated. Lots of guys say that, but when they get the title they think it belongs to them and don't know when to give it up. The title doesn't belong to anybody on a permanent basis. You just hold it for a while and then you lose it to time or to somebody. Joe Frazier doesn't represent himself poorly. He carries himself in a good manner. But he's through with the title. A man shouldn't be an athlete after the age of 27. You got no business getting up in the morning and sweating and running down the street at that age. After a certain age it's good to keep your body in shape, but you ought to be more stable-minded than an athlete."

Foreman asked for another glass of water, grinned at Pops and tickled the ear of the sleeping Big Bamboo, who swatted himself. George said he always has a plan when he goes into the ring, how to move, what punches are effective, how to dominate the other man's mind.' 'The plan usually works," he said. He grinned again. "If it don't, I resort to brutality."

The signal rang in the airplane for the landing in Oakland, and the warning lights came on.

"There's one thing I'll never do after I retire as champion," Foreman said. "I'll never compete with anybody again. Maybe a little in business, but not like you got to do as an athlete, or in show business or even to get a taxi-cab in New York. Man, they put you in a bag if you're a gentleman in New York. Show business and boxing are both a lot of ego. A guy's not the same one day as he is the next. Got too much ego going on."

The plane came down in Oakland in the rain. Foreman hurried across the wet concrete into the lobby he had walked out of 13 hours earlier that day. Sadler, who had been asleep, went searching for the car. People walking past looked curiously at Foreman, knowing he was somebody special, perhaps a visiting Ethiopian prince.

"But now I've been so happy about this. The opportunity," he said. "Sometimes I'll be walking and think about what'll happen when I knock Frazier out. That thrill, that big thrill. Not many men can have that thrill of standing in the middle of the ring as the new champion. And I can do it. It's amazing for me to tell myself that. Be the top. The very top at that moment. Just at that moment. That's the moment I'm looking for."