Six or seven pairs of fresh satin trunks hung in his dressing room, but George Foreman chose instead a much more photographed, much more notorious pair from his chest of memories. They were red, a little faded after two decades, their seat shiny, or so it seemed, from the last and only time Foreman ever skidded across a canvas. It was odd. The only major fighter ever to star in his own sitcom was now cloaked in remnants of melancholy. As soon as we realized he was wearing the same trunks in which he lost his title to Muhammad Ali 20 years ago, a thought began to materialize: We had been psychoanalyzing the wrong heavyweight.
Was it possible that challenger Foreman, whose sheer likability forced this preposterous match upon us, was even more haunted than the champion, Michael Moorer? That the ready smile and the buffet buffoonery masked a hurt that even a career of comedy couldn't ease? Everybody thought Moorer was the head case, a doubtful fighter who alternately craved and resisted discipline and threatened to decompose right before your eyes. Yet here was Foreman, arguably the most embraceable athlete in the country (partly by virtue of his demographics—45 years old and 250 pounds heavy) turning stone-cold in the days before his challenge to Moorer's title when a fan presented a frayed SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover for his autograph. Would he sign the issue that captured his helpless careening across the canvas in Zaire on the night he was mortally duped by the Rope-a-Dope? Twenty years later, removed from that humiliation by so much time, comforted by millions of dollars and a surprising worldwide popularity, he would not even acknowledge the request.
Question: Would you have still made Foreman a 3-to-1 underdog (short odds at that, we all thought) if you had known that he had led his amazed entourage in prayer before he came out for last Saturday's fight at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas? If you had known that Foreman, a minister who never prays in public even though he has his own congregation in Houston, had asked, "May my quest be answered?" If you had known that all this time he had been driven by the defeat that had defined his career, would you have still found him amusing as he plodded, slowly for most of 10 rounds, after a newly vigorous Moorer? Would you have laughed then, bet against him then?
Or, instead, cautious of a shame Foreman would never let you guess at, would you have predicted that with a single right hand, driven downward with the shocking force of a hydraulic log-splitter and smack between the gloves of Moorer, he might redeem himself just like that? Well, you never know, do you? A guy can be 45 years old, and getting older in front of you, and be losing seven rounds of nine on two judges' scorecards, and, in a thunderbolt, he's suddenly reborn. He hadn't fought in 17 months, since losing a 12-round decision to Tommy Morrison, and you had to go back to his challenge of Evander Holyfield's crown three years ago to find a moment when he had put two punches together. And yet...where did that right hand come from, anyway?
Moorer, who had fought shrewdly and much more confidently than he had when he wrested the title from Holyfield in April, was on his back, spread-eagled at 2:03 of the 10th round. As the roar mounted about him—it was a sudden sound, as if the crowd had also waited 20 years for its release—Moorer lifted his head up for a second, seemed to exhale and lay back down to sleep. The WBA title had just passed hands from a 26-year-old, 222-pound athlete in very good condition to an overweight middle-aged man who had been reaping the rewards of tabloid boxing (tantalizing headlines but very little substance) since he began his comeback in 1987.
There were many ways to size it up afterward. For the sport, this changed everything. And it did say something about the potential of the 40-something crowd. But here was Curious George's take: "Now," said the oldest man ever to hold the crown, "I won't have to be introduced as the former heavyweight champion of the world any longer."
There was at least one man mindful of the danger Foreman presented, even as the fight was being characterized as a necessary piece of burlesque, a moneymaking caper that seemed to satisfy Moorer's need for an easy first title defense and the public's absolute insistence on rewarding celebrity over achievement. Foreman was a novelty act—complete with a gate-building patter that could yield $7 million for Moorer (undefeated in 35 bouts) and $3 million for himself for an HBO fight—but he was not a credible challenger. It was a joke fight. Even so, Teddy Atlas, Moorer's trainer and everybody's favorite motivational speaker, was wary.
There was something about Foreman, and his failure in Zaire 20 years ago, that frightened Atlas. It made him run Moorer into camp in Palm Springs, Calif., nine weeks before the fight, a week earlier than normal. It made him move the daily wake-up call to 5:30 instead of six. It made him enforce a 10:30 curfew while they trained. Atlas, who had more or less pronounced Moorer psychically fit after engaging him in a grueling test of wills before the Holyfield bout, was turning his attention to Foreman's demons, and he found them alarming.
"Foreman is a con artist," said Atlas in the days before the fight. "In the old days he had the bully con. But in the ring in Zaire that night Ali shredded that con. He destroyed him with the Rope-a-Dope, destroyed him because for the first time in his life, Foreman's bully con did not work." In 1974, just a year after he overwhelmed Joe Frazier to win the title, Foreman was indeed regarded as the meanest man alive. But on that strange night in Zaire, Ali neutralized the hate, absorbing it with his arms until Foreman's fury was spent. "Once that happened," Atlas continued, "there was nothing left in George but character, and George had very little there. You look at the film of that fight, that pirouette of his across the ring. That was not a knockout punch, he wasn't seeing the dark lights. That punch was just a convenient reason to pirouette. He submitted to Ali.
"And you know why he's dangerous? Because, 20 years later, he knows he could have taken that punch. He knows he quit. And he knows that if he had taken the punch, it wouldn't have hurt as much as what he's lived with."
Foreman, who trained for the Moorer fight in his youth center, just down the street from his church in Houston, was preparing himself with a kind of psychobabble. Eschewing the usual comedy routines—in truth, he doesn't eat nearly as much as he says, nor does he smile stupidly as often as his commercials would have you believe—he paused to analyze himself, leaving out the part about quitting in the ring that time. Foreman said he planned to summon his own immense force. It was all he had, he said, and it was exactly why he might win the fight.
"I'm not saying I'm great," he said. "I'm nothing near great. But this, boxing, is me. It's what I do. Boxing was invented for me, and nobody else. There's nobody been born meant to wake up in the morning and put on the 'bruising suit.' People say to me, How can you come back, how can you sacrifice, how can you make this struggle. This is no struggle! This is easy. I'm almost 50, but this is what I do, all I do. This is my business.
"And when you see me fight? You get a glimpse of my soul. Let me show you." He picked up a pencil and drew doodles on a piece of paper. "This is Ali fighting, dancing, hitting and running. He didn't like to fight. He was giving you a glimpse of his soul. Now, here's me, hitting Ali until I'm too tired to hit him anymore. In any fight, I'm the one coming forward, I'm the one you must escape." He poked the paper, angry dots stalking the doodles, the dots getting angrier, and he shattered the pencil lead. "What I am," he said, "is a force of nature."
As the fight drew nearer, some of those close to Foreman thought he had returned to his roots and had become the hateful street kid who defied rehabilitation. He truly seemed to dislike Moorer, for reasons few could fathom. In his role as HBO analyst of the Moorer-Holyfield fight, he let loose some bizarre postfight comments, suggesting a fixed result. HBO chose to excise the comments in the re-broadcast. He sought out Moorer as a challenge, calling promoter Bob Arum out of the blue (literally, on his cellular phone as he motored across his Houston ranch) to make the match.
Foreman knew exactly what buttons to push on Moorer, and this caused much scrambling on Atlas's part to constantly rewire Moorer's circuitry. Foreman kicked off the ticket-selling campaign by saying that Moorer reminded him "of one of my children." He promised, furthermore, that "if he fights the style he's been fighting, he will quit on me. After eight rounds he will turn his back and quit."
Moorer is actually a much sturdier specimen than he has seemed. In the weeks before the bout he refused to allow a separation from his wife, Bobbie, a possible reconciliation and then another separation to distract him. He bowed to Atlas's will this time around, and everyone in his camp seemed happy and content with his success. Moorer remained devoted to his two-year-old son, Mikey, and regardless of his oft-stated plans to leave boxing at a young age, he trained with gusto.
Still, Atlas was especially vigilant as the fighters converged in Las Vegas for the final press conference last Wednesday. "This might have been the only time in boxing," he said wearily, "that a trainer ever prepared his fighter for a press conference. I knew George would try and plant seeds of doubt and anxiety."
In a remarkable turnaround, the usually cuddly Foreman announced that in a visit from the Almighty—"He came to my room with some sheets on"—the Sixth Commandment had been waived for him, for this fight. He was granted permission "to unwrap and unveil myself" and to harbor notions of killing a man in the ring. Moorer camp member Big Foot Martin stood up, shocked, and said, "If you're really a preacher, you don't talk about killing folks!"
Atlas, meanwhile, had taken note of Foreman's statement a few days earlier that Moorer was afraid to look him in the eye. Thus, he instructed his lighter not to wear his usual goggle-eyed sunglasses and to stare the big fella down. "I told him to say, 'I know what you are,' " Atlas said. "I think that bothered George."
All these attempts at one-upmanship were amusing enough and may have sold a ticket or two, but most boxing folks believed the match would boil down to Moorer's superior jab from a southpaw stance against Foreman's ring rust. Even some in the challenger's camp conceded a steady decline in Foreman's skills since his loss to Holyfield. The Morrison fight was especially troubling for Foreman backers. He rarely connected and was thoroughly dispirited against a lighter who has often proved easy to knock down. One of Foreman's more devoted followers was worried enough to say that if the situation presented itself, he was prepared to leap from his ringside scat, storm the ring and stop the bout against Moorer. "I don't care if I'll get arrested," he said. "I won't see George get hurt."
Yet, as the fight unfolded, it appeared that Foreman could not get hurt, at least not badly. On the other hand, it also appeared that the Almighty's suspension of the Sixth Commandment would not have any earthly effect. Not a lot was happening except that Moorer was peppering Foreman with his right jab, making the old man's left eye swell by the sixth round. Moorer was actually better in this fight than he was when he took the title in his surprising upset of Holyfield, keeping on Foreman at all times, staying just out of range of the big man's right cannon, lunging in with the jab.
Though Foreman was connecting with an occasional jab, he couldn't have been much slower if he had been fighting underwater. Yet, just as Atlas supposed, he was more gallant than he should have been. He persisted, wading back into Moorer's jab time after time.
Foreman's gameness may have worried Atlas, who, in the corner, kept warning Moorer to jab more and remove himself from within range of Foreman's right hand. It was no secret that the right hand was Foreman's only chance.
But almost until the end Foreman refused to use it. When he was warming up in the dressing room, he did not practice big looping rights as he usually does but instead did brisk one-twos. And for most of the fight Foreman delivered soft jabs. "It was a setup," he said afterward. Atlas suspected as much and told Moorer to move to his right, to keep away from some big right hand out of nowhere. "It was effective in the gym," said Moorer later. "Totally different story tonight. Just couldn't do it."
Foreman's use of the soft, slapping jab was indeed a setup. Beginning in the sixth round, he began sneaking a right hand around it, getting wider and wider. "You go around him with the right," explained Foreman. "It makes him not hear for a second." He had no illusions about winning a decision. He was sure it would have to be the right hand. "I knew it would be a knockout—in the 11th round, I thought. I knew if I could hit him with a right hand and get a little body English in it, he would not get up."
Late in the 10th round, Foreman hit Moorer with a left-right combination to the forehead that had the effect of disgusting the champion. He momentarily dropped his hands, as if he was mad at himself. Then Foreman hit him with that chopping right hand and bedlam ensued, Foreman crouching at a neutral ring post in prayer, even as Moorer reclined on the canvas, peering into the dark lights.
For a head case, Moorer seemed remarkably healthy in defeat. "The only thing that hurts," he said afterward, "is that talking to my son, he was crying. That hurts." The rest, it seemed, he could handle. His progress toward millions—a fight with Mike Tyson (scheduled to be released from prison in the next few months) or one with WBC champion Oliver McCall—was derailed. But, unlike Foreman, Moorer is young, has not pirouetted needlessly and can return without any burden of shame.
Of Foreman, you do not know what to expect. He is sufficiently popular that he can now enforce his whim upon the boxing world, whatever that whim might be. Would he fight Larry Holmes, should that old-timer beat McCall? Would he fight Tyson, upon Tyson's release? Neither would make sense for him.
Isn't it enough that wearing old red trunks, he went up against history, and won?
Having failed to follow his prefight strategy, Moorer found himself being counted out.
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While patiently awaiting an opening for his potent right, ungorgeous George took a nonstop barrage of jabs to his skull.
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On this night of redemption, only a higher power could drop a victorious Foreman to the canvas.
By beating Moorer, Foreman lived down his tumble in the jungle.