ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Man or myth? Incredible Hulk or incredible hoax? Reborn boxer or repackaged retread? Punching preacher or conniving con man?
Watching or, more accurately, listening to George Foreman begin his final week of preparation for his challenge of heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield at Convention Hall on Friday night, it is easy to start believing one is witnessing the ultimate buildup.
Foreman, 42 years old and 17 years and about 40 pounds removed from the heavyweight championship belt, works harder polishing his comic monologue than at testing his tame sparring partners, who hop in and out of the ring like men caught in a revolving door.
In Round 3, Foreman takes a sudden pratfall after catching a light punch, but when no one seems shocked, he pops right up and resumes his clowning. Dino Duva, a "spy" from Holyfield's camp, has seen this routine before and leaves before the final act.
Stand-up comic or stand-up fighter? Foreman, a bully turned teddy bear, seems more convincing working the audience after his harmless tap dance in the ring.
"I got my first spanking in the '40s," he began his monologue. "In the '50s, I started spanking people back. In the '60s, I won an Olympic gold medal. In the '70s, I got the heavyweight championship belt. In the '80s, I made the sportswriters scratch their heads. And I'm going to be the fighter of the '90s.
"After I knock out Holyfield in one or two rounds, I'll be waiting by the mailbox, holding the championship belt I can't fit 'round my waist while waiting for my Social Security check.
"You see all these teen-age hoods in newsreels running around with rags on their heads and terrorizing the senior citizens. When I win Friday night, it will be the senior citizens wearing the rag bands and the young bullies hiding in the bushes."
Oh yes, there is even time for audience participation.
"How long will I keep fighting? With nine hungry kids at home, I believe the mandatory retirement age should be 65.
"How far do I run? It depends how far my bedroom is from the icebox."
"Lifting weights? How much do you need to lift a Big Mac?
"My toughest fight? In Houston divorce court when one of my ex-wives wanted more than 50 percent."
Take notes, Bob Hope. Even promoter Bob Arum, who has sold the public on Evel Kneivel's aborted motorcycle leap over Snake Canyon, shakes his head in wonderment as Foreman does his schtick. "George Foreman is a promoter's dream," Arum said. "I'll go one better. He's a born promoter. I thought Muhammad Ali was great, but he had some mysticism about him. With George, what you see is what you get."
But why all the gags? Isn't the heavyweight championship a serious matter, or will the gullible public be fleeced again in the manner of bloated James "Buster" Douglas' quick capitulation to Holyfield last October?
"With all the wars, hunger and unemployment, there is enough seriousness in the world," said Foreman, now left with an audience of only three newsmen. "I watch the television and say to myself, 'Give me a joke, will you?'
"When the bell rings Friday night, there will be enough seriousness. It's like inventing a rocket you can't stop. I'm going to ride that rocket straight to the moon. So why should I spend my hours outside the ring being serious?"
No one took Foreman seriously when he embarked on his comeback in March 1987 after a 10-year absence from the ring. Twenty-four victories later, all but one by knockout, he has become the symbol of the Geritol set, convincing enough to make him less than a 3-1 underdog against the unbeaten Holyfield.
Arum can be accused of being prejudiced, but he says he was ot an early convert to Foreman's long-shot mission of recapturing the heavyweight crown.
"George already had four fights in 1987 when he called me," Arum recalled. "He wasn't getting the television exposure or media attention he was seeking and asked me if I could help.
"I had an open date on ESPN in December, so I booked Foreman in Las Vegas against Rocky Sekorski, a month that is usually deadly for fights there. But suddenly I had my first sellout at Bally's. I said, 'Hey, maybe we have something here.'
XTC "We had another big crowd two months later when he knocked out Guido Trane. So I arranged a 'Battle of Giants,' pitting Foreman against the big Swede, Andres Ecklund. But George backed out. He said he wanted to fight Dwight Qawi instead. We went from a giant to a midget as an opponent, and it was an awful fight."
Foreman told Arum that less than a year into his unlikely comeback, he was not ready to tangle with any legitimate heavyweight.
"He wanted to go backward," Arum said. "I told him he could do it, but not with me. I'd get all the flak for matching him with palookas. I told him when he felt he was ready to go forward, we'd get together again."
The reunion took place in Atlantic City in January 1990 against another retread, Gerry Cooney. Foreman stopped him in two rounds.
"I know people downgrade Cooney, but I still believe he had the best left hook in the business," Arum said. "Cooney nailed George square on the chin with a hook in the first, but he didn't budge.
"In the second, George caught Cooney with a big right and then put his next six punches right on the money. I haven't seen anyone do that, lightweight or heavyweight. That convinced me George was for real."
Hugh McIlvany, a more impartial ringside observer from England, said Cooney "resembled a suicide on the railroad tracks" and suggested that Foreman's ponderous punches were slow enough "to capture in oil."
Foreman's bandwagon (or is it lunch wagon?) is good for a belly laugh, not to mention a $12.5 million payday.
But what if he should lose to Holyfield, he was asked.
"I'm strictly positive," Foreman said. "Nothing can stop me from becoming heavyweight champ again. But just in case, I'm going to line up more excuses than I had for losing to Ali in Zaire."
Who: Heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield (25-0, 21 KOs) vs. George Foreman (69-2, 65 KOs) for Holyfield's WBA, WBC and IBF titles. Scheduled for 12 rounds.
Where: Atlantic City Convention Hall, 18,000 capacity.
When: Friday, 11 p.m.
Tickets: $100 to $1,000. About 4,000 tickets remain.
TV: Pay-per-view. Call your cable company about availability.