Former champion George Foreman has a bit of advice for reigning heavyweight king Riddick Bowe: Be your own man.
Foreman, 44, who ruled the heavyweight division before Bowe entered first grade, has begun hedging as to whether his World Boxing Organization title match with Tommy Morrison in Las Vegas tonight will be his last fight.
But Foreman said he has had a marvelous time in the improbable ring comeback he launched in 1987, simply by dictating his destiny.
"Bowe will never achieve greatness as a fighter until he becomes his own man," Foreman said. "His manager, Rock Newman, is still manipulating him. Once Riddick starts speaking for himself, you'll see a great heavyweight."
Foreman said he suffered through the same Svengali act as a young heavyweight in the 1970s, when he was trained by Dick Sadler of San Francisco and managed by a group of investors who, somehow, owned more than 100 percent of him.
"I'd put money in one pocket, and it would fall out the other," Foreman recalled. "Everyone was offering deals, and I couldn't concentrate on fighting. The lawyers drove me crazy. I'd tell them, 'Do the best you can, but don't bother me.' "
Sadler and his advisers did all of the talking for young Foreman, who patterned his gruff, snarling manner after one-time champ Sonny Liston.
"I figured if you were the heavyweight champ, you were supposed to act like a hood," he said.
His brute strength carried him to the title in 1973 when he destroyed Joe Frazier in two rounds in Jamaica. But the following year in the tropical heat of Zaire, his limitations as a
fighter were exposed by Muhammad Ali, who allowed Foreman to punch himself into exhaustion before stopping him in the eighth round.
"After the Ali bout, I created my own identity," Foreman said. "I didn't need anyone talking for me. I shed Sadler like a locust sheds his skin."
After a 10-year absence from the ring after a loss to Jimmy Young in 1977, Foreman changed from a scowling, monosyllabic mauler to a self-effacing, good humor man whose successful comeback made him a hero to middle-aged men.
His popularity is the main reason, he said, he cannot guarantee this will be his last hurrah.
"I get letters from all over the world from people who are on my back for saying this is my last fight," said Foreman, a Houston native who preaches most Sundays in an inner-city church. "That's why I've added the word 'probably' when I talk about quitting."
Foreman added, though, there was no incentive to continue unless either Bowe or World Boxing Council champion Lennox Lewis would grant him a title shot within a year.
"I don't want to fight without a purpose," he said. "You have to perceive goals for yourself. But the people behind Bowe and Lewis hang up before I can even talk to them. But if I beat Morrison and look extremely good, I expect my phone will ring."
Foreman said it would be easier for him to walk away than Ali, Larry Holmes or Sugar Ray Leonard, who made repeated comebacks.
"A lot of fighters can't stay retired because they don't know how to do anything else," he said. "But I've got countless things I can do -- my preaching, doing commercials and now my own TV show."
This fall, Foreman will debut as the star of a sitcom aptly called "George" in which he will portray a retired fighter "trying to save the world."
"I don't think I'll have too much trouble acting the part," he said with a belly laugh.
But first there is the serious business of dealing with Morrison, the heavy-fisted Oklahoman who learned to fight as a teen-ager by surviving Toughman tournaments throughout the Southwest.
Foreman, who has 67 knockouts in 75 pro fights, said hrespects Morrison's knockout power.
"I know the curse of being a puncher," he said. "You expect to knock out everyone they put in front of you. But Morrison still has to learn how to monitor his explosiveness."
After Morrison burned out quickly and was stopped by Ray Mercer two years ago, Foreman made a consoling call to the loser, pointing out some of his tactical mistakes.
"Hey, if I knew I was going to fight this kid one day, I'd have never offered advice," he said. "Sometimes, I guess, I talk too much."
' GEORGE FOREMAN VS. TOMMY MORRISON Where: Las Vegas
When: Tonight, about 10:30
Jout: 12 rounds for World Boxing Organization heavyweight title
Records: Foreman, 72-3 (67 KOs); Morrison, 36-1 (32 KOs)