STILL PUNCHING AT PAST?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LAS VEGAS -- Reflecting on the heavyweights who dominated the division in the 1960s and '70s, Muhammad Ali shows the effects of Parkinson's syndrome, Joe Frazier teaches young Philadelphia fighters his left hook and Ken Norton talks haltingly after surviving a near-fatal car accident.

But the dream of again wearing the championship belt still exists for George Foreman, who, closing in on 46, will climb into the ring tonight at the MGM Grand Garden to challenge Michael Moorer for his International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association titles.

It is almost 20 years to the day since Ali used all his guile and "rope-a-dope" tactics in an arena hacked out of the jungle to strip an unbeaten Foreman of his invincibility and heavyweight crown.

Earlier, Foreman had crushed Frazier and Norton, lifting them off the floor with his punches.

"I was the hardest-hitting heavyweight of my time," he would say without false modesty.

There was fear that he also would pulverize Ali, but on that steamy night in Zaire, Foreman played the role of the dupe for the magic of Ali, who turned that improbable victory into the cornerstone of his career.

"Deep down, Foreman is still haunted by that fight," said Ross Greenburg, executive vice president of HBO, the cable network carrying tonight's match. "He is still remembered for being outwitted and knocked out by Ali. But if he can beat Moorer at his age, he could change his legacy in boxing. He would have achieved the impossible."

Foreman's body was a chiseled 6 feet 4, 220 pounds when he fought Ali. Today, he's at 250, some 30 pounds fewer than when he began his comeback in 1987 after a 10-year layoff.

But perhaps even more remarkable has been his transformation as a person. Raised in a Houston ghetto, he once modeled himself after ex-convict Sonny Liston. Now he's considered more of a lovable teddy bear and cult hero for the over-40 crowd, dispensing good humor while hawking hamburgers, fried chicken and mufflers.

"It's almost as if George has assumed Ali's character," said promoter Bob Arum. "He acts so much like Ali in his prime, it's almost eerie.

"George used to be ugly, mean and cantankerous, a stone-cold thug talking in monosyllables. Now he's doing Ali's old shtick and psyching his opponents. But it can't be a con act like some people claim, because you can't con people for seven years."

His comeback was considered more of a joke in the beginning, when Foreman flattened one undistinguished fighter after another. But three years ago, he had then-champion Evander Holyfield hanging on in the closing rounds of their title fight. Since then, he has looked more like a tired, old man with a battered face in narrowly defeating Alex Stewart and losing a 12-round decision to Tommy Morrison in his most recent fight 17 months ago.

But the oddsmakershave made Foreman a modest 3-1 underdog against Moorer.

"I see a tremendous difference in George for this fight," said his brother Roy. "George gets bored easily. He constantly needs action. He tried other things with his life than boxing, including that TV show. He wasn't really focused for Morrison. He got caught up in all that celebrity.

"This time he's been strictly business. It's really a crusade. You could see it in his workouts. He's got that meanness back. I haven't seen George this surly since he fought Ali."

Foreman is inevitably brought back to that humiliating night in Zaire.

For years, he offered excuses, including the charge that Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, had loosened the ropes before the fight. It took time to say that Ali first had played with his mind and then beat him badly.

"For a long time, I couldn't accept what Ali had done to me, the biggest punching heavyweight in the world," Foreman said.

"When he was lying on the ropes, I thought I might kill him. I hit him with the hardest combinations I've ever landed. His fans were screaming at me not to punish him anymore. But Ali knew what he was doing. He knew no matter how strong you are, you can only throw so many punches. He let me beat myself."

But Foreman still can find excuses for his setbacks, blaming losses to Holyfield and Morrison in part on his religious faith.

"When I came back, I'd lost my killer instinct," he said. "I'd hurt a guy or draw a little blood, and I'd back off, asking the referee to stop it. I let Stewart and Morrison off the hook. Guys would run from me like cowards, and the judges would give them the fight.

"But now the Almighty has given me permission to unveil my true self. No more holding back. But let me tell you brothers and sisters," Foreman said, rising to full height and working the congregation. He paused for just a moment, then shouted, "Can I get a 'hallelujah?' "

Foreman has much to be thankful for these days. Last month, he rescued his family when a flood threatened to engulf his home and that of his parents in the Kingwood section of Houston.

"George waded out in that water almost up to his shoulders to carry out his four boys and his wife, Mary," said Roy Foreman. "And then he got in a rescue boat and saved our parents from possibly drowning.

"Here he was, getting ready for the biggest fight of his life. But he spent that night sleeping with his family on a cot in a church shelter."

Said George: "That flood put everything in perspective. That was more threatening than anything I'll see from Michael Moorer. Life is always going to be a struggle. But if you're frightened by adversity, you'll never make it."

Tonight, born-again George Foreman is ready to take the final step. Boxing savior or charlatan? Take your pick. In any case, it makes for great theater.

FACTS AND FIGURES

Who: Michael Moorer (35-0, 30 KOs), Detroit, vs. George Foreman (72-4, 67 KOs), Houston.

What: For Moorer's World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation heavyweight titles, scheduled 12 rounds.

Where: MGM Grand Garden, Las Vegas.

When: Tonight, 10 EST

TV: HBO

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