Going where no middle-aged boxer has ever gone

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LAS VEGAS -- From the moment he first visited the MGM Grand, strolled past the Wizard of Oz exhibit and heard the hotel's theme song, the Rev. George Foreman knew he had found the perfect place to stage a miracle.

"You all know the song," he said, warming his vocal cords. "Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. Birds fly over the rainbow. Why, oh why, can't I?"

Why indeed? Foreman spread his 45-year-old wings Saturday night and soared over the rainbow to a place no middle-aged heavyweight had gone before. He found boxing's pot of gold in knocking out Michael Moorer at 2:03 of the 10th round to claim the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association heavyweight titles.

Trailing on all three scorecards, Foreman used one short right cross ("My ham hocks and chitlins punch") to recapture the crown he had lost in humiliating fashion to Muhammad Ali in Zaire 20 years ago.

"I exorcised that ghost once and forever," he said Saturday night, a small layer of fat hanging over the same red trunks he wore the night he played the dupe to Ali's "rope-a-dope" tricks.

Combine his advanced years with a 10-year layoff from the ring before mounting his comeback in 1987, and it makes Foreman's victory over the previously unbeaten Moorer, 26, all the more amazing. In doing the unimaginable, he became the oldest heavyweight to wear the crown.

"Demographics will change now," Foreman said. "On this planet, we will always know the best athletes are between 45 and 55.

"And [Sunday] I'll tell all the members of my congregation, 'Don't let anyone talk you down. You can do anything you want to do. Just pray, and God will help.' "

In fact, the fight came close to not happening. The WBA's executive committee had voted not to sanction a Moorer-Foreman championship fight because Foreman had been idle for 17 months after looking every bit his age in losing to Tommy Morrison in June 1993. Instead, the WBA wanted Moorer to defend against journeyman Joe Hipp.

"This fight was as good as dead in August," said promoter Bob Arum.

"It's a good thing my parents sent me to Harvard Law School. First, I had to sue [co-promoter] Dan Duva to make him an ally in my fight with the WBA. Then, we had to get an affirmative injunction from Judge Donald Mosley in Las Vegas to allow Foreman to fight."

The bout began to take shape in April, a few days after Foreman, serving as a ringside commentator, had watched Moorer dethrone Evander Holyfield.

"George was somewhere in East Texas, heading for his ranch in Marshall," Arum recalled. "He had called me on his mobile phone, but when the connection began to fade, he pulled off the road and called me back from a phone box.

"I knew he wasn't calling me to talk about the weather. I said, 'George, you really want to fight Moorer, don't you?' "

Arum agreed to do his part only if Foreman was dedicated to his task.

"Bob really jumped on me," Foreman said. "He said, 'I don't want to hear all that jive about your big right hand. I want you to get in serious shape this time.' "

Slimming down

Foreman, driven by longtime trainer Charley Shipes and nutritionist Bob Cook, trimmed down to 250, some 30 pounds lighter than when he launched his comeback seven years ago.

"I thought George was pulling another con act when he came back in 1987, and I didn't really want to get involved," Arum said.

"He was just beating up a bunch of nobodies. Finally, I told him, 'George, if I'm going to be your promoter, you can't keep fighting bums.' Truthfully, when he lost to Morrison, I never thought he'd fight again."

But Arum and Foreman were re-united for this fight labeled "One For The Ages" -- a rare boxing promotion that lived up to the hype.

Moorer, a left-hander, built a comfortable lead with his jab and crisp punches. Surprisingly, Moorer, at 222 pounds, was fighting at close range against a huge man.

Said Arum: "In the ninth round, I told his brother, Roy, 'George is losing this fight. The only way he's going to win it is with one great punch.' "

Foreman apparently had the same thing in mind, and he was laying a clever trap for Moorer.

"Michael wasn't in any trouble until I started landing some short right hands on his nose," Foreman said. "I knew that if I kept my balance and hit him back every time he hit me, I'd eventually be able to get him. When I finally caught him with a right hand that had some body English, I knew he wouldn't get up."

Moorer fell flat on his back, stirred for just a moment, but was in no condition to beat referee Joe Cortez's count.

"Michael never saw it coming," said his trainer, Teddy Atlas. "It was the best punch George threw all night, just what we were afraid of."

Bigger than boxing

Foreman transcends the sport of boxing. Overnight, he has injected new life into a faceless heavyweight class that has lacked electricity since Mike Tyson was jailed two years ago for rape.

Although Foreman completed his seven-year quest while pocketing an estimated $65 million on the way, few believe that he will walk away.

"He pursued a dream, and he achieved it," said Arum. "It's possible he might not fight again, and that might be the best thing for him to do. But until we sit down and talk, no one can really say what's next."

Foreman could retire and make millions as a television pitchman. But with his tremendous box-office potential, it will be difficult to ignore the lure of the ring.

"I'd like to fight in the Astrodome," he said. "I owe that to my hometown."

It's unlikely Foreman will wait for Tyson, expected to be paroled in May. More likely, Foreman would fight the winner of the Riddick Bowe-Larry Donald match on Dec. 3.

And what about a possible showdown with Larry Holmes, another middle-aged former champion still fighting? Holmes is challenging new World Boxing Council champion Oliver McCall early next year and is given a good chance of winning.

"If me and Larry Holmes ever got in the ring together," predicted Foreman, "the smell of Ben Gay would be so great, no one would want a ringside seat. And all the fight ads would be for rheumatism and arthritis."

The hype has begun already. But now the whole world is listening to ageless George Foreman.

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