LAS VEGAS -- To entice the family crowd to this gambling capital, the MGM Grand built a 33-acre amusement park devoted to illusion and fantasy -- a perfect setting for champion George Foreman to pitch his heavyweight title fight tomorrow night against Axel Schulz of Germany.
JTC Working before an appreciative audience of tourists in a boxing ring wedged between Chinese acrobats and a haunted mine, Foreman delivered a familiar routine of self-deprecating jokes about his advanced age (46) and expanded waistline:
* "I'm the first heavyweight champion to become a grandfather while still fighting," he said, referring to the recent arrival of granddaughter Justice.
* "When I die, they'll be digging in the ground trying to get my DNA, and it will look like cheeseburgers."
This humorous soft-sell makes you forget that underneath all the shtick is a hard-nosed businessman who has turned himself into a one-man conglomerate. As America's new folk hero, Foreman has lucrative contracts hawking hamburgers, mufflers, cameras and vacation cruises. "I'm a good salesman and pitchman," he said. "But everything I pitch, I use."
His autobiography, "By George," will be released this week, and his attorney, Henry Holmes, said there are deals in the works for a major auto endorsement and a movie about his ring comeback.
On the boxing front, he is being paid $10 million for defending his title against Schulz, whom ring experts classify as a harmless piece of strudel.
That Foreman puts business first is proved by the faces missing from his entourage that were there when he launched his comeback in 1987 after a 10-year layoff.
Gone are promoter Ron Weathers, George's brother Roy, adviser Norman Henry and former trainer and guru Archie Moore. Most parted amiably, but some with bitterness, claiming they had been shortchanged.
Weathers and Foreman split more than a year ago, when Foreman opted to work with Bob Arum, who offered him the opportunity to fight Michael Moorer last November.
"I gave George a chance to earn an easy $5 million for fighting [unranked] Lou Saverese. I was against him fighting Moorer, but, of course, that got him the title back. When we broke up, George said, 'I love you, Ron. I'm sorry.'
"I'd been co-promoting fights for George starting from his third fight back in 1988. After he knocked out Gerry Cooney five years ago, he promised to give me 10 percent of his future earnings.
"But he started reading his press clippings and getting egotistical. And then he met this lawyer, Holmes, who got him that TV sitcom 'George.' After that, George figured he didn't need a promoter. But one day, we'll meet down the road, and I'm sure he'll do the right thing by me."
Foreman denied owing Weathers any money.
"I complimented Ron on the job he did putting together the Cooney fight," he said. "But I never liked getting tied to one promoter. When I told Ron I wanted to work with Arum, he didn't want to be a part of it, and we went our separate ways.
"If he believes he's got a financial beef, he'll have to take it up with Holmes, just like all my ex-wives."
Henry, a longtime Philadelphia fight figure now residing in Las Vegas, joined Foreman in 1987.
"George said he wanted me to guard his back from all the sharks," said Henry. "I also helped him pick out suitable opponents. He told me he wasn't making big bucks at the start, and needed to pay Archie Moore and his trainer, Charley Shipes. He'd take care of me down the line.
"He kept his word. After he lost to Evander Holyfield in 1991, he gave me a check for $250,000 that helped me buy my house out here. He said he didn't need me anymore, but he still calls on me for advice, and we're good friends."
George's brother Roy once helped coordinate his training camp and entertain promoters' bids. Their business relationship ended several years ago, and Roy moved to New Jersey.
"Roy wanted to be a boxing promoter, and I gave him my blessing," George said. "We still talk. Heck, we're brothers."
Everyone would like to be part of a megabucks Foreman-Mike Tyson showdown that promoters predict could earn each fighter $50 million. But the odds against it before Foreman's projected 1996 retirement are staggering.
Arum and King, who controls Tyson, are bitter rivals, and negotiations are further hindered by Foreman's contract with Home Box Office and Tyson's deal with Showtime.
Stranger things have happened in boxing, and Holmes said Foreman-Tyson is possible.
Said Holmes: "I deal with Hollywood types, and when a movie project is beneficial to two major studios, they find ways of working together."
Foreman dances around the Tyson issue.
"I hoped to fight him because it would be a boxing fan's dream," he said. "But I think it would be wrong for Tyson, after three years in jail, to try to fight me right away. And I think Tyson's people are apprehensive, or is scared a better word?
"The guy who calls himself 'the toughest man on the planet' is afraid of a guy who is older than dirt. You can say whatever you want, but that's the truth."
In the meantime, money keeps rolling Foreman's way every time he opens his mouth or brandishes a fist.
Asked what he might do in retirement, he said: "I'd like to promote a heavyweight tournament to find my successor. I'd also like to be the national boxing commissioner and take money under the table.
"Oops, I shouldn't have said that," he added with a laugh that made his big belly rumble.
Who: George Foreman (73-4, 68 KOs), Houston, vs. Axel Schulz (21-1-1, 10 KOs), Frankfurt Oder, Germany.
What: For Foreman's IBF heavyweight title, 12 rounds.
When: Tomorrow, 10 p.m.
Where: MGM Grand Garden, Las Vegas; 16,000 capacity