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JIM MURRAY

Before Writing Him Off, Remember What He Did

January 11, 1990|JIM MURRAY

A lot of people are professing outrage over the notion of the upcoming George Foreman-Gerry Cooney fight. Words like Hoax! Farce! Travesty! Insult to the intelligence! surface.

OK. Don't go see it. But before you let your indignation run away with you, let me tell you a little something about George Foreman first. Before you make up your mind.

The first time I ever saw George Foreman, he was standing in the middle of a boxing ring in Mexico City waving and kissing a tiny American flag he carried in his massive fists. He had just defeated a mastodonic Soviet heavyweight to win the Olympic gold medal, but nothing personal. He brought a bouquet of red roses to give to the fallen foe.

Believe me, the United States could use the victory that night. Oh, not for the medal count. We had won plenty of those in Mexico in 1968.

It was the psychological lift my country 'tis of thee sweet land of liberty got. The country was in a long losing streak.

We were the guys in the black hats in those rocky years. Fighting for a principle in Vietnam, we were under heavy attack from Jane Fonda, to say nothing of students in the streets.

And at the Olympic Games, some of our finest athletes took to the victory stands to make a statement against racism in America. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists at our national anthem; Lee Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman showed up in black berets at the medal ceremony--and though they took them off for the raising of the flag, the message was clear: America the Beautiful was being held up to the world as a lynch mob.

It seemed tame enough, given the provocation. A black sociologist at San Jose State had even proposed a total boycott of the Games to remind America of broken promises. The trouble was, it sent a message to some very nasty characters that the Olympics were a great place to make a political statement, as they were to prove bloodily four years later at Munich.

So, the actions of George Foreman were a beacon to the beleaguered U.S. Olympic Committee, the first ray of light for a group that had been portrayed as a congress of Simon Legrees before the assembled world press.

Here was a black athlete who didn't want to burn down the White House. In fact, he got invited there a few days later by Lyndon Johnson.

"I'm glad to be an American," George Foreman told the press. "I don't have no disrespect for the flag."

The USOC could have kissed him. The rest of the team felt good about itself for a change. He stalled some of the negative publicity in the foreign press. Indeed, in the American press. George Foreman was nobody's Uncle Tom. He had been there. He started life as this tough street kid, school dropout and pool hall thug. He didn't blame the world. "Nobody made me do it," he was to say. "Nobody could make me do anything. That was the trouble. Nobody made me put the bottles of wine to my lips. Nobody made me break 200 straight windows once. It was my own idea. Nobody made me drop out of school in the ninth grade. They would have educated me if I let them."

Foreman's life turned around one day when he put down the pool cue to watch a TV commercial for the Job Corps. "They weren't offering no miracles, just a chance to learn a skill, to quit messing around with your life," Foreman recalls. "I was ready." His mother, working as a cook and a waitress, was about at the end of her rope. And George seemed to be headed for the end of his rope, too. One with a noose in it.

The Job Corps bailed out George Foreman. He got off the mean streets of Houston's Fifth Ward and into the work ethic world of Camp Vannoy in Grants Pass, Ore. "The only four-letter word I didn't know was w-o-r-k , " Foreman admits now. "I found out the American system is run on hard work."

Foreman became heavyweight champion of the world. He was strangely miscast for the role. In spite of the massive chest, the python-like arms, the left jab that looked like a telephone pole with a glove on it, there was a gentleness about George Foreman that defied pugilistic custom. It wasn't that he lacked the killer instinct, it was just that, well, he was the kind of guy who would bring roses to the guy he was going to knock out.

When he lost the title, fight fans were surprised he became a parson. For Foreman, it was a calling. He later fought an in-and-outer named Jimmy Young and lost--because he was seeing a vision. "I saw myself and I was dead," Foreman recalls. "It was just as clear, and I saw Jesus and he was bleeding."

Foreman's ministry in Houston concentrated on the young George Foremans he still saw on the streets around him. But he had a fatal flaw as an evangelist: He hated to beg for money. "I went on a show back in Georgia, and the reverend made a pitch for money, and I was embarrassed. I decided to go get my own money; I didn't want to be ashamed."

So, George Foreman made a comeback. He has knocked over 19 palookas since then. He is hoping for an eventual shot at Mike Tyson. But first, there's Gerry Cooney, whom he fights in Atlantic City, N.J., next Monday night.

So, he's fat and 40. So, Cooney hasn't had a fight in three years and hasn't won one in four. So, he can't fight.

So, Foreman needs the money. Why knock it? Nobody's holding a gun at our heads to go see it. On the other hand, why not?

So far as George Foreman is concerned, look at it this way: We owe him one.

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