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JIM MURRAY

He Faces Tough Foe --Old Age

November 03, 1994|JIM MURRAY

Old age is a state of mind, not body. You're only as old as you feel. Age is only a number. If you didn't know how old you were, how old would you be? Age cannot wither nor custom stale. Age, thou art shamed!

And so on. Take every cliche about aging and George Foreman has the answer.

George is a surrogate for every guy whose wife ever said, "Don't lift that! You'll hurt yourself!" For every guy to whom a young kid ever said, "Hey, Pops, got a light?" Every guy who forgot where he put the keys, paid senior rates at the movies, noticed that his knees hurt when it was going to rain and wonders why all that hair is coming out in his comb and it's gray. Every guy who looks in the mirror and an old stranger stares back at him. Every man who looks at the calendar and wonders how it got to be 1994. I mean, what happened to the '80s?

George is going to climb into the ring in Las Vegas and fight for the heavyweight championship of the world for all of us Saturday and we're all 25 years younger for a day.

I don't know about you, but if he wins I may get a gold necklace, grow a ponytail and go without stockings. Maybe even get an earring.

I remember the first time I ever saw George Foreman. It was in 1968 in Mexico City. The Olympic boxing finals. George had just manhandled some poor clumsy Russian with a pole-ax left and a paving-block right so badly the ref knew he had to call the fight or call the morgue.

I remember seeing the fight through a chicken-wire fence, erected because the local crowd might be tempted to pelt the ring with live chickens or live snakes or heavy coins when a local favorite lost.

It had been a troubled Olympics. First of all, in the weeks before it took place, the International Olympic Committee, disturbed by student unrest and opposition to the Games, had weighed transferring them out of Mexico. This was obviated when the government militia opened fire on a student demonstration in the Plaza of the Three Cultures, leaving dozens of the dissidents slain.

Then, the American 200-meter medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, had used the platform of the award ceremony to raise gloved black fists to protest racism in America, signaling to the world what a great place the Olympics were to get a political message across.

So, the IOC was jittery, reeling, that night when George Foreman reached down behind him after the fight to pick up a miniature American flag. They feared the worst. I remember someone gasping, "My God, he's going to burn it!"

Not George. He was going to kiss it. And wave it. Then, he gave a dozen roses to his fallen opponent.

George became everybody's hero. He came home America's champion. He launched his pro career to ringing cheers and well-wishes.

But that was 26 years ago. Nixon was still to be elected President. Coffee was a quarter, gas 40 cents. You could get a Cadillac for seven grand. Russia was an "evil empire" and we hadn't even been to the moon yet. Jimmy Ellis was heavyweight champion of the world. "Oliver!" won the Academy Award. Cliff Robertson was best actor.

And if anyone had suggested that George Foreman would be climbing into the ring 26 years later to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, in November of 1994, people would have begun edging away from him. It was about as likely as Russia turning capitalist.

To everyone but George.

You can play golf as long as you can stand up. You can play tennis with bifocals. You can play baseball till you're 40-something. Football and basketball come to a stop in the mid-30s. But bleeding for a living, getting hit in a helmetless head, is something few people can do into their dotage. Dempsey fought for 14 years, Joe Louis for 17. Archie Moore fought for 27 years and was 43 when he stepped into the ring to fight for the heavyweight championship against Floyd Patterson in 1956.

If you can believe the old record books, Jack Johnson fought for 31 years and was 50 when he had his last fight. But he was a mere 37 when he got his last title fight.

George ignores the actuarial tables.

"Numbers," George says reproachfully. "People live their lives by numbers. They say, 'Oh, I'm 80! I better go off somewhere and die.' Numbers are for accountants."

George once lived by the numbers. Embittered and disillusioned by his knockout by Muhammad Ali in Africa in 1974, he retired for almost 10 years and turned to preaching the word of God. But ministry is expensive. One day, George happened to catch some fights on TV. He was surprised to find how unskilled the game had become, how carelessly the modern fighters were exposed.

"Then, I thought, 'Hey, you're old! You can't be doing that!' " George recalls. "Then, I thought, 'Wait a minute! Who says so? Just a number.' We say, 'Well, I can't do that. I'm 50!' Or, 'I better not try that, I'm 60!' We're slaves to numbers."

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