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He's Over the Rainbow, Not Over the Hill

November 06, 1994|MIKE DOWNEY

LAS VEGAS — Something happened here Saturday night to make all of us feel a little younger, a little stronger, a little more willing to believe that life can get better rather than worse.

The aging bull, George Foreman, became the heavyweight champion of the world--again. No, seriously .

Bring back Floyd Patterson. Call up Ali and see when he's available. Roll over, Joe Louis, and tell Marciano the news.

Paunchy and punchy and slow as gravy, this 45-year-old boxer-comedian stood inside the showroom of a Vegas hotel with no gags to tell and no place to hide, his pudgy face puffy but his heartbeat strong. Old George took licks from a 26-year-old champion that would make younger men stagger and bleed. Yet quit he would not, nor would he fall, nor even clinch.

And then something happened.

At 8:10 p.m. on the button, the Rev. George Foreman socked Michael Moorer on the button. It wasn't the right hand of God, necessarily, but it was indeed a miraculous old one-two.

The young champ collapsed to the canvas. The old challenger sagged backward against a nearby turnbuckle. More than 12,000 eyewitnesses inside the MGM Grand reacted as if they had just seen the cowardly lion from Oz discover courage at last. As one they arose, palms pressed against their temples in amazement.

A referee counted to 10. And the Rev. George sank to his knees.

He stayed and prayed that way for several minutes. His brother, Roy Foreman, fainted and had to be carried away. Everything happened so suddenly, so fast, no one was able to prepare for it. Nine rounds into the night, none of those who implored Foreman to lash out with one great decisive punch actually expected him to deliver.

Moorer finally got back on his feet. And so did the Rev. George, who arose to his new exalted stature, quoting Scripture and lyrics from children's fairy tales.

By evening's end, Foreman, his round face merry again, actually began singing:

"Somewhere over the rainbow.

"Way up high.

"Happy little bluebirds fly.

"Why-oh, why-oh, why can't I?"

As they say at MGM, that's entertainment.

Into the arena Foreman trudged, cocooned within a black robe and gray-hooded sweatshirt, looking for all the world like a tired old-timer on his way to a Turkish bath. He was someone from a different world, a different era, as was the hand-chosen tune that accompanied George on his way to the ring, a sweet Sam Cooke rendition of "If I Had a Hammer."

For all the world, Foreman appeared to have no business being here. This seemed particularly true once Moorer emerged, taut and toned, supple and unmarked inside his golden garments. This was youth on the hoof, out to push old George into a retirement community where he belonged.

Alongside Foreman in his corner stood Angelo Dundee, the trainer 20 years ago of the man, Ali, who had humiliated George and shorn him of his crown. Dundee amused listeners here Saturday morning with remembrance of that long- ago time, of his welcoming American visitors to the African continent by extending a handshake and saying: "Don't eat any monkey meat."

Now here he was, training Foreman, the man who kept his weight under control even though he finally confessed Saturday to have done much of his training at Wendy's, eating not simian but double burgers with cheese. Foreman felt he needed his strength, having fought nobody for 17 months. His waist was such that throughout Saturday's fight, Dundee and the referee, Joe Cortez, kept tugging at Foreman's waistband, pulling it above the brace he wore underneath.

Most everybody at ringside seemed to be pulling for George. Present were young and old Hollywood: Robert DeNiro with Joe Pesci, there watching an old fighter who didn't know how to quit; and Tony Curtis and Michael Crawford, keeping his eye on an old phantom; Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, and Jeff Goldblum with Laura Dern, still studying dinosaurs. There were athletes old and young, Walter Payton to Ken Griffey Jr., wondering whether old George could really pull this off.

He couldn't.

Not for one round, although one of the three judges did score that one for George. Not for two rounds, as Foreman, pawing like a kitten, going backward more often than forward, did little damage to Moorer's face or chest. Perspiration sprayed as Foreman took a hard right hand to the face.

Was George weakening? Visibly. But was he game? Was he ever! He kept giving the audience its money's worth. He wasn't in this one just for the paycheck. A flurry by Moorer near the end of Round 4 could have persuaded George to call it a night, but he wouldn't and didn't.

Moorer peppered him with right-hand leads. Lower and lower grew Foreman's gloves, and he was tagged late in the fifth round by punches that bounced off his gloves earlier on. The good news, though, was that George was not bleeding and seemed energetic. He stood between rounds rather than sat, and was waiting for Moorer when each new round began.

The crowd came alive, chanting "George! George!" And at 8 o'clock he gave everyone something to shout about. He smacked Moorer a good one. But the champ responded with an uppercut that could have ended things, sending George's spittle flying. Moments later he stumbled across the ring, as though the end were near.

It was.

The end for Moorer. Because George Foreman knocked him on his back. And above the champion's head, happy little bluebirds flew.

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