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In the Battle of Body vs. Time, a New Champ

November 17, 1994|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

I love boxing because it is a nearly uncompromisable contest: two men, four gloves and a stage. No rubber balls, no teams.

Our interest in this spectacle springs from an ancient place inside us, the same odd corner of mind that remains fascinated with fire and thirsty for legend. The sport is primitive, succinct and dramatic. It is designed to be both triumphant and tragic, and occasionally it is.

I love boxing because it is such a concentrated display of skill and willpower. In few other sports--maybe running and wrestling--are the mind and body so intensely bound together for so long. The goal is simple but large: better the man in front of you. In a good match, every cell in the two contestants' minds and bodies is fully engaged and fully challenged. Sometimes, the winner has accomplished something that only his ego has allowed him to believe is possible. For all its pain and tragedy, boxing can be transcendent.

Everything about a fighter is on the line, in the open, offered up. He brings his history into the ring, and will have to reveal it to you. He brings his character, or lack of character, knowing his opponent will test it and you will perceive its qualities with resounding clarity. He brings his fears and dreams. He brings his entire portfolio of skills and tactics. He brings the sum total of himself, and what he believes he might be.

It is no surprise that so many fighters pray to their god before and after a fight. This is because they have brought something into the ring that is precious, unique and irreplaceable: their lives. Few athletes can make such a claim, and no spectator can ask for a higher stake, because there isn't one.

All of which can be a little easy to forget on a Saturday fight night at my place, when the guys arrive with food and booze and those male attitudes of abandon that accompany the ditching of wives and girlfriends to watch fights. It's geared to be a festive time, and it usually is. If the upcoming bout is interesting enough, all talk will be related to it. If not, it's fishing and surfing yarns, tales of job horrors, interrogations about who's got a romance starting and who's got one ending.

Earlier this month, we met to watch George Foreman and Michael Moorer in a heavyweight championship bout. As of fight time, the odds were 2-1 in favor of Moorer, the undefeated, 26-year-old champion who had pounded out a quiet but convincing win over Evander Holyfield seven months earlier to claim what many regard as the most coveted crown in sports.

Foreman--who ruled as heavyweight champion in October of 1974 (yes, two full decades ago) when Muhammad Ali knocked him out--came into the ring at a relatively trim 250 pounds. More interestingly, his attitude was subdued and somber, the big crease lines in his forehead furrowing down over deep-set, introspective eyes. Gone was George's strange little grin, his twinkle, his good-natured lethargy before a bout. Depending on your own psychology, you could interpret this as deep concentration or profound fear.

He lumbered into the ring in a simple robe and sweats, a mammoth Kurtz taking--most thought--his farewell excursion up river. Moorer entered at a fat-free 222. Fighters are as hard to read before a match as a poker player after a draw, but Moorer might be the hardest of all. His body language was relaxed but poised, his eyes, set like little jewels beneath the ponderous dome of his head, looked focused and calm. When he met Foreman center ring, he stared at the canvas.

"That's where he's gonna end up," somebody in our group said.

"No, he knows he'll win."

And so on.

Before the fight, much had been made of Foreman's age. He claims to be 45, though some insiders say he's older. He was not only lugging around nearly five decades of life, but a 72-4 record in body-racking professional fights, some against the best heavyweights the world has produced in the last 25 years.

Foreman has grappled with bankruptcy of the finances as well as spirit. He's a man whose willpower has always been in question, a man gone from thug to boxer to preacher to boxer again. To many, he appeared not so much a contender as a stuffed container of human experience poorly suited to withstand the assault of a younger, leaner, less troubled soul.

By the end of the second round, everyone in the room was concentrating wholly on the fight--a rarity. Everyone was also scoring the fight--in 10 years of fight parties I've never seen score cards on every person's lap. The spectacle had drawn us in and occupied us. We understood that we were witnessing a terrible, wonderful contest. Two things seemed obvious: Moorer could win, and Foreman could win.

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