LAS VEGAS — George Foreman is paying a one-night party rate of nearly $10,000 at a 102-year-old neoclassical building in downtown Houston tonight to celebrate.
He has flown in the Vienna Boys Choir and country music legend Glen Campbell to perform. He has mailed out lavish invitations to hundreds on a guest list that includes the retired boxer's former ring foes Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Evander Holyfield, and the man who helped him create the multimillion-dollar-making Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine.
The event is not to mark Foreman's 60th birthday. That's two years away. It's not his wedding anniversary, or a wedding for any of the five sons he named George Edward Foreman.
"It's the 30th anniversary of his religious epiphany," said Bill Caplan, Foreman's close friend and longtime publicist. "He describes that day of receiving a vision, an awakening. He believes that he died that night, and was reborn."
On March 17, 1977, Foreman fought heavyweight Jimmy Young in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The 1968 Olympic heavyweight champion and former world heavyweight champ fought cautiously early, landed some good punches, but tired late in the 12-round bout as he did in his famous "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight title loss to Ali in 1974, and lost by decision.
Foreman's chance at a rematch with Ali was erased, and those who knew the junior-high dropout frankly didn't care.
"He was a bad guy," said veteran boxing promoter Bob Arum. "Surly. Mean-spirited. He had abused women, got in a lot of street fights. He was selfish, self-centered, had episodes of mistreating people if he didn't get his way.
"He was like a lot of the bad athletes we see today."
Although his trainer said Foreman was suffering from "heat prostration" after the Young fight, Foreman claimed he was "reborn into a different life," Arum said.
"They had to hold him down in the dressing room, and put him in a cold shower," Caplan said.
Foreman retired from boxing for 10 years. He became an ordained minister, built his nondenominational "Church of Christ" near Houston and a youth center that has grown into a mammoth public recreation venue.
Arum tells of Foreman initiating his boxing comeback by begging the promoter for a chance.
"My first impression was that he was the greatest con man ever, but when I realized he was a different personality, I knew he was someone who could capture the attention of the public," Arum said.
Embracing his pudginess and age, Foreman held his own in a loss to Holyfield in Atlantic City, N.J.
"The Sunday before that fight, he delivered the most moving sermon I've ever heard -- about how that night in 1977 saved his life, and how bad he would've ended up if it hadn't happened," Arum said.
"It's sincere, man, it ain't an act."
In 1994, Foreman, then 45, became the oldest heavyweight champion in history by knocking out Michael Moorer.
He still delivers three weekly sermons at his church whenever he's in town, and enjoys traveling. Vienna is his favorite destination, because of its "beauty, tradition, and quiet," Caplan said. That's why he has summoned the boys' choir for tonight's event.
"It's a pleasure to be a part of his life," said Arum, who will attend the party. "He's a kind, caring, terrific person."