WHEN I READ LATE LAST WINTER that George Foreman, at age 55, wanted to fight again, my first thought was "Here's a reality show that I might actually watch." Put Foreman, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and oh, I don't know, maybe Cedric the Entertainer in the four corners, give each a Swiss Army Knife, and place one six-ounce can of tuna in the center of the ring. Who wouldn't be interested? Alas, on reading deeper, I discovered that George intends his latest and most audacious swan song to be solo: George versus an Opponent to Be Named Later—he doesn't want a titleholder or even a top-ten contender, just a warm body, $7 million, and network television. "I don't want a circus," he insisted. Of course, there's one caveat: He announced that he won't fight again until, or unless, he gets his weight down to 225 pounds. George hasn't been that light since he stopped Frazier 31 years ago. Ticket line forms over there by the zebras.
Then again, no one should act surprised if he pulls it off. George's entire career has depended on second and third chances. Once a ninth-grade dropout and a teenage thug from Houston's Fifth Ward, he learned to read, write, and box in the Job Corps, won an Olympic gold medal, and then two heavyweight titles 21 years apart. Along the way he found God, built his own church, and became a millionaire many times over, partly from boxing but mostly by hawking hamburger grills, mufflers, and recently, trousers with expandable waists. All by just being George Foreman.
Throughout his career, some writers wrote him off as a clown or even a lunatic. They made fun of him in the late eighties when, at age 38, he began his first improbable comeback. I wasn't one of them. I followed the aging warrior with great interest as he trained himself back into shape. When he finally got a heavyweight title fight, with Evander Holyfield in 1991, I wrote that the comeback was one of the greatest stories in the annals of boxing. The sport was in one of its periodic doldrums, and it needed a fighter with charisma and mystique to pull it free. Foreman was just such a force. The last time a heavyweight championship fight had attracted that kind of international attention was the early seventies, when Ali, Frazier, and Foreman were in their prime. Though two decades had passed, I wrote, George didn't look like an old boxer: "Old boxers have splattered noses and ears like dried fruit, and they walk on their heels, looking as though they are about to topple backward." Watching Foreman relentlessly stalk an opponent, cutting off the ring, forcing the other guy to take six steps to his two, I thought of a performing elephant, ponderous yet graceful and finely balanced. He lost his title fight with Holyfield, but three years later, at age 45, he knocked out Michael Moorer and became the oldest heavyweight champ ever.
Not long after that, George retired—for the second time—or at least quit boxing. When he announced his desire for another bout last February, the skeptics began calling him a lunatic again. But I won't join them this time either. By his mid-fifties, a man understands that time is fleeting and that gifts like grace and balance soon buckle and sway—why wouldn't George want, or deserve, one last shot? And look at it through his eyes. If the man can hustle a deal where someone pays him $7 million to go a few rounds with the neighborhood butcher, who's the fool? Go for it, big guy.
The Big Guy's Ups and Downs
* 1964 At age 15, earns reputation as a mugger and street brawler. Joins the Job Corps.
* 1968 Earns heavyweight boxing gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics.
* 1973 Wins professional heavyweight title by defeating Joe Frazier.
* 1974 Loses belt to Muhammad Ali in Zaire's "Rumble in the Jungle." Suffers two years of depression.
* 1977 Loses twelve-round decision to Jimmy Young. Finds God, quits boxing.
* 1987 Announces his intention to reclaim the heavyweight championship.
* 1991 Loses title fight against Evander Holyfield.
* 1994 Finally wins back title by knocking out Michael Moorer.
* 1997 Loses to Shannon Briggs. Retires from boxing.
* 2001 Sells his stake in the George Foreman Lean Mean Grilling Machine for $137.5 million in cash and stock.
* 2004 At age 55, announces he wants one last fight.