IN A ROOM OFF A NARROW hallway on the forty-second floor of mid-town Manhattan’s Four Seasons hotel, heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman is talking to Ben Kinchlow, the dapper and urbane host of The 700 Club, the religious news and talk show. They touch lightly on matters of faith and George’s penchant for naming many of his children George, but mostly they talk about fighting. Like nearly everyone else, Kinchlow doesn’t call him Champ or even Mr. Foreman. One handshake and he’s “George”—at 46, he brings that out in people. From his homes in Houston and Marshall, George has come to New York this third week of December to host Saturday Night Live and to move along an autobiography now in rush production at Random House but he’s plenty in demand elsewhere. The National Father’s Day Committee wants to declare him father of the year. Gumbo magazine wants him as its gumbo marshal. A magazine in France wants to interview him on the subject of poise. Life magazine wants him to pose with a ballerina from the New York City Ballet (the hook is fitness and weight control). George’s agent boats that these days George commands a larger speaking fee than Norman Schwarzkopf. Since his knockout of young Michael Moorer in early November, the world has beaten a path to his door.
Both George and Kinchlow have deep, rich voices. They laugh a lot. But it’s hard to hear too much of their conversation because bedlam has broken loose in the hallway. Certain hotel guests are allowed to register their dogs, and at this moment three Labrador retrievers are baying, snarling, throwing their chests against a door. The dogs are vexed because their owners are out, and for half an hour a camera crew from a South Korean TV network has been muttering and moving gear around in the hall. A hotel security chief steps off an elevator with a look of polite, intense displeasure. He wants those cameras to disappear—now. The Koreans acknowledge that they understand him but stand their ground: Their boss, a correspondent whom George’s handlers know only as Mr. Soo, is in there with George and Kinchlow, and he has just struck his head outside and told them to be ready.
The door opens and George ambles out, grinning. He is nattily attired in a size 50 extra long sport coat. The man is vast—six four, about 250 pounds—but it is not the bigness of obesity. He has an odd, slow gait, as if his feet hurt. Over his shoulder he remarks to his courtly publicist, Mort Sharnik, that Kinchlow looks like a movie star. The grin vanishes when George hears the howls of the dogs and their hard thumps against the door. Then, to the horror of the hotel security chief, the hall is ablaze in TV lights. The Koreans crowd into an elevator with George, shooting all the way. Pressed into a corner, towering over six men, George goes stiff. Beads if sweat pop out on his shaved head. “Please,” says Sharnik. “Sorry,” replies Mr. Soo, and the lights go out.
Down on the seventh floor, in a room reserved by Mr. Soo, George takes a chair and offers a few pleasantries as the harsh lights reignite and the camera rolls. Mr. Soo suggests a prayer. Everyone bows his head. “Heavenly father,” Mr. Soo begins, “we thank you for the time to interview Mr. Foreman,” and the conversation warps off from there. Mr. Soo commends George for his missionary work and for his practice of fighting on Saturday night and flying back to Houston to preach the next morning. “Preaching is my profession,” George responds, smiling. “I just moonlight as a boxer.” Mr. Soo says that it has bee reported in the North Korean press that George will fight nect in that country against a prominent Japanese wrestler. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” says George, after a slight pause. “But I’ve always wanted to go to Korea.”
“Norss Korean?” cried Mr. Soo.
One can tell that George would like to slip his publicist a pleading look. “I just know it’s one big beautiful country,” he says gamely. “Always wanted to go there. And the food! I just love the food.”
Mr. Soo leans forward, greatly pleased, and in a torrent of Korean wants to know what delicacies have teased his palate. George is running now, praying for the bell. “What’s that soup?” he says. “Something about sparrows?”
“Sparrow?” says Mr. Soo. He reels off the names of several soups.
“Yeah,” says George, trying to remember. “Like…saliva of the sparrow.”
At the end of the interview, George shakes hands all around and strides through the door and down the hall with lights and a camera three feel from his shoulder. In the elevator he turns and faces to orb of yellow glare, and Mr. Soo takes a long lateral step, centering himself. Just before the doors, shut, Mr. Soo’s head plummets forward, and he bows at the waist.
On, then, to the thirty-fifth floor, where George is doing a public-service spot for Martin Luther King Day. George has been asked to join actor Edward James Olmos, singer Tony Bennett, and model Lauren Hutton in a campaign that will, at Coretta Scott King’s urging, attempt to redefine the holiday as an occasion for public service. All George knows is that he’s supposed to say something about the importance of doing good. But now a starched young federal bureaucrat is asking him a long list of complex questions about the value, message and meaning of King’s life.
Though the smile popularly associated with George’s big round face comes to him easily, it’s not his continuous pose. The casual look is now a glower either, but it suffers no fools, or anybody who might take him for one. George studies the bureaucrat a moment, then interrupts him, “Have you got a script?”
The man hands him a fact sheet. George reads it and hands it back. On camera he begins: “To me, Martin Luther King represented pure patriotism. And nonviolence. You actually can turn the other cheek. There would be forced change, but not through violence. It wouldn’t happen with a fist, or a stick.” Onloookers gasp with admiration. He never stammers or has to start over, He nails it. Knocks them dead.
The irony of George’s celebrity, which is hardly lost on him, is that it’s lavished on a prize-fighter—one who deeply loves his game. Though the populace honors the king, it harbors deep misgivings and class disdain for his bloody realm. But the element that enthralls people who care nothing about boxing transcends a seemingly quixotic seven-year quest that ended with an unmatched athletic achievement. The greater comeback of George Foreman spans four decades, and it is a stirring tale of a human being’s reclamation.
He grew up effectively fatherless, first in Marhsall and then in Houston’s Fifth Ward, where his mother moved in search of work. When he was fourteen, she was hospitalized for an emotional collapse brought on in part by his bad behavior. She sent a letter home that contained $45 to pay for his sister’s graduation ring. George, who soon after that dropped out of school, stole the cash and bought a hat, a sweater, and a bottle of Thunderbird wine. For the next two years he mostly lived on the streets, sleeping in abandoned shells of houses, playing dice, and rolling winos. His chums called him Monkey. One night, after mugging somebody, he slid under a house, hiding from the police. He could smell himself and kept thinking that they were going to send dogs after him, and that the dogs would smell him too.
A public-service TV spot by pro football star Jim Brown prompted him at seventeen to sign up for the federal Job Corps program. First in Oregon and then in northern California he learned how to lay bricks, and though he brawled and caused trouble in the camp, there were glints of maturity and conscience—every month he sent home$50 to his mother. At the second camp a coach named Doc Broadus got him interested in boxing. Two years later, following a relapse among the Fifth Ward muggers and winos, George won the 1968 Olympics by clubbing several youths senseless in Mexico City. It was a year of political rage and black power; on the medalists’ stand U.S. sprinters ducked their heads and raised black-gloved fists of protest during the national anthem. By contrast, George captivated the nation (which had no idea he had recently been a base Houston thug) by waving a little $2 American flag when he received his gold medal.
As a young pro, George spent $10,000 of his first substantial payday to buy his mother a house in nicer northeast Houston. He disposed of two great heavyweights, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, in such quick and savage fashion that he was deemed invincible. But he was an unpopular champion. The public found George surly, which he was—but in retrospect, who could blame him? He was the one who had waved Old Glory in Mexico City. During the Vietnam War, he was prepared to enlist in the Navy or Air Force, but he drew a high number in the draft lottery and, like countless others, chose to pursue a civilian career. Yet it was Muhammad Ali, stripped of his title because he refused to be drafted, who emerged from Vietnam as a folk hero. In 1974 George played the dope, as he cheerfully puts it now, in Ali’s rope-a-dope brainstorm in Zaire, which ended with George exhausted and being counted out in the eighth round.
He dealt with it by trying to sleep with a different woman every night and by walking around his Marshall ranch with a lion on a leash. In 1977, maneuvering for a return fight that Ali was none too eager to grant him, he lost a decision to a clever Philadelphian named Jimmy Young, and after the match, in the throes of heat prostration, thought he was dying and found God. At 28 he walked away from boxing. He got fat and happy (except for a bitter divorce and child-custody battle) and became a street-corner preacher. He stopped hating Ali and realized the man was a friend. If George hadn’t been the greatest, he could look back and know he had stepped high in history’s most gifted peerage of heavyweight fighters. For ten years he seldom even shadowboxed. Then, at 38, after begging for money to keep a Houston youth recreation center open, he started fighting again in places so far from a major airport that TV crews couldn’t find him. Unlike many old fighters who try to make another go of it, he hadn’t abused himself since his teens—aside from overeating—and except for Ali, Young, and a Denver slugger named Ron Lyle, nobody was ever in the ring with him long enough to damage his brain cells much. During his comeback, George fought every six weeks, shed forty pounds, and got some skills back: first the left jab, which, in his prime, opponents likened to being thumped in the face with a telephone pole; then the straight right that comes behind the job; then the left hook that sweeps in after the right. He could shoot the jab out, dip a knee, and follow hard with a left uppercut—a difficult combination, yet critics said he was ponderously slow.
In 24 bouts, George fought and stopped four quasi-contenders; the rest were targets. Boxing insiders were laughing at him, but he was big name, and all at once the public loved him. What a nice and funny guy he had become! Such a pleasant contrast to bad Mike Tyson. Of course, nobody believed the fantasy. But then, to the consternation of Tyson’s only credible rival, Evander Holyfield, Tyson first let himself get knocked out by journeyman Buster Douglas and then was doing time in Indiana on a rape conviction. Prizefighters stay in the business for the prizes, not the joy of getting hammered; for poor Holyfield, George was the only big payday out there. At 42 George put up a splendid fight, but the younger and faster hands prevailed. Public sentiment shifted: Give it up, old man. It’s not funny anymore. You’re going to get hurt. Yet George kept fighting, risking the fate of his historic soul mate, Muhammad Ali. He lost a decision to mediocre Tommy Morrison and took a turn in a short-lived TV sitcom, in which, for religious and marital reasons, he declined to kiss his co-star on the mouth. He claims that one day the actress stormed off in a huff, shouting, “Well, I never!”
Then, last April, chance and market conditions rose up again. The gallant Holyfield—weakened by his fight with George, two epic bouts with Riddick Bowe, and a heart condition—lost a close decision to an undefeated buy little-known Detroit fighter, Michael Moorer. Holyfield retired the next day. There were other able heavies, such as Bowe and Tyson, who is nearing the end of his prison term, that Moorer might choose to hazard down the road. But in the meantime, the new champ desired a big, easy payday. Once more, George was the biggest draw out there, and he was getting older every day. In fact, to force the World Boxing Association to heed Moorer’s wishes and sanction the Las Vegas fight, George and his Beverly Hills lawyer, Henry Holmes, had to go to court in Nevada and win an injunction on the basis of inconsistent rules enforcement and age discrimination. Only in America. George, who had received $5 million for fighting relative nobodies, accepted about $2 million to get on e more title shot.
George’s trainer and strategist for the Moorer fight was a portly man named Charlie Shipes, who owns a small long-haul trucking firm in northeast Jouston. In the late sixties George, Shipes, and Sonny Liston, who was still in the game following his two losses to Ali, were stablemates in Oakland, California. Shipes was a flashy undefeated welterweight, billed by his handlers as the un-crowned champion, until Dallas’ Curtis Cokes, the crowned champ, dismantled him in his one title fight. George’s other guru was Bob Cook, a brown-haired man who in the late seventies was a standout La Porte High School running back. College football didn’t work out for him; he first bulked up as a competitive bodybuilder, then started working out at George’s youth center. They struck up a friendship, and Cook fought eight pro bouts as a middleweight. George now relies on Cook for weight training and nutritional advice. (All that business about hamburgers in both hands is for show; George eats more sensibly than most people.)
Before the fight, the sports media couldn’t get a fix on Moorer’s personality and thus decided the star in his corner was his voluble trainer, Teddly Atlas. But the 26-year-old champ was no soup can. Moorer carried 222 pounds impressively, and after beating Holyfield, his record was 35-0 with 30 knockouts. Moorer is a left-hander and the first one to hold a heavyweight title; that’s because right-handers hat them, and as champions. Seldom give them a shot. It’s like boxing a mirror image: If both men jab at once, their fists collide. It’s awkward, as the punches zoom in from angles right-handers are not used to seeing. After watching tapes of Moorer, Shipes and George came away even more devoted to an old axiom of how to fight southpaws: straight right hand every time he wiggles.
Of course, he had to be close enough to land it. Though analysts scoff at George, inside the ropes he incites real feat. According to Sports Illustrated, Don King once proposed a Foreman bout to Tyson, who replied, “You like him so much, you fight him. No!” Several observers thought they saw that fright in Holyfield. George knew he couldn’t win a decision against Moorer if the young man punched in flurries and danced far away from him. So he feigned a personal animosity toward him, suggested he was a coward, wouldn’t look him in the eye. The message was: Come on in here. Atlas knew what George was doing. At center ring for the referee’s instructions, the trainer ordered his fighter to look at nothing but Geroge’s chest. At the end of the first round, when Moorer took the stool, Atlas told him, “The hardest part of this fight is over. He’s just a guy. Our sparring partners were better. Am I right or wrong?”
Moorer basically fought a one-handed fight. With his right he threw multiple jabs, hooks, uppercuts. His left was little more than a guard against the threat of George’s right. Gaining confidence, he bobbed and weaved and talked to George. “Pop! Pop! Pop!” he said, landing punches. Though George was staggered several times, he knew he couldn’t let himself get knocked down. “They’d just say, ‘Oh no, George is old. Stop it,” he later said, explaining his thinking., But his height and bulk were a problem for Moorer. He held his arms high and vertically, and he deflected punches with his gloves and forearms. Moorer wasn’t eager to burrow inside, so he often found himself looping punches over George’s arms. Though more than half of his blows landed, many glanced harmlessly off the top of George’s head.
George relied on jabs and straight rights—some soft, some hard, but he just kept coming. At the end of the sixth round—a rousing toe-to-toe brawl—Shipes suggested, “Try moving over to the right a little. Get away from that right hand.” He was concerned about the damage to George’s left eye. A round later, Atlas nagged Moorer to keep up the pace. “Remember what I told you about an old car? This is an old car. Let him go slow, he can make it down the road. Make him go faster, he’ll start to break down.”
In George’s view the eighth round was pivotal. He surprised and wobbled Moorer with three quick rights. Moorer gave him a curt nod of acknowledgment. “The only way anybody ever gets a title shot,” George said afterward, “is to convince the other guy, ‘Aw, he’s just in it for the money.’ Then he gets in there and realizes he’s in a fight. But you don’t want to communicate that too soon, ‘cause he’ll change his plans. Way he took that hook, I thought, ‘Ah, now I got him. I questioned his courage. He’s not gonna run.’”
Angelo Dundee, the seventy-something trainer who worked Ali’s corner in Zaire, had joined George’s team a week before the fight. He’s a good luck charm, he has seen it all, and he’s one of the best cut men in the business. After the eighth he asked George, “You all right?” George: “Yeah.” Dundee: “you sure?” But in the ninth George was pooped. Later he said that his cornermen were voicing fears about the scorecards, and after the ninth he snapped at them, told them to shut up. Whatever was discussed, he walked out in the tenth and turned it up. After two left-right combinations, he again crossed Moorer up with a right lead and left hook. Another hook missed so wildly that George almost spun himself in a circle. “Give him all the credit in the world,” sympathized HBO commentator Gil Clancy, “but he’s a forty-five-year-old man in a young man’s game.” Then George landed another jab and right. Stung, Moorer stayed put and dropped his hands slightly. George had been stepping to his right, which is difficult for a right-handed fighter. He did it, as Shipes said, to escape Moorer’s punishment, but he was also looking for an angular lane. The last right hand George should throw in his life—the one he could never land against Ali—sloped downward about two feet. Moorer dropped like a sack of flour, flat on his back, struggling to raise his head, as blood pooled in his mouth.
Pandemonium. George was on his knees praying. His brother Roy fainted. HBO’s Jim Lampley, who had ridiculed the contest before it began, shrieked, “It happens!” Moorer, who fought artfully and won seven of nine rounds on points, found a likeable public persona as a loser. Seated on his stool with the gloves off, he looked up at the camera, nodded gamely, and raised a thumb. He gave it all he had. George, with sunshades hiding a badly swollen eye, spoke into a microphone. “When you wish upon a star…doesn’t matter who you are…” Ali, who later sent George a congratulatory note with a hand-drawn happy face, no doubt admired the poetry.
Moorer leaned through the shoulders and gibberish and planted a kiss on George’s bald head. Pops.
High in NBC’s office tower in new York, I am parked on a sofa with Mort Sharnik and Terry Sparks, a pleasant young man who travels with George and is sometimes referred to as his bodyguard, though the boss outweighs him by forty pounds. This, in its entirety, is Foreman’s entourage. Sue Leibman, a Saturxay Night Live associate proudcer who ushers guest hosts through the drill each week, hurries out of a meeting with the writers and approaches us. “George’s title,” she says briskly. “He is the…?”
After a second we reply in a chorus, “World heavyweight champion.”
Oliver McCall, a former sparring partner of Mike Tyson’s, actually holds on of the three major sanctioning bodies’ titles, but Leibman doesn’t need to get into that. She nods and hurries back to the writers.
From another office, where George is holed up, comedian Carl Reinter emerges and is instantly crowded by the young staff. Reiner, who seems to have been making a courtesy call, walks off happily, twirling a forefinger. “If George Foreman says you’re a genius, you’re a genius!” It’s seven at night, eleven hours since George started his day with an hour on the hotel’s exercise treadmill. Suddenly Leibman rushes out to Sharnik, this time with a greatly troubled look. The bear in George has finally gotten riled and spoken sharply: He’s still here because they want to take him out to eat?
Ushered down the elevators, we walk to a limo provided by the network. A Christmas sohpper gapes and exclaims, “That’s George Foreman!” George wears a top-coat and short-billed cap pulled down toward his nose. In the car, he stretches out his legs as the lights and street steam of Manhattan glide by. “TV,” George says moodily when Sharnik asks him how it’s going. “They don’t know it’s about eye-sight. About visual. They’ve got all these writers who know they got to be funny, so they think and think and all they can come up with is dirt. It’s just a constant battle. And you know you’re in trouble because not one of ‘em has a gray hair.”
The limo stops in front of a deli, and Sharnik goes inside to get George’s favorite New York supper: a pastrami sandwich on whole wheat with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes. The order frequently draws a laugh or double take; Sharnik sheepishly explains that the guy’s a Southerner. As we move again, the conversation turns to boxing. “How good was Charlie Shipes?” I ask George.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” he replies,k animated for the first time since we left NBC. “He could do everything. Moving left jabbing, moving right jabbing: He was precision. And he wore these red trunks and red headgear; he just looked like a boxer. I used to say, ‘I don’t want to turn pro yet. I want to learn to box like Charlie Shipes.’ Sugar Ray Robinson was like that. Except he had bad habits. Archie Moore was the best at defense.” George raises his arms horizontally and ducks his head behind them. “Like this, but Archie was throwing punches all the time. He never hit hard”—George snaps his fingers loudly—“but they rained on you, Joe Louis: They used to talk about his devastating combinations, but the only punch he threw hard was the last one. That was the hardest thing for me to learn. You don’t have to hit hard just because you’re able to.” He floats a big soft hand toward my face. “That’s how I did it with Michael. Just let him see the jav. If you hit him too hard with the left, he’ll start to worry about the right. And it’ll put him too far back. When the time comes, I won’t be able to reach him.”
He lowers his head and looks at a brightly lit toy store. The building is flnaked by three ledge steps of white rock. “See that?” he says. “One time in Houston, I watched Sony Liston balance on a ledge like that on the ball of one foot. He did a deep knee bend, picked up the other foot, and stretched his leg straight out. Then he held his arms straight out and just stayed there, like a statue.” George smiles at the memory. “Never seen anything like it.”
Before the New York trip, I had gone to Houston to meet Charlie Shipes, whose home and trucking yard is tucked away in the pines off U.S. 59. Charlie’s affable wife, Barbara, told me he was out trying to find a truck part and then let me through the security fence; she advised me to keep an eye on the pit bull that walked along at my calf. The Shipeses live in a mobile home surrounded by several tractor-trailer rigs. The only evidence of Charlie’s lofty position in boxing was a couple of heavy bags under a shed and some photographs on the mantel. Barbara said she had been a friend of one of George’s late cousins, who introduced her to Charlie at George’s church. She said she’d never seen a pro fight. “I hope George’ll quit now,” she told me. “He’s got his health and all those kids still at home.
Just then, Charlie walked through the door in coveralls and a soiled cap. Smoking a cigarette, he reminisced about his own 53-5 record and the time Doc Broadus delivered them a huge youngster from the Job Corps camp in Pleasanton, California. “Sonny was good to George,” he said. “George would bloody his nose, and Sonny wouldn’t unload on him like a lot of fighters will. He was just bringing him along. George got his puncher’s reputation because of the way he took apart Joe Frazier. But, hell, he did it with jabs, hooks, rights, and uppercuts. The man can box.”
We talked about George’s second ring career. The public adulation is no less intense in Houston; George has been saying he’d like to go out with a figt to his hometown: a title fight that fills up the Astrodome. He talks about Tyson, who’ll get out of prison this spring—a fight that promoter Bob Arum says could gross $200 million. “Whatever, George decides to do,” said Shipes, “he’s got my blessing.”
But…Tyson? To me, the thought was terrifying: an angry creature who believes himself wronged and has spent three years in a cage. “Well, year. Tyson’s good,” Shipes said, now on his feet and shadowboxing. “Great hand speed, and he’s kind of a switch-hitter. He’ll step to the left and double hook, high and low, then do the same thing to the right. Ain’t ever seen anything like it. But if a man’s still got his legs under him, and there ain’t no nerve damage, I’ll take the experience. See, George came up with Ali, Frazier, Kenny Norton, Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo. That’s like going to Harvard. This young crowd now, they just been to junior college.”
The next morning, the Sunday before the New York trip, my wife and I went to George’s Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s west of U.S. 59, south of Intercontinental Airport, in a poor and neatly kept neighborhood that looks forgotten. Just down the street is George’s youth center. Inside, the church is well furnished but spare. George doesn’t evangelize much, even in the neighborhood, for fear of turning his church into a circus. Many of the people who go there are related to each other. George’s nephew Jody Steptoe, who is an assistant pastor, sat on a chair tuning an electric guitar. There were about sixty people, all but four of us black. Steptoe stood up and started playing the guitar. ”Glory, glory, hallelujah,” he sang slowly, “I’m gonna lay my burden down…” A few women were on their feet swaying, two or three with tambourines. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,” they sang.
When the music stopped, George walked in, resplendent in a camel blazer. Approaching the pulpit, he kissed a child on the top of her head. George doesn’t write his sermons. He selects a passage of Scripture, reads it in segments, and reflects on whatever comes to mind. This day his txt was Luke, chapter 12. he told stories about how badly he hurt his mother when he was growing up and how he periodically resolved to stop stealing—at least from her. The congregation burst out laughing when he pulled down his lip and mimicked a man with no front teeth. “Wake up from being dead drunk and my best friend says, ‘George, look what you did to me,’ ‘I did not do that!’ ‘Yeah, you did…but it’s okay!”
He read some more Scripture, then recalled a low point in one of his five marriages. “Sometimes they just don’t want you. I mean: you. I went up to my ranch, and all I could think to do was cut grass. Mow and mow and mow. I ran my tractor over a stump. I was trying to fix my mower with a sledgehammer and come way up over the top. Whomp! Hit myself right on the knee.” He danced across the church on one foot. “Thank you, baby Jesus, thank you for all this pain! Take my mind off the mess I have mae of my life.” He limped on as the laughter subsided. “Amazing grace,” he said, shaking his head. “That saved a wretched like me.”
George looked again at the Bible in his hand and read loudly. “Take heed, and beware of covetousness, for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” In the sermon he fashioned the parable of the rich fool into a biting comment on the temper of these times. George knocked out Moorer the Saturday before Election Day. Many comeback candidates invoked his name in their acceptance speeches, but politically George is a fish out of water. He endorsed one candidate: Ann Richards, who was trounced. George is the poster boy of the much-maligned Great Society; he has often said that LBJ saved his life by creating the Job Corps. He once reflected on his lag-waving impulse at the Olympics: “What I did in Mexico City wasn’t no demonstration. I was just happy and proud to be an American. When I looked at America, I saw a compassionate society that didn’t give up on its underclass.”
On this day, he didn’t sound so confident of that fundamental generosity. “I’ll tell you about middle class,” he said. “Their mommas and daddies used to be poor. Now they’ve had a job ten years and have a credit card. Hear ‘em talking at the barbershop. ‘Look at all those people getting rich on welfare. All that stuff they buy.’ Why, there’s people in this country that don’t have fifteen cents.”
“Amen. That’s right,” several people said. George chewed on his lower lip, and he did not look happy. “You don’t have to reform ‘em, he said sarcastically. “Just don’t giv ‘em nothing. Shut up!”
George has nine kids, ages 22 to 3. One son runs the ranch in Marshall, his eldest daughter is in college, and the rest live in a home in the Houston suburb of Kingwood. On Thursday afternoon during his week in New York, in his Saturday Night Live dressing room, he picks up a phone and clals home. He talks to his wife, Joan, who was born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia—yet he makes no mention of glitzy things and famous people. The conversation dwells on antibiotics and the child who’s running a fever.
When an intercom booms George’s name, he goes out in the studio to tape some promotional spots that the producers and network officials will review and air before the show. “Watch Saturday Night Live,” he commands in one, “or I’ll beat you up and eat all your food!” In the studio there is genuine laughter as he tries out various routines. Later, he is joined by the show’s musical guest, the rock group Hole. Hole’s lead singer is Courtney Love, a bleached-blond miniskirted young woman with a tattoo on her shoulder and runs in her hose. She is the aspiring empress of grunge rock and the widow of Kurt Cobain, a Seattle rock star who was depressed and had a heroin problem and dealt with it by putting a shotgun to his head. Courtney’s shtick is Madonna to the max: All week she has been trying to prove that she’s the baddest girl around. She and George shake hands, and the crew positions the band around him. As the camera-men line up the shot, Courtney stands below George. She primps by shoving her breasts upward with the palms of her hands. “Tits,” she keeps saying. ‘Tits.” George keeps his eyes on the cue cards.
In one promo, Courtney and George are supposed to begin by hyping the show and then get into a mild spat. On the first take, Courtney ad-libs. She turns and bangs her fists against his chest and then tries to jump and wrap her legs around his waist. George fends her off, and he leaves the studio laughing, but in his dressing room he plops on the sofa defectedly. Sharnik asks him about the scrips. “So bad they can’t be fixed,” George says with a sigh. “Start trying to change this cut that, it just gets worse. I’m not gonna say anything. I just never shoulda done this. No way. Not in this lifetime.”
Leibman, the associate producer, knocks on the door, comes in, and rests a moment, waiting for the wardrobe man. Once more, talk of boxing revives Geroge’s spirits. He elaborates on his belief that tragedy is interwoven in all feats of athletic greatness. “In boxing we got this saying: ‘I’m gonna put my head on your chest.’ Means I’m gonna take the best you got and come right through all your defenses. The first fight against Muhammad, Joe Frazier did that. To a man as great as Muhammad Ali. After that, Joe was never quite the same. What else did he have to prove?”
I glance at Leibman. Her eyes have grown very wide.
As George tries on sport coats he talks about Tyson, whose imminent return to the sport will be watched as closely as Ali’s was twenty years ago. “Boxing is a matter of who can fill the tent,” says George, unbothered by the circus analogy. “Mike Tyson doesn’t need the title. The title needs Tyson. But what he had, he can’t get back. Because it was all speed. Tyson is not a powerful puncher.” George shadowboxes, demonstrating his point. “Hit you in the ribs, and you say, ‘My, that hurts,’ so you bring down your elbow, and he comes right up to the head. But it takes at least two years in the gym to get that going, and then you got to fight constantly. Title fights don’t get arranged that fast. Tyson is Humpty Dumpty. All the king’s horses, all the king’s men. Everybody gonna be whipping him.”
George fiddles with his cuffs and looks in the mirror. “But there’s a young one out there. Nobody’s even heard of him yet. One day he’s just gonna loom among us. Be like Tyson, when he first came up. People be standing around saying, ‘You want him?’ ‘No, I don’t want him. You want him?’ I hope it’s somebody like Joe Louis.”
The halls leading into the Saturday Night Live studio are lined with photos of great comedians and great comic moments, and the production is amazing to behold: seven complex activities unfolding at once. But the dress rehearsal is painfully unfunny. The closest thing to humor involving George has him propelled by time capsule to Germany in 1939, where he changes history by knocking out Hitler and becoming World Fuhrer. The producers have flown in ring announcer Michael Buffer to put on a Nazi uniform and do his basso “Let’s get ready to rumble” routine. At George’s request, bit parts in the sketchy are played by fight promoter Bob Arum and Henry Holmes, the lawyer and agent who won the age-discrimination injunction and negotiated his book contract. (“Yeah, but Henry’s stock is down,” George grumbled at one point during the rehearsals. ‘He’s the one who got me into this.”)
The sight gags feature actors and crew members whose eyes are swollen shut. In a demeaning skit, George, cast as TV’s Incredible Hulk, grunts and smashes things until finally he calls the show’s writers out and observes correctly that nobody in the studio audience is laughing. They wrote that! But the joke’s on him. Seated next to me in the audience is a young man named mark Taffet, who works for TVKO, a network that airs boxing matches. During a break, Taffet excitedly tells me the concept of George’s next match, tentatively set for April 22. “We find a real-life Rocky, see. White guy, deserves a shot. We’re looking at two or three prospects now. Michael gave George a chance, so George gives somebody else a chance. The second fight is huge, but this fight…well, this fight is more of a celebration.”
Below us the cast has assembled to close out the show. All keep a wary eye on Courtney Love, who reportedly came of age with a trust fund and now is looking for somebody else to throw her legs around. The victim will be her guitar player; they’ll fall in a heap, her panties bared to all. George isn’t smiling as he waits for the camera light to come on. He towers above the others and has a pensive expression on his face. The champ. Earlier in the week he told one interviewer who pressed him about his plans in the ring and beyond: “Just don’t tell me I’m too old. I’m blue-collar, and I’ve got nine kids. I’ve gotta work till I can’t work anymore.” He told another interviewer that he wanted to shake every hand, sign every autograph. But this is the longest time he has spent in New York since he was a young contender fighting in Madison Square Garden. He’s a grown man now. In his mind he’s already at the airport. It’s time to go home.