George Foreman Is Huge, Tough and Gunning for Ali

In the shimmery California heat, the car looks as if it might be a mirage from Sunset Boulevard, a dust-caked, three-toned Rolls Royce weaving in misplaced majesty among the dirty palm trees and forlorn buildings of the Alameda County Fairgrounds. The figure sitting alone in the back seat looks equally out of place, an impassive black giant in blue coveralls and a Dutch-boy cap. He is George Foreman, and he is here in Pleasanton, 35 miles east of San Francisco, to prepare for the defense of his world heavyweight title against Muhammad Ali on September 24th in Kinshasa, Zaire, in which enterprise Foreman will earn $5 million.

Outside the Mineral and Gem Building, he signs autographs for the cluster of children around him. The grownups who have come to watch Foreman will pay $1, the kids, 50 cents; the modest proceeds from admissions to Foreman’s six weeks of training go to Pleasanton’s youth sports program.

Inside the building the champ disappears to dress, and his three sparring partners, a heavyweight and two light-heavyweights, begin to warm up. Barker for the show is Dick Sadler, 49, or 61, or 106—one man’s guess is as good as another—who is Foreman’s trainer, the best boxing technician in the business and the closest thing to a father George has. Sadler begins his spiel in a tired monotone:

“These are not considered sparring partners per se, they are rated fighters in their own right…” The men who are not sparring partners per se dance around the ring and box with shadows, sweating like plowhorses in the blistering heat. Suddenly Sadler hops back into the ring, sweeps up the mike with a flourish and triumphantly announces: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the man who won the title from Joe Frazier, and has twice successfully defended that title and will defend it successfully again next month in Africa, the heavyweight champion of the world…GEORGE FOREMAN!!!”

The most important thing about George Foreman is also the most obvious: he can beat up anybody in the world. This makes him quite valuable because, although people can watch actors spurting catsup any night on television for nothing, they are still willing to pay a lot of money to watch a real man rendered senseless by a skillful executioner. There are no executioners more savagely skillful than George Foreman. His brutal defeat of Frazier (six knockdowns in less than two rounds) and his title defenses against Joe Roman and Ken Norton took a total of 11 minutes, 35 seconds: a swift ax, no wasted motion.

Such ability also carries a terrible burden—mental, physical, social and fiscal; George Foreman, only 25, is slowly, painfully coming to realize that. As he puts it, in the clichés and obscure metaphors with which he has learned to parry interrogators: “People are always sticking spears into you. As long as you’re trying to do something important, there’s someone around trying to get something from you. That’s life. But you can’t spear a dead fish.” George sits back, sufficiently pleased with that cryptic observation to decline further illumination. Presumably he is referring to the agonized unraveling of his own wildly snarled financial situation. Manager Sadler, it once seemed, contrived to sell more than 100% of George Foreman.

Foreman got so fed up that he fired Sadler and hired his friend, businessman Leroy Jackson, to form the George Foreman Development Corporation and get him out of the soup. This particular kettle rivaled Dickens’ Chancery; Foreman was being sued the length and breadth of the land for priceless pounds of the flesh so many people claimed to own. Now, Foreman insists, “That is not a live issue anymore. There are no more lawsuits—the judges have all ruled in my favor.” (One suit that did not entirely end in Foreman’s favor was his divorce agreement with his wife Adrienne Ray: she came away with a $235,000 cash settlement and $400 a month in child support for his adored 18-month-old daughter Michi, whose name graces the license plates on his Rolls.) Meanwhile Dick Sadler was forgiven and rehired by the corporation. “Dick just tries to do too much,” says Foreman. “Can’t live without him, though.”

It is frustrating for Foreman to feel so powerless against the paper serpents that entwine him. He has taken out those frustrations on mismatched opponents like Roman and Norton. Foreman stands 6 ft. 3 in., and weighs 220 lbs. (or will by fight time). And his whole body bulges with thick packs of muscle. Muhammad Ali’s whistling-past-the-graveyard taunts to the contrary, George Foreman hits harder than any other fighter in ring history: harder than Johnson, Tunney, Louis, harder even than Marciano. Since he captured an Olympic gold medal in 1968, Foreman has won all of his 40 professional bouts, only three of them by decisions; the rest by knockouts. Critics—including Ali, of course—have pounced on the brevity of George’s ring time to question his staying power. Sadler is quick to point out the flaw in this line of criticism. “People have to understand,” he says. “The question is not George’s staying power, but this: Does anybody have the ability to stay with George? Ali can’t run forever.” Foreman insists, “He won’t be any different, and I won’t do anything any different. Once you get into the ring, all strategy goes out the window. I’ll just try to get in the right punch, so that he’ll go out the window. I like to think it’ll end pretty quick, and I’ll have a knockout and nobody’ll get hurt.”

That remains to be seen; since making his comeback Ali has been hurt by lesser men than Foreman—Ken Norton broke his jaw. Foreman’s own jaw sets tight when Ali’s name is mentioned: he has not forgotten the unpardonable scene at a boxing-writers’ dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria last June, when Ali’s patronizing of Foreman went too far. Ali grabbed Foreman’s championship belt and the champ responded by ripping Ali’s jacket as if it were tissue. Aware that he will be the crowd favorite in Zaire, Ali, the self-appointed Black Knight (to the considerable embarrassment of the Zaire government), has taunted the champion with remarks about “his people” boiling Foreman in pots and his winning the fight in reprisal for the reign of the “Bel-jums.”

Foreman steams at such comments, particularly when Ali’s comparatively tranquil upbringing in Kentucky is measured against Foreman’s own miserable youth in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Foreman the heavyweight champion is abstemious, a solid citizen; Foreman the Houston corner lout was awash in cheap wine, a prospect for the penitentiary. Foreman the giant astride the boxing world reveres his mother Nancy, and depends on her heavily for advice; Foreman the sullen street fighter dropped out of junior high school without informing his mother. Foreman, incorporated, has won millions of dollars fighting in Jamaica, Japan and Venezuela; Foreman the juvenile thief and mugger was labeled a chronic offender by the Houston police.

Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas accomplished what Foreman’s idealistic mother could not. They were his heroes, and when they got on television to urge youngsters like himself to go into the Job Corps, Foreman listened. “It’s not as if I had anything better to do,” he says.

When he was 16, the Job Corps sent George Foreman to Grants Pass, Ore., and taught him the carpenter’s trade. “That was the greatest feeling I ever had,” he says. “I knew I could earn a good living as a carpenter, if I wanted to.” But when the corps sent him on to Pleasanton to get his high school diploma, he met a savvy ex-prizefighter named Doc Broadus, who began training him. George returned to Houston after getting his diploma, but started hanging out again on the streets when his new skills failed to land him a good job. He decided to return to Pleasanton, Doc Broadus and the ring. It was Broadus who talked him into aiming for the Olympics. After only 21 amateur fights, George went to Mexico City—this time under the direction of Pappy Gault. He won a gold medal.

Pleased and grateful, Foreman pulled out an American flag at the awards ceremony and waved it for all to see. His gesture did not go down well with black militants who were supporting the black-gloved protest made by sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Foreman did not care. He had done his time in the ghetto and wanted no connection with it again. With his earnings as a pro, he moved his mother out of the Fifth Ward and into a pleasant Houston suburb. His brother Robert and several cousins have good jobs with the Development Corporation. His daughter Michi, who travels with him much of the time he is not in training, will never want for anything. Foreman’s financial affairs, if not exactly clear, are at least pleasantly translucent. He owns three houses (Houston, Pleasanton and Los Angeles), four sumptuous cars and a van, and he believes that others can find their way out of the morass as he did. “I still go to Job Corps centers,” he says, “and I try to give the kids some inspiration. I tell them that I was in their situation, that the magic is there anytime they want to settle down and work to bring it out.”

The crowd in the Mineral and Gem Building applauds as Foreman dances around the ring with the light-heavies to the syrupy strains of Donny Hathaway’s Extensions of a Man. He is 25 lbs. overweight, but that scarcely matters in a boxer his size; the problem is to keep him from losing too much weight too fast. The amazingly agile behemoth moves into a solo shadow-box while a German TV crew faithfully records George’s every pirouette.

Then it’s down to the platform and a workout on the heavy bag, Dick Sadler holding. Jab, jab, THUMP! Jab, jab, THUMP! as Sadler gleefully cries, “Muhammad can’t take much of that, he can run but he can’t hide…Go tell Muhammad on the mountain what’s coming down on him”…CRACK! Sadler reels back theatrically from the bag, and the crowd breaks into applause. Sadler to the TV crew: “Is that okay? Do you need it again?”

Within an hour the show is over, Sadler thanks everyone, Foreman retreats to the dressing room; the guard, brother Robert, is posted. The champion is already retreating further and further behind his retinue, into his thick shell. It has become time to tone down the hoopla, time for serious training, time to ply the punishing trade that extricated him from Houston’s Fifth Ward; very near time for this simple, powerful young man to prove once again that he can beat up anybody in the world.

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