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Richard Hoffer
July 17, 1989
George Foreman lost his world heavyweight title 15 years ago, but now his appetite for boxing has returned, and he covets Mike Tyson as the entrée
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July 17, 1989

Still Hungry After All These Years

George Foreman lost his world heavyweight title 15 years ago, but now his appetite for boxing has returned, and he covets Mike Tyson as the entrée

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He was going by the book. "People said. You become champ, you'll need you a fleet of cars. So I got to be champ and that's all I looked for, a fleet of cars. Nobody told me about nothing else. Maybe a house with a pool, so I got that. It was the idea of having that scar again. About like that."

It wasn't as satisfying as it should have been. Foreman knew for sure something was wrong with this setup when Jim Brown, his old hero and now a Hollywood personality, came to his spread in Livermore to do a TV piece on him. Brown surveyed the layout and said, "One day I'm gonna have it together like you." Foreman was stunned. "What did I have together? A shack? Some rocks around a swimming pool, which I didn't even use? I had to pay people to come out, just to eat my potato chips. It was all frustrating, buying, buying, buying, and you still feel something is missing. But that day I realized fame was not going to give me anything if Jim Brown didn't already have it."

If it's no fun being 24 and champion of the world, try being 25 and former champion, which was what Foreman became rather quickly. Who teaches you how to handle that? Where was the Doc Broadus for a young millionaire with a newly reopened hole in his psyche?

You can hardly talk about Foreman without talking of his loss to Ali. Although Ali was thought to have been in it for little more than a quick payday, there were strange factors at work. The scene in Zaïre was one Foreman couldn't handle, not with Ali doing the staging. Nobody realized it, but Foreman was doomed.

Bill Caplan, his longtime p.r. man, says. "He was feeling bewitched. Ali was doing all these things with witch doctors, and George was feeling very uncomfortable." For some of the pre-fight campaign, he withdrew to government quarters and surrounded himself with Zaïrian secret police. He was entirely inaccessible. Caplan remembers seeing him in a hotel lobby—Foreman had moved out of the government quarters one morning when he looked up from his bed and saw a lizard hanging from the ceiling above him—and passing him a note requesting him for a press conference. Foreman wadded it up and dropped it on the floor.

It was a bad time. Nobody spoke. "The one area where we did have contact was Ping-Pong." Caplan says. This was the big sport in the Foreman camp. Archie Moore, Foreman's chief strategist then as now, used to walk around with a wicker basket, like Little Red Riding Hood, and make a great show of producing his paddles and getting a game going. It was Moore's belief that Foreman's psyche was better served by allowing him to win.

For some reason, Foreman preferred playing Caplan, even though the only way they communicated those days was by note. Caplan would see Foreman arrive with his secret police cadre, and a game would soon be on. "I beat him every day." Caplan says. "Archie would say. Let him win. No way." It was the p.r. man's only available dignity.

There were many curious things about the fight. All's rope-a-dope is the most talked about after all these years. Foreman would later complain of food doctored by "whoopee powder," of ropes loosened by "professional slickers," of sabotage in his own corner. He complained that Sadler, his manager, failed to get him up in time after Ali knocked him down in the eighth round. When he was counted out, the only person who seemed concerned was Caplan, who was first into the ring to console the fallen champ. Actually, he was the only one doing any consoling. Foreman's corner had disappeared in disgust.

Still, what do you make of this? The fight ended, and some 200 newsmen crowded into Foreman's sweltering dressing room. The sullen intimidator, the man who would be Sonny Liston, was lying on a table; the silence was as dramatic as it was uncomfortable. He finally sat up and said. "I have a statement to make." Pens and pads were poised. "I just want to say that tonight"—big pause—"I found a true friend in Bill Caplan."

Even with a true friend, though, it was several years before Foreman learned to live with that defeat. He would wake up in a sweat, thinking about the fight. In fact, it wasn't until 1978 that he was able to let it go. He was talking to a reporter, and he found himself saying, "Man, he whipped me fair and square. He'd probably whip me again." And the weight of that loss seemed to slide off him.

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