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By then he had suffered another remarkable defeat, the decision to Young, lost in the heat of San Juan in 1977. At first it didn't seem to amount to much. "He got the decision," Foreman remembers, "but only because it got so hot in there and I wanted to get out." Foreman was not at all disappointed in how things had gone.
But, as in Zaïre, the postfight minutes were confusing and surprising. Foreman was cooling off and saying to himself, Man, who cares about a boxing match? I still got everything. If I wanted to, I could retire now, go to the country. I could retire and die.
Now, where did the idea of dying come from? And then Foreman felt himself plunged "into a deep, dark nothing, like out in a sea, with nothing over your head or under your feet.
"Just nothing," Forman says, "nothing but nothing. A big dark lump of it. And a horrible smell came with it. A smell I haven't forgotten. A smell of sorrow. You multiply every sad thought you ever had, it wouldn't come close to this. And then I looked around and I was dead. That was it. I thought of everything I worked for. I hadn't said goodbye to my mother, my children. All the money I hid in safe-deposit boxes! You know how paper burns and when you touch it, it just crumbles. That was my life. I looked back and saw it crumble, like I'd fallen for a big joke.
"And then I said, I don't think this is death. I still believe in God. And I said that and I was back alive in the dressing room. And I could feel the blood flowing through my veins."
It was a wonderful sensation. Says Foreman, "For a moment, I felt I was somebody."
Gil Clancy, his trainer for that fight, says Foreman was suffering from heat prostration. Foreman smiles at the idea. Even as he was undergoing this experience, he knew nobody would believe him. "You know that feeling I was supposed to get from being champion? What that scar was supposed to give me? I had that feeling in that room. They thought I was crazy, and I don't blame them."
From then on he has led the life of a preacher, appearing on Houston street corners and eventually in his own church, a small metal building a block from his youth center, where he conducts three meetings a week. With a good sermon, he says, he can sometimes get a little bit of that feeling. "To this day I've been searching, trying to get that feeling and keep it."
Except for expenses eating into his principal, the case of George Foreman would have ended there, with Foreman chasing that spiritual high. There certainly were no regrets about leaving boxing. "I hadn't balled my fist in 10 years," he says. He didn't have a TV for some time, so the passing parade of heavyweights went by largely unnoticed.
BUT, THERE WERE THOSE EXPENSES. Foreman is not the first aging heavyweight champ to return to the ring—nor the first fighter to donate his earnings to a youth center—and rarely has it been a good idea. The boxing establishment seems to have come down solidly against his comeback. NBC boxing commentator Ferdie Pacheco says he always thought that Foreman and Rocky Marciano were the only guys who ever got out of boxing on time. But to come back now? Quite simply, Pacheco says. "This is pathetic. It shouldn't be allowed. He's overage, inept. This whole thing is a fraudulent second career to build a money fight with Tyson."