In 1965, when George Foreman left Houston, there was only the one Dairy Dream, and a man had to be purposeful indeed to gather about him a burger and fries. But by 1977, when Foreman returned in retirement, that great city had put folks on the moon, developed indoor baseball and constructed fast-food restaurants on every available corner. A man could simply mean to drive down the street for stamps and somehow there would be this bucket of Original Recipe on the seat next to him.
It was the dawning of a great era, a time when a hungry man, say a man newly released from a training regimen, could order from a menu at one intersection, move along for a few blocks until the sack was exhausted and then drive through a Wendy's or a McDonald's. And the great thing was, he never had to be embarrassed by his appetite. It wasn't like he was returning to that same Dairy Dream for a refill 20 minutes later. Would you look who's back! Better take another steer to the kill room! No, the great thing was that he could just keep driving down the street. And if it did get to the point where a man might be recognized by his gluttony, well, he could simply speak to that most non-judgmental of all kitchen service, the curbside clown.
And the variety was astonishing. Foreman, in fact, was pleased to see that his own particular boulevard of broken seams, Westheimer Road in southwest Houston, was welcoming the fast-food fish franchises. Not since Wendy's introduced its double-meat burger had Foreman seen the industry make this kind of leap of innovation. It was quite a time. Try to picture a Rolls-Royce Corniche, a big round man in overalls at the wheel, gliding down Westheimer Road, two trips a night, the car nosing into drive-throughs: a Burger King or a Jack-in-the-Box or one of "the Kentucky fellas" or—brand new!—battered halibut.
So you understand how Foreman might have gotten out of fighting trim. But was this the worst of it? No, it was not. Foreman had forsaken boxing for the pulpit in 1977 and in time gathered his own flock under the banner of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such parishioners as he had often called on him for help with spiritual problems, but it was Foreman's observation that these problems were frequently solved somewhere between the stove and table, without much help from him.
"This is the truth," he says. "I'd walk through the door and smell the chicken, the biscuits, the gravy, and soon I was at the table. And it was: You want another of these ham hocks? Or: Can I give you another slice of cornbread? Then nobody could remember what the problem was and they'd say. Well, we're having this or that next week, and I'd be back for a couple of weeks. And I wouldn't lie to you but that's the way it was for about seven years."
So of course a man would grow large, what with his lay ministry and his high-caloric cruising of Westheimer. By his own reckoning, Foreman, a magnificently proportioned 220 pounds as the heavyweight champion of the world, had ballooned to "300-and-some-odd pounds," and the "odd" is generally believed to be in increments of 20. He was huge and, as entrepreneurs identified new foods to deep-fry, was getting bigger.
None of this was anybody's business but his tailor's until the day Foreman decided to make a comeback. Then he became what has been one of sport's more cherished icons, the boxer/buffoon. Fat, foolish and 40, and all that stands in his way is Mike Tyson, a nice little package of youth, conditioning and violence. Folks, the gag writers whispered among themselves, there will be comedy tonight.
There is an unnecessary cruelty in this, a meanness that Foreman is able to shrug off. About all he ever wanted to do was to get enough to eat. He remembers Saturday nights, waiting for his mother to come home from a restaurant where she worked. "She'd buy a gigantic hamburger, big and round, and bring it home," he says. "We're talking about seven children. And she'd give everybody a little piece. And I'd sit there and nurse that little piece, kiss it a little bit, smell it and finally eat that little piece. There was nothing more I wanted in life than to be able to have enough food."
The gag writers allowed Foreman no special courtesy because of this leftover hunger. And so they gathered together two years ago when, after a 10-year layoff, he entered the ring for a bout with Steve Zouski. Foreman had apparently cut back to one trip a night up and down Westheimer and had gotten down to 267 pounds. But the gag writers were nonetheless delighted with the remaining flab that jiggled before their eyes. Most of them couldn't help but point out that George Foreman, lovable as he had become in retirement, had finally bitten off more than he could chew.
The comeback has now gone 18 fights without a loss, all of them won by TKOs. It has been barnstorming more than anything else, with Foreman appearing in such venues as Sacramento; Orlando, Fla.; Springfield, Mo.; and Phoenix. The opponents have been roundly ridiculed while Foreman himself remains ridiculously round—253 at his last weigh-in.