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The first time I ever saw George Foreman, he was leaning over the railing of a second-story balcony at a hotel room in Kingston, Jamaica. His huge forearms rested on the railing, and his shoulders bulged through a T-shirt. There was a split seam under his left arm.
Back then, unlike now, Foreman's face was forever a brooding, forbidding mask, a visage that spoke of his hard days as a boy in Houston's Fifth Ward. That afternoon in Kingston he turned it on Joe Frazier, the heavyweight champion of the world, as Frazier crossed a small footbridge below the balcony. It was the middle of January 1973, and Frazier had come to Jamaica to defend his title against Foreman. That morning, Foreman had been quoted in the Kingston papers as saying that Frazier's days were over. "I'm gonna knock Joe Frazier out," Foreman had said. Crossing that footbridge, Frazier looked up at Foreman and called out, "On January the 22nd, I'm gonna smoke you out, man, smoke you out! You really believe you're goin' to knock me out? You really believe that?"
Foreman glared at Frazier. Turning in to his room, he said, almost in a whisper, "I do believe. I truly believe."
At the time, Frazier seemed indomitable. He was the conqueror of Muhammad Ali. He threw a left hook that started from way down in South Carolina somewhere and ended at the point of his opponent's chin. In the press corps in Kingston virtually no one could conceive of Foreman's beating him. What nearly all the reporters failed to see was that Foreman was perhaps the most devastating two-handed puncher in the history of boxing, and Frazier's style was to take three punches while giving one. He could do that with Ali, who was not a heavy hitter, but not against young Foreman, who knocked Frazier to the canvas six times before referee Arthur Mercante stopped the fight.
Thus began Foreman's brief career as king. In Caracas, on March 26, 1974, he hit Ken Norton with a punch thrown so hard that when the back of Norton's head hit the canvas, several boxing writers thought he would never wake up. "I feared he had killed Norton," said Bob Waters of Newsday.
As Foreman prepared to fight Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire, seven months after the Norton fight, only Waters, among the regular writers, picked Ali to knock him out. The rest feared for Ali's life against this most formidable giant.
Of course, Ali feared no one. On the eve of the bout he visited the press center in Kinshasa, which was populated almost exclusively by white journalists, and looked at a bulletin board on which the writers had made their picks. Except for Waters and one or two others, all had picked Foreman: in one, in three, in two, in five. Ali scanned the list and told The Cincinnati Enquirer's Tom Callahan, "What you don't understand is, black folks ain't afraid of black folks like white folks are afraid of black folks."
Waters had picked Ali in seven. Boxing, moving, rope-a-doping, Ali knocked Foreman out in eight. So ended Foreman's first career. I saw the tail end of his second, three years later. Foreman was in Presbyterian Hospital in San Juan, P.R., the morning after Jimmy Young had whipped him in a 12-round decision. The fight had left him so dehydrated that he succumbed to heat stroke, though Foreman says the hallucinations he experienced weren't because of the heat but were divinely inspired. He would not fight again for 10 years, until he began his current comeback, his third career. That night in San Juan, his trainer, Gil Clancy, led me into Foreman's room. Under a clean white sheet the huge shape of Foreman lay still, except for a wiggling of his toes.
Lifting the top of the sheet, Clancy said, "Excuse me, sir." Two large black hands pulled the sheet down, revealing Foreman's smiling countenance. A bottle half-filled with a clear liquid hung above his head, and drop by drop it was draining into his arm through a length of plastic tubing. "I'm wakin' from the dead," Foreman said. "Wait around till midnight, and I will come out of my coffin."
That was 14 years ago. Next month, Foreman, age 42, will fight Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship of the world. The man is still very much alive. As the fighters on the following pages, men who faced Foreman in his first two careers, attest, it could be a scary night for Holyfield.