ATLANTIC CITY — The scene that replays, over and over, is the ninth round, maybe 12 seconds left, the boxers stalking each other like animals. Suddenly, Evander Holyfield throws an overhand right that lands square on the head of George Foreman and knocks his cheekbones halfway to Ocean City. The old man is staggered, his hands are down. Holyfield hits him again. Another right. A left. A right. Foreman sways, like a tree in the wind, his eyes are glassy, he should drop, everyone knows it. The people are screaming. “He’s going down!”

But he does not go down. He stays upright, as if his feet are locked in cement. The bell rings. Holyfield stares at him, at least partly in disbelief, and Foreman lumbers to his corner, refusing to sit, resisting any temptation to collapse and end this war.

Something happened at that moment. Some sort of shift in the night. Foreman, who for months had shamelessly promoted this fight, an overweight carnival barker, was actually delivering on his promise. It was like finding out that the stuff the snake oil salesmen sold you really does work. You can grow hair. You can grow younger.

And later, when Foreman — who ultimately lost by unanimous decision — entered the massive interview area, wearing a red head wrap and a bulky white satin jacket, another strange thing happened. Reporters began to smile. Some of them clapped. Some actually cheered. Big George had done more than put up a hell of a fight against a man 14 years younger (and a whole lot lighter). He had actually erased cynicism.

“Tonight I proved that if you can live, you can dream,” Foreman croaked into the microphone. Remarkably, no one thought it a corny thing to say.

Dignity in defeat

So much of what we see in sports is just hot air, all talk, athletes promoting themselves. A baseball player takes one swing and wants to renegotiate. A football player wears an earring and a buzz cut and gets $11 million — and never plays a decent game. After a while, you adjust your expectations. You figure everyone is lying.

Nowhere is this more true than boxing, where lies are the currency of the business. But suddenly, here comes Friday night, and into this sea of cynicism

splashes Foreman, 42 years old, the size of a house, getting a second chance at the heavyweight challenge and doing it differently this time. Having fun. Making friends. We all figured he would pop like a balloon when the fight actually started — after all, it had been 17 years since he last fought for the title — and instead, he was dishing out punishment to Holyfield in the second round, stinging him in the fifth, taking a beating in the seventh — at least a dozen straight blows to the face, chin, ear — then coming back with a flurry.

And in the final rounds, when it was clear the ex-champ could not win, he did the next best thing: He survived. He wrapped around Holyfield as the last bell rang. Afterwards, he handled defeat with such cheer and dignity you couldn’t help but lower your defenses.

“Why didn’t I sit down between rounds?” he told the post fight crowd. “My legs are so strong, I didn’t want anyone saying the senior citizen has an unfair advantage.

“Maybe I should get serious now. Maybe I’ll switch from cheeseburgers to turkey legs. Nah, I’ll stick with cheeseburgers.

“I tried to finish him, but every time I tried, he tried to finish me. That boy is some champion, let me tell you.

“What will I do next? I don’t know. As you can see, I’m still growing.”

Rematch unlikely

It was unlike any post-fight press conference I have ever witnessed. Almost . . . gentle. A 42 year old man, who refuses to diet, after a decade away from the sport, putting on a show against the top guy in the world.

“No shame in losing,” Foreman said. “We didn’t retreat, did we?”

He laughed and said good night. You almost hate to see him go. There is not much for Foreman to prove now. He spent the last three years building towards Friday night, one more crack at the title. He got his money — at least $12 million — and he proved his point. A rematch against Holyfield seems unlikely, at least for a while, and bouts against lesser fighters would not make much sense. Maybe a Mike Tyson? Maybe a Tommy Morrison?

Maybe not. “I’m gonna open a fast food franchise and get rich,” Foreman said, grabbing the microphone one last time. “Because I’ll buy all the food myself. Hahaha!”

And with that, he left the stage, heading off, he said, to a church service he was to conduct this morning. History will decide how significant a fight this really was. But standing there, watching Foreman leave the room, I was left with a feeling much like Holyfield must have had: a little dazed, and not sure what had just hit me.

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