SURVIVAL OF THE FATTEST IS MORAL WIN FOR FOREMAN

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — He would not go down. He would not go down. No matter how many times Evander Holyfield hit him square on the mouth, flush in the stomach, smack on the head, George Foreman would not budge, would not slip, would not buckle. He would not go down. Somewhere in the middle of this heavyweight championship fight, it ceased to become about winning and became all about survival. The crowd was roaring, “George! George! George!” They screamed as he refused to even sit on a stool between rounds. He had little hope of victory, not in the late rounds, but that hardly seemed to matter. Suddenly, this was as corny as a “Rocky” movie. Suddenly, this was about going the distance.

And he did. George Foreman went the distance. He took more punches in one night than he took in three years’ worth of his comeback, but he went the distance. The full 12 rounds. When the final bell sounded he was hugging Holyfield, pounding him softly, like a baby pounds the side of a crib. But he was standing. For all the fat man jokes, for all his pre-fight hype, he was at age 42, remarkable. A guy who lost the title 17 years ago, a guy who weighed 257 fleshy pounds, and he had lasted an entire fight with the young and powerful champion of the world. Not only lasted, but delivered some punishment of his own.

“I proved to the world that there is no shame in being a senior citizen,” Foreman said after dropping a thrilling but unanimous decision. “I came within inches of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. The only thing that stopped me was the iron jaw of the fine champion, Evander Holyfield.”

History might judge this a terrific fight, if only because it was so much better than experts expected. Few who were in attendance Friday will forget the seventh round, when the 28- year-old Holyfield connected with 12 solid punches in a row, to Foreman’s head, to his body, again to his head — surely the ex-champ will go down, nobody could withstand all that — and yet Foreman leaned but did not topple. He was like a Redwood tree being attacked by a buzzsaw.

“What the hell do I have to do to this guy?” Holyfield wondered, punch after punch, left hook after right cross. “What’s it gonna take?”

In the end, it would take more than he had. Holyfield could do nothing but box him and wait for the finish. A unanimous decision. He keeps his belts. He gets the victory. But you have to think George Foreman walked away with more from Friday night than Holyfield.

And that is a surprise.

After all, did the public truly believe this would be a good fight before Friday night? Or did they just tune in out of the boredom boxing has become in recent years? People here, it seemed, were plunking down money not on the likelihood of a top-flight sporting event, but on the chance they might be surprised. Maybe Foreman would get lucky. Maybe Foreman could land that one-in-a-million punch. Maybe he would stop the fight for a cheeseburger. Maybe? Please? And they bought a ticket. This tells you all you need to know about boxing these days: You can sell a surprise quicker than you can sell a good fight.

And yet, what they got was a real fight, a heartstopper at some points, like the second round, when Foreman’s punches threatened to bring down the ring, and Holyfield skirted them — and sure disaster — by a duck here, a drop there. Or the fourth round, when a smoke bomb went off in the back of the Convention Center, giving the room an eerie look, as if it was going back in time, perhaps to the days when Foreman could go the distance with anyone, when he pummeled Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.

“GEORGE! GEORGE! GEORGE!” the fans screamed, clearly on his side.

Of course, Foreman had done much to woo them. He should get the Adcraft Man of The Year award. He should win a Clio. To promote this fight, he barnstormed across America with a roasted chicken in one hand, and a magic wand in the other. A surly boxer back in the 70’s (when he was knocking out real contenders), Foreman suddenly became The Music Man. He struck up the band wherever he went.

“I’m gonna eat Holyfield like a tuna fish sandwich,” he would bark, as the crowd went wild. “I’m gonna chew him like a sweet potato pie.”

“YEAH, GEORGE!”

“I want to be the only guy to stand out by my mailbox waiting for a championship belt and a Social Security check at the same time.”

But if his sudden sense of humor was a shock, what can you say about his stamina? Foreman had not gone 12 rounds since fighting Jimmy Young in 1977. And of course, he did not fight at all in 1978-1986.

Yet there he was Friday night, holding his ground against Holyfield, the man who pummeled Buster Douglas and awaits the challenge of Mike Tyson.

A word here about Evander. He was sort of in a no-win situation. Anything short of a quick knockout would seem a disappointment, and he obviously didn’t get that. “I respected George Foreman,” he said. “He made me do things I didn’t want to do in there. He shortened the ring. he kept coming at me.”

Holyfield must have felt as though he was trying to bring down a refrigerator. But the sad fact is, he proved very little in the ring Friday. And it seems until he faces Tyson, the jury — and the American public — will not embrace him fully.

As for Foreman, the whole country may embrace him now — if they can get their arms around him. Never mind that Foreman’s “comeback” resume included names such as Tom Trimm, Guido Trane and Steve Zouski, who sounded more like the group of guys you meet at the diner than heavyweight contenders. He has now gone 12 rounds with the champ. “This fight,” Bob Arum said a few days ago,
“is 80 percent George Foreman, 20 percent the heavyweight championship, and”
— he made a zero with his fingers — “this much Evander Holyfield.”

And he might be correct.

He would not go down. That will be what people remember from this fight. Along with those great moments, like the second round, where Foreman came to life and scared everyone in the crowd, and the seventh round, the clash between young power and old desire, and the ninth round, where Holyfield connected with a mighty right hand that left Foreman stunned and staring, as if gazing out a window. But the bell rang before he fell over, and by the 10th round, he was back in business. Another comeback. Another survival.

Here is the image that endures. The final bell ringing, Foreman, spent and weak, but still standing, hugging his younger opponent. It was like something out of the movies. You half expected Foreman to yell, “Adrian! Adrian!”

A remarkable moment. A fight that was better than anyone figured. Only one man raised his gloves at the end of the fight, but if Holyfield wins, Foreman wins, too. Sometimes, it really is about going the distance. And sometimes, even over- hyped, overweight fighters can produce a few moments of magic. He would not go down. Years from now, that is all they will remember from a Friday night in Atlantic City.

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