Sun, Sep 24, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Hey, big spender

By Timothy L. O'brien  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , NEW YORK

George Foreman, bald, smiling and gigantic, is propped atop a stool in Gleason’s Gym, the venerable boxing haunt in Brooklyn, watching a videotape of his heavyweight championship bout in 1994 with Michael Moorer.

Foreman once devastated opponents with brutal, staccato punches short on artistry and long on force. He dropped the undefeated 26-year-old Moorer in the 10th round with a right to the jaw.

Foreman was 45 at the time of the Moorer fight, a roly-poly 113kg who had just reclaimed the heavyweight mantle that Ali had snatched from him 20 years earlier. By knocking out Moorer, Foreman became the oldest heavyweight champion in history and he hailed his victory at the time as one “for all my buddies in the nursing home and all the guys in the jail.”

The knockout was the culmination of an unlikely return to the ring that Foreman staged in his later years, well after he had retired. He has often said that he ended his retirement to prove that nobody is too old for a comeback.

But Foreman confides in an interview that something else actually drove him back into boxing in the late 1980s. Having blown about US$5 million, made mostly, he says, during his salad days as a young champion, he desperately needed the money he could earn by fighting again.

A former street thug from Houston, accustomed to dispassionately cutting down the most ferocious of men, Foreman was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1980s — and it terrified him.

“It was frightening, the most horrible thing that can happen to a man, as far as I am concerned,” he says. “Scary. Frightening. Nervous. I had a family, people to take care of... . I haven’t gotten over that yet.”

Pondering his glimpse into the abyss a moment longer, Foreman’s eyes tighten: “It was that scary because you hear about people being homeless and I was only fractions, fractions from being homeless.”

JUST A FLIRTATION

Unlike many others with lush bankrolls who somehow manage to lose it all, Big George rebounded handsomely from his flirtation with bankruptcy. He earned multimillion-US dollar purses boxing in the 1990s and made tens of millions more by reinventing himself as a gentle entrepreneur.

Even so, the trajectory of Foreman’s finances once had him headed into a gilded pantheon of big buckaroos who have squandered often-unimaginable sums of money, come perilously close to personal bankruptcy or completely lost their shirts. The ranks of well-heeled debtors include Thomas Jefferson, Buffalo Bill Cody, Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, Debbie Reynolds, Michael Jackson, Dorothy Hamill, Robert Maxwell, Mike Tyson, Jack Abramoff and a long and pitiful cast of lottery winners.

Each of these grandees had distinct encounters with errant money management. Some of them were undone by rampant spending, others by injudicious deal-making, still others by various shades of greed, fraud or spectacularly poor investments. All of which gives rise to the same old set of questions: Why can’t those who are already wealthy restrain themselves from spending more than they have? Why do some of them end up broke?

Foreman, street-smart and now mindful of his wallet, has his own perceptive answers to those questions. For the man who came back from the brink, it’s all a matter of discipline and proper boundaries.

“A lot of people just don’t grow up,” he says. “I mean, 65-year-old men. They just don’t grow up. They don’t understand that money does not grow on a tree and that you’ve got to respect every dollar. Like Rip Van Winkle — the guy who slept — they party, party, party, then they wake up. ‘Oh, my God!’ And they do something desperate trying to recapture what they had. And it doesn’t work like that. You must stay awake.”

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