Foreman wrote the book on fighting after 40

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

Had the sport of mixed martial arts been around in 1966, the history of boxing may have taken a vastly different turn.

That's because two-time boxing heavyweight champion George Foreman said he would have chosen MMA instead of boxing had it been available to him.

Foreman, who in 1994 became the oldest man to win the heavyweight championship when as a 45-year-old he knocked out Michael Moorer in one of boxing's most memorable matches, said he is an MMA fan.

"I love the UFC. I love it," Foreman said. "If they had had that back when I was coming up, in 1966, it would have been my sport. Man, I love it. And you know what? Nobody would have pulled the rope-a-dope on me."

Foreman lost his belt to Muhammad Ali in 1974 in what at the time was a monumental upset. Ali laid on the ropes and allowed Foreman to punch himself out, a strategy he later dubbed the rope-a-dope.

Foreman regained the title more than two decades later, the second time as a pudgy and friendly 250-pounder instead of the rock-hard 220-pounder with the malevolent stare who was knocked out by Ali.

And that historic win in 1994 turned out to be a peak into the future of combat sports.

Foreman was ridiculed when he began his comeback in 1987 after a 10-year retirement and few took him seriously as a championship contender even after he had reeled off 19 wins in a row in his return.

Columnists mocked the presence of Foreman and other aging stars such as Roberto Duran by referring to their bouts as boxing's Senior Tour.

But when in 1994 Foreman won the belt at just two months shy of 46 years old, he proved that age is just relative.

It was stunning news at the time – "It happened! It happened!" HBO commentator Jim Lampley exclaimed when Foreman finished a fast combination with a powerful straight right that knocked Moorer cold – but nowadays, seeing 40-somethings fighting for a title is almost a regular occurrence.

These days, age is rarely brought up to Randy Couture, who will defend his UFC belt against Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74 on Aug. 25 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, even though he'll be 44 years, 2 months and 3 days old when the bell rings.

It was a point of discussion when 42-year-old Bernard Hopkins successfully defended the boxing light heavyweight title on July 21 in the same arena where Couture will try to stave off the gifted Brazilian, but only because Hopkins repeatedly brought it up in an effort to draw attention to his accomplishment.

And in October, Evander Holyfield will travel to Russia to challenge Sultan Ibragimov for the WBO heavyweight belt less than a week before his 45th birthday.

Hopkins, Couture and Holyfield are closing in on eligibility for an AARP card, but they're still competing for championships.

To Foreman, it's hardly unusual.

"It was only a big deal when I had done it because the book said you couldn't do it," Foreman said. "But I didn't know who wrote that book. What was his qualification to write it? I don't think whoever he was who wrote the book knew anything about me. I just said, 'Hey, I know me better than anyone else. I can do this.' And these other guys, they saw what I did and they said, 'Me, too.' "

Hopkins and Couture spent a day together in Los Angeles in the summer as each was preparing for his fight.

Hopkins isn't an MMA fan, but invited Couture to sit ringside at his fight with Winky Wright as a sign of respect. And though he admittedly doesn't understand MMA, he said he doesn't need to in order to understand Couture's success.

"The guy works like a dog," Hopkins said. "He pushes and pushes and never lets his body get out of condition."

And that, Hopkins said, is the secret. He rarely takes time off and fitness is a 24/7/365 proposition for him.

He said he wouldn't take but a handful of days off after his win over Wright before he was back to the gym working on his body.

"You have to have the right genes, but even if you do, you have to know what to do with them," Hopkins said. "Being in the gym is a commitment. There are a lot of things maybe I might want to do and going to the gym gets in the way of doing them, but I go to the gym because that's why I'm successful.

"This doesn't happen by accident. There is a lot of sacrifice that goes into this."

Foreman made the sacrifices, too, he said, even though he joked frequently about his affinity for eating and often had large platters of cheeseburgers delivered to him at pre-fight news conferences.

Foreman said he knew enough to know a bodybuilder physique wouldn't do him any good as a boxer.

"I tell my sons all the time, 'The most important thing in your life is fitness,' but a lot of fighters go overboard," said Foreman, who is now 58 and living off the fortune created by the grill that bears his name. "The ones you usually see laying flat out on the canvas are the ones with – what do you call that? – the six-pack stomach.

"Pick up a magazine and look at a (male) model. You see those bodies they have? How many guys wouldn't kill for that body? But how many of those models do you think could go 12 rounds? I'll tell you: None. Us fighters, when we get this age, the one thing we have going for us is how well we know our bodies."

Foreman left boxing originally in 1977 and essentially secluded himself. He didn't have a television in the house, he said. Though he's addicted to the Internet now and is surfing the web at all hours, there was no such thing in the late 1970s.

To occupy himself and quench his thirst for knowledge, Foreman would frequently trek to a Houston public library.

He read about great boxing champions such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, who had less-than-successful comebacks after retirements. Even Ali was unable to recapture past glory.

Foreman determined they had two common flaws.

"They all wanted to look like they did when they were young and they wanted to go right back out and get back into the No. 1 position they had gotten used to," Foreman said. "None of them were willing to drop down and start over and they all wanted to look like young men even when they were old."

When Foreman decided at the age of 38 to return to boxing in 1987, he fought the dregs of the game. It frequently wasn't pretty, but his confidence was rising as the wins piled up and his body was getting accustomed to being back in competition.

When he got a title shot against the-then 28-year-old Holyfield in 1991, Foreman said he knew it was his time.

"I was more experienced, I had a bigger punch, I had a great jab, everything was on my side," Foreman said.

Except, that is, for one thing: Foreman so desperately wanted the fight to be a success on the fledgling pay-per-view network TVKO, which was created for that bout and would go on to become HBO Pay-Per-View, that he said he wore himself out promoting it.

He was even out late the night before doing interviews and trying to hawk the fight. He was also aware that, as a preacher, he would be held to a different standard. So when the fight began, he not only was physically drained, he didn't fight like he normally would.

"Part of what happened that night was I was so concerned about image, I didn't approach the fight the way I should have," Foreman said. "Before, if a guy would hold me, I'd stick my elbows up, jam him off and then go for the knockout. This time, I was too p.r. conscious and I didn't do that.

"And I didn't get my rest and I wound up draining myself. I over-promoted because I wanted it to be so successful. I always looked at it like there was an extra Pepsi-Cola to be sold and I didn't want to miss anybody or anything. I promoted up until the bell rang and it turned out I was whipped."

He lost a unanimous decision in a fight he knows he could have won.

Couture has been in high demand prior to UFC 74 and is among the most accommodating athletes in any sport, but Foreman said he's convinced the UFC champion sets limits and sticks to them.

"I'm sure that young man knows himself and he knows what he has to do to be ready," Foreman said.

Foreman wasn't ready for his shot at history in 1991, but he had nobody to blame but himself.

But a few months after the loss to Holyfield, he realized that he didn't brood over the defeat the way he did his 1974 loss to Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire.

"The first time I lost to Muhammad Ali, I really suffered after the fight for weeks and months," Foreman said. "I cried. I suffered. I'd wake up at night, literally shaking. I would wake up and find myself trying to beat the referee's count. I replayed that fight in my mind so many times I can't begin to tell you how many.

"But after (the loss to Holyfield), nothing. It was gone before I walked out of the ring. I had school openings to attend, parent-teacher meetings to go to, commercials to shoot, speeches to make, birthdays, graduations. There was no time to mourn a loss, and it turned out that in the long run it made me better."

Holyfield has been the most stubborn of the aged warriors. He has been urged repeatedly to retire and was suspended in 2005 by the New York Athletic Commission for diminished skills.

But he's never conceded that age was a factor in his downturn, when he went through a streak where he won only two of nine bouts at one point. He said he's finally healthy and has won four in a row, though largely against low-level opposition, in order to get the shot at Ibragimov's belt.

Holyfield said there is no secret to being successful after 40.

"You have to want it as badly as you did when you were 20," Holyfield said. "Some guys, after they won and got some attention and some money, they're not as hungry and they're not as willing to sacrifice to do the job.

"I'm still hungry. I still will do what it takes. I work as hard now as I ever have and that's the only way you can stay on top for so long."

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