People don't understand. They look at George Foreman and they see a 250-lb. mountain of flesh, a man who sets his training table at Wendy's and the Colonel's, who never, in fact, met a fast-food franchise he didn't like. They see Methuselah, a likable gaffer of 42 with the gleaming pate of Daddy Warbucks, and they are alternately charmed and alarmed. They worry that on Friday night, when Foreman climbs into the ring at the Atlantic City Convention Center to try to wrest the world heavyweight boxing title from Evander Holyfield—a mere 28 and a paragon of modern training methods—the champion might just pop Foreman once in that pot roast of a stomach and induce a coronary on the spot.

People just don't get him, Foreman is saying affably from his perch on a fold-up chair in front of his ranch house in Marshall, Texas. They don't grasp his essential nature—that he is a truck and Holyfield is, well, a little wagon. Foreman is a tank and...no, no, check that. He's a bear, that's it, and Holyfield's a deer.

"People say, 'Holyfield's faster than you,' " he says. "But I don't need speed, because I'm a bear. Holyfield needs speed to survive. Every morning he's got to get up and he's got to think, 'Man, I got to hit the bag three times and move." What the bears do in springtime is a lot of eating. Bears don't go out and hit the bag seven rounds. They push over trees. All I got to do is jump up every morning, brush my teeth and just be myself."

On Friday, Foreman will be going not only for the championship but also for a $12.5 million payday (compared with Holyfield's $20 million) in what may be the richest fight production ever. Should Foreman, who held the title in 1973-74, upset the experts and win the fight, he will become the oldest heavyweight champion in history. He will also be the only fighter to make it all the way back to the top after a 10-year absence from the sport.

Yet in a sense, the fight will be anticlimactic. Foreman says he has already achieved his greatest triumph simply in learning to be himself—fully unfurled and without apology. It has taken him a lifetime, he will tell you, to win this victory. Make that two lifetimes. For he believes he died on March 17, 1977, in San Juan, P.R. That's the night he lost a 12-round decision to a used-up cutie named Jimmy Young.

The Foreman who stepped onto the canvas that night was a different man from the one who currently baffles and delights the boxing world. He was young, sculpted, inarticulate, a black Adonis with murder in his heart. He was the blighted product of a nasty childhood and the warped collective conception of what a fighter should be. He wanted to kill Young that night, just as he had wanted to kill Muhammad Ali, who had relieved him of his title three years earlier. It was the way, he felt, to get respect.

After losing to Young, he remembers, "I was in the dressing room, walking back and forth. It was real hot that night, and I'm thinking, I don't need boxing. I could retire to my ranch in Marshall. I could retire right now and—DIE!' "

Reports vary on what happened next. Skeptics say that Foreman, suffering from dehydration, became delusional—it took eight men to hold him down on the table. But Foreman believes he was clearheaded as never before. He believes he struggled for his existence, died, and was born again. "There was a terrible smell," he says. "It was all over for George Foreman. Then I said, 'I don't care if this is death, I still believe there is a God!' When I said that, it was like a gigantic hand reached into nothing and pulled me out. I was back in that dressing room and felt the jolt of blood pouring back through my veins.

"I left boxing for 10 years and went looking for myself. It was important to be me. When you die and you get a chance to live again, man, you want to live. And you don't want to be nobody else but you."

George Foreman passed most of his first incarnation in the same place where he has holed up for his second: Houston. He grew up in the Fifth Ward, known as the Bloody Fifth, a dead-end address of peeling wood homes and people who never had the chance to think much further ahead than the next meal. George's mother, Nancy, who worked as a short-order cook and reared seven kids by herself, was one of them—moving the family a dozen times to stay ahead of the rent man.

According to Roy Foreman, 36, big brother George was "as rough as they come. Everybody in the neighborhood feared him. I remember one night when he was 15, he'd been drinking cheap wine on Lyons Avenue and beat up some guys. The cops came, and it took seven of them to get him in the squad car. It's amazing they didn't shoot him."

Foreman says he started mugging people at 14 and never realized it was wrong. Why should he have? He was a local celebrity, admired for being a robber and a bully. It wasn't until he was hiding from the law one day beneath his porch that an exchange he'd had with his cousin Rita hit him with gospel force. "I was playing hooky from school, and she'd seen me climbing back through the window," he says. "I said, 'Well, I came back to get something.' She said, 'Don't worry about it.' I said, 'No, really.' She said, 'Why you bothering to excuse yourself? You know nobody in this family is ever going to become anything anyway.' "

Foreman was outraged. To prove his cousin wrong, he took the TV-ad advice of one of his tough-guy heroes, football great Jim Brown, and joined the Job Corps, a federal program that taught trades to the disadvantaged. It proved a salutary shock to his system: He met hippies, read books, saw green grass and flowing rivers. At the center in Pleasanton, Calif., he put himself in the hands of boxing coach Doc Broadus and saw a career take wing. "I had my first fight in February 1967," Foreman says. "In October 1968 I stood on the platform in Mexico City and received the Olympic gold medal."

Foreman turned pro a year later. He soon laid waste to the heavyweight division, taking the title from Joe Frazier in January 1973 in a savage display that had everyone, himself included, believing he was invincible. Then, a year later in Zaire, he met up with Ali, who beat him much the way the Tar Baby did Br'er Rabbit—by letting him beat himself, by getting him to punch himself out as Ali lolled on the ropes, finally coming alive in the eighth to apply the coup de grace.

Foreman was devastated. "I couldn't accept that my magic was gone," he says. "I was lost, until that night in the dressing room after Jimmy Young, when I decided to be nobody else but me."

It wasn't that hard, really. All Foreman had to do was open the door and let the bear out of the cage.

Take food. He had never had enough of it, what with poverty and then training regimens. Now, out of boxing, reborn, he gave rein to his appetites. He would make the rounds of the fast-food joints on Westheimer Road. He'd knock back some of that chicken with the special recipe or the battered fish or a burger, then hit another place and another and another.

Then, too, he stumbled onto the preaching circuit. Folks everywhere wanted to hear his story about the mugger turned Job Corpsman turned champ turned Lazarus. People asked him to preach funerals, weddings. He started preaching all over the world—even, yes, in Zaire, where he says he filled more seats than he had with Ali. Pretty soon he had his own charismatic evangelical church in Houston, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, where he sermonizes on Sundays.

For 10 years the man never so much as shadowboxed. Why should he? He didn't need the money—he'd made $5 million on the Ali fight alone. He liked to say, "The old George Foreman is dead, and I got his money." And yet in the end it was a need for cash that drove him back into boxing—not for himself, he says, but for the kids at the George Foreman Youth and Community Center, a gym and rec center he funds and his brother Roy runs. "My accountant told me, "Hey, man, you're going to have to give up either your lifestyle or your youth center," because I was tapping into my nest egg to keep it going," says Foreman. "I said to myself, 'I'm the heavyweight champion of the world. I know how to make money.' "

In the ring again in 1987, Foreman barnstormed across the country for three years, fighting every four to six weeks. Avoiding the major boxing venues and TV's hot glare, he faced nobodies for virtually nothing in places like Springfield, Mo., often before fewer than 1,000 fans. His critics started sharpening their knives, accusing him of fattening his record on has-beens and never-weres and thereby defrauding the public.

But this time around Foreman wasn't going to listen to anybody but the voice that welled up within him. His training methods baffled the cognoscenti. For starters, he trained himself. He ran, apparently, when he felt like it—took off on curious 10-mile jaunts, pulling up to chop down trees. As for sparring, he would do it with almost anybody. Rodeo ropers, basketball players, accountants—they were called George's Volunteers. He always seemed to have with him two or three of his nine kids, courtesy of five wives, as well as his current wife, Joan. (His five sons are named George, with Roman numerals appended to distinguish them from one another. Says Foreman about this apparent bit of egotism: "I couldn't name just one after me. It wouldn't have been fair.")

But he got thunderous results, running up a 24-0 record in this incarnation. The gags about Foreman began to lose their edge last year, when he stood up to a round of hard punching by Gerry Cooney, then banged Gentleman Gerry seven precision shots in return, putting him out like an empty milk bottle.

"Nobody can stop me," says Big George on his porch, watching two of his offspring, George IV, 3, and Leola, 4, tumble across the lawn. "Think about it," he says, warming to his topic. "If Holyfield wins, it doesn't mean anything. But when I win, it's going to be a compliment to the earth itself. It's proof that the water supply is just fine, that the fish in the sea are multiplying and the acid rain didn't bother the food at all. When a guy close to 50 wins the heavyweight championship of the world, everybody can relax for another 100 years. All the scare tactics, all the talk of Armageddons, it's not going to happen." The fighting preacher winks, delighted with his rhetoric. "Tell them George is here."

He'll have his chance to do that himself on Friday night. And all he has to do is: Be the bear.