“The Road Back” - When Foreman and Tyson Fought On The same Bill

17.10.06 - By James Slater: The year was 1990, and the heavyweight division had just been blown wide open courtesy of James “Buster” Douglas and his upset of the century. Going into his fight with the undefeated, undisputed and seemingly invincible heavyweight king Mike Tyson, Douglas was a massive 42-1 outsider. Yet James smashed the odds into oblivion while doing likewise to the twenty-three year old known as “Iron Mike.” A huge uppercut collided with Tyson’s jaw in round ten, Mike then hit the canvas, tried with all his might to put the gum-shield that had been violently knocked from his mouth back in, and was counted out in the act of rising. “Buster” Douglas had done the unthinkable. The native of Columbus, Ohio was the new heavyweight champion of the world!

Yet there was one other heavyweight boxer who benefited from Douglas’ triumph. At the time continuing with his struggle to convince the sceptics that his comeback was one worthy of respect, George Foreman, then aged forty-one, was still viewed by most experts as a fraud - one who would have been exposed by Tyson in short order had his wish of fighting to regain the crown he lost to Muhammad Ali two decades earlier been granted.

But then all of a sudden two things happened. Firstly George did away with the big punching Gerry Cooney, who was himself on the comeback trail, in January that year. Then secondly, Tyson was KO’d by Douglas the following month.

As quickly as that, George Foreman’s chances of once again ruling his division looked a whole lot better. Certainly there were more than a few experts willing to grant the possibility that old man George might be capable of catching the new champion’s chin with a ponderous yet powerful blow. For in spite of his crushing of the man who was perceived as unbeatable, James himself was not looked upon as such. With his army of fans and believers more convinced than ever that Foreman’s dream could become a reality, calls for a Douglas - Foreman fight began.

But Tyson wanted to get back to the top too. There was also an undefeated fighter by the name of Evander Holyfield who wanted his well deserved crack at the title. As such, after the seemingly all too easy defences Mike was making short work of, the heavyweight division now looked far more interesting. Sure, it’s always good having a dominant and all-conquering heavyweight champion of the world, but the quick finishes Tyson was producing had become somewhat tedious, not to mention bad value for money. Now the division was wide open and some good, hard fought bouts could be looked forward to.

With Mike now joining George as a come backing ex-champ, the first excitement came in June of 1990. On a fight card billed as “The Road Back,” Tyson and Foreman were matched with selected opposition on a bill held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on the 16th. With the overall plan being one that would see the two legends fighting one another, George boxed the Brazilian, Adilson Rodrigues, while “Iron Mike” met Henry Tillman. For the first time ever, Mike Tyson and George Foreman would be fighting on the very same promotion.

There was also a touch of spice added to their two bouts in that Rodrigues was Foreman’s first top ten ranked opponent so far in his comeback, and Tillman had twice beaten Tyson as an amateur. Even though practically everyone knew both former kings would wipe the floor with their opposition on “The Road Back,” the temptation of seeing them both together in the flesh proved to be too much for ticket buyers and there was not a single seat left unsold.

For the moment, fans would forget both Douglas and Holyfield. The hottest fight on the planet right now was Foreman Vs. Tyson! But what could their respective performances against Rodrigues and Tillman tell us?

First up it was “Big” George. Lumbering into the ring for the twenty-second fight of a comeback that had followed a ten year retirement, George, for the first time in over thirteen years, looked across the ring at a top ten rated heavyweight. While Adilson, ranked at number ten by the WBA, as well as at number eleven by the WBC, had one key element in his corner that just might provide him with a glimmer of hope. The world renowned Angelo Dundee, trainer extraordinaire, was the Brazilian’s chief second. By his own admission, this worried George a little. When the action got underway, however, such fears need not have existed. Rodrigues tried though.

With the Dundee devised game-plan of sticking and moving obviously employed in the hopes of tiring out the fighter who had fallen with exhaustion at the hands of The Greatest back in 1974, it was no shock when the thirty-two year old Rodrigues used plenty of lateral movement from the get go. Angelo, probably figuring that not much could have possibly changed for the forty-one year old in the stamina department, wanted his man to make it through the first four or five rounds. Then surely the pace, and the heat of Vegas in the month of June, would start to tell on old George.

Foreman though, was not about to put Dundee’s theory to the test. He backed Rodrigues to the ropes a couple of minutes into round two, and ended matters impressively. A huge left hook that landed flush on Adilson’s jaw produced a very tidy looking KO win for Foreman, and his comeback earned yet more esteem. Angelo, for one, was mightily impressed by Foreman’s display, saying afterwards that he was now, “sold on George Foreman!” He had indeed performed in a manner that was incredible for a man of his advanced years. His hands looked fairly quick and accurate, while his punching power seemed as awesome as it had ever been. In the post-fight interview, conducted by a Larry Merchant who referred to George’s comeback as a “brilliant campaign,” Foreman made it clear there was one man above all others he wanted to fight. That man was due in the very same ring George was now departing. Next up it was Mike’s turn.

The twenty-nine year old Henry Tillman certainly didn’t bring anywhere near as much to the party as he had done when boxing the teenage Mike Tyson back in 1984. Fighting then with head guards, Tillman had twice been given the decision over the still raw Tyson. Henry went on to the Olympic games in Los Angeles, where he won a gold medal, while Mike went on to become the youngest holder of a world title at heavyweight. Now they would meet again. As I say though, this time Tillman didn’t offer much in the way of, well, anything. He was duly despatched in the opening round. Mike’s power was still there, as everyone knew it would be, but the win proved little else. As George Foreman said after his fight, it was time the public was rewarded
with a “true heavyweight fight now.” George wanted Tyson, the public wanted him to get him, promoters Don King and Bob Arum wanted to make gazillions of dollars promoting the fight, and now, for the first time, respected fight analysts were not too sure just who would actually win. The question that remained unanswered, however, was did Tyson want Foreman?

Another double header was scheduled for September, with Tyson facing Alex Stewart and Foreman facing another decent test in the form of the Italian, Francesco Damiani. For whatever reasons though, this promotion failed to materialise, although Tyson did eventually square off with Stewart that December, stopping him in one round. But Foreman and Tyson never did tangle, much to the disappointment of boxing fans the world over. The fight had captured the imagination of millions of people - the idea of the young tiger slugging it out with the old lion was one that excited immensely. The fact that the match-up didn’t happen is really one of the biggest letdowns in heavyweight boxing’s long history.

As is it one of the great mysteries. Was Tyson scared of George? Who knows for sure, but in a sport where money talks it seems very strange to me that this fight, one that was simply screaming dollars, was never staged. What would the likely result have been had it happened though? No way would the fight have been a foregone conclusion - and for either guy for that matter - with his freakish strength, crippling power and rock chin, George, who would also have fought utterly without fear, would have tested Tyson to the limit. And Tyson, with his great speed, as well as also frightening power, would have made things plenty hot for Foreman. I believe the fight would have been pretty much a fifty-fifty affair, the only certainty being a KO win one way or the other.

The early 1990’s continued to be eventful ones for the heavyweights though. Evander Holyfield realised his dream of becoming heavyweight king in October of the new decade’s first year with an easy three round KO of Douglas, who proved that suspicions of him being a one fight wonder were correct. “Buster” was shown up as the sport’s real fat man. While Foreman acquitted
himself extremely well when his shot at regaining his world title finally arrived. In giving Holyfield a real fight for the full twelve rounds in April of the following year, George made many people eat their words. In doing so, however, he also convinced Mike Tyson, who reportedly raced home at the wheel of a car doing in excess of seventy miles an hour so as to catch the live broadcast of the bout, never to get in a ring with him. As such, the decade’s most exciting heavyweight fight may well have been one that never heard the first bell.

Article posted on 18.10.2006

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