In some ways, though he lost the fight, what an aging yet still very much proud and determined George Foreman was able to do in his fight with Evander Holyfield deserves more praise than the amazing feat “Big George” pulled off in regaining the heavyweight crown by knocking out Michael Moorer. Going into the April 1991 fight with defending heavyweight champ Holyfield, 42-year-old Foreman was looked at by almost all as either a flat-out joke, a superb conman, or a very bad accident waiting to happen.
Nobody felt Foreman would make good on his quest to regain the heavyweight crown he had last had his hands on in 1974. So much had happened in the world since Foreman had ruled the heavyweight division. The world had seen Watergate, America had experienced the never to be recovered from the damage of the Vietnam War, the Iran-Contra scandal had gone down, Elvis Presley had died, John Lennon had been assassinated, and currently, America was leading the effort in The Gulf War.
The world had changed since Foreman had been away, no doubt. But Foreman had come back, this in 1987, after a full decade out of the ring (during which time the once seemingly invincible Texan monster puncher had piled on close to 100 pounds in weight and had become a preacher). At the time of his life-changing experience inside a sweltering dressing room in Puerto Rico, when Foreman “died and came alive again,” Evander Holyfield was a 14-year-old kid in Alabama.
This, amongst other things, put the April 1991 fight between the two in perspective.
But Foreman was not back for a one-shot money grab (or, as George put it, he was “not back for the Cadillac in the window.”) No, Foreman was deadly serious. Foreman had retained his fighting pride, or he had regained it. And Foreman had, quite shockingly, retained a good amount of his ring skills – his thundering left jab, his solid chin and a decent portion of his punching power.
This, and a dream, was enough for Foreman to give 28-year-old Holyfield his toughest fight. Years later, when looking back on the fight, Holyfield, with sincerity mixed with adulation, explained the very real fear he’d had in the ring that Foreman had literally knocked his teeth out during one of the 12 taxing rounds. Yet must everyone felt it would be Holyfield doing the damage, scoring the knockout.
The promotion was huge, as was the payday both men would enjoy. But the fight lived up to the hype. Holyfield did his utmost to take Foreman out, at one point, in round seven, landing a savage 15-punch combo. Foreman refused to fall. Something was driving George on, holding him up. Foreman’s war cry/mantra was, “the age of 40 is not a death sentence.” Never had such an old fighter proven how age was indeed just a number.
Holyfield was exhausted at the end, holding on in the last round. Foreman, marked up and tired himself, had made his mark. Somehow, incredibly, Foreman had shown greater stamina at age 42 than he had been able to show at age 24. The fact that Holyfield retained his belts was not the talking point. Foreman’s superhuman effort was.
The legendary Budd Schulberg covered the fight for Boxing Illustrated – “The Bigger they are, the harder they DON’T fall,” Schulberg’s headline read (this a nod to the writer’s classic “The Harder They Fall” masterpiece from the 1940s).
“You just don’t knock mountains down,” Foreman said. And, by George, Foreman, though he was still an ex-champ, was up there with Mount Everest, K2, Kangchenjunga and Lhotse. In fact, Foreman showed he was perhaps deserving of a place on the Mount Rushmore of boxing.
30 years on, and we fans still get a shiver, a boost, an inspirational jolt of motivation as we watch and re-watch the Foreman-Holyfield fight. George showed us all that anything can be possible to anyone.
Traditionally, and rightly, the winning fighter’s name goes first in a headline featuring both boxer’s names. But although Holyfield won the decision on the night of April 19th, 1991, Foreman was the real victor. “He got the points but I made a point,” Foreman said. Amen.