Back in 1969, a young fighter who had managed to capture an Olympic gold medal was not assured the million dollar contracts that abound for such talent today. No, the sport was different to young talent such as Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier and George Foreman – to mention three Olympic gold medallists from the swinging sixties. Back then, a young Foreman was paid a few hundred bucks (if that) for his debut – far, far less than guys and gals like Anthony Joshua Nicola Adams, Katie Taylor and other budding superstars got when they went pro.
But Foreman, a raw but unbelievably strong (both mentally and physically) fighting machine was to embark on a truly great, incredible and awe-inspiring paid career; in fact two careers in the ring.
Fighting with an intimidating rage that served to put fear into his opponents – yet at the same time make George a fighter with limited stamina due to the way he would put everything into every single shot he threw while attempting to knock his rival’s head off – the 6’3.5″ approx 220-pounder set about climbing the heavyweight rankings in late ‘69, early 1970.
In search of a shot at heavyweight king Joe Frazier – a man an older Foreman would later confess to having been afraid of – Foreman beat up a collection of so-so opponents, with a few top names thrown in. Early stoppage wins over Chuck Wepner and the always teak-tough George Chuvalo got George noticed, but he was still a big underdog when he finally got his shot at “Smokin’” Joe in January of 1973; almost five years since he’d won his gold at the Mexico games in the summer of ’68.
As we know, George made a complete mockery of the odds as he demolished the undefeated Frazier inside two-rounds – sending him to the mat an astonishing six times! It seemed as though a new breed of heavyweight monster had arrived. Two quick retentions followed – against Joe Roman and Ken Norton – before Foreman met the great Muhammad Ali in the African jungle. Meeting for a then unprecedented $5 million each, the heavyweight champion and the former king met in the now legendary “Rumble in The Jungle.”
New breed be damned, Ali said, as he used all of his old-school cunning and toughness to shock and all but destroy the 40-0 (37) champ in that amazing 8th round. At age 32, to Foreman’s 25, Ali was back where George had just been. Foreman was devastated and did not fight a proper fight again for well over a year.
When he did come back, after an exhibition in which he boxed five guys in one night, much of foreman’s mystique as an invincible wrecking machine was gone; as Ron Lyle showed in January of 1976. One of the best-ever slugfests ever seen, Foreman-Lyle saw both giants hit the mat twice each. No way would Lyle have given George such a hard time pre-Ali, new trainer Gil Clancy said of his charge years later. Still, Foreman exorcised some demons in rallying to beat Lyle, and he was back and on Ali’s trail.
Sadly, though a repeat win over Frazier helped put George in line for a chance to regain his title, an Ali-Foreman II never happened. What would have happened had it come off? How the historians have pondered that very notion. Would Ali’s famous “Rope-A-Dope” have felled George again? Or would Ali have conjured up some other tactics that would have messed with George’s head to the point where he could be taken? Or, thirdly, would Foreman – smarter and wiser – have been able to get revenge over the first man to have beaten him?
Three more KO wins followed the rematch victory over Frazier – with Scott LeDoux, Dino Denis and Pedro Agosto being taken care of with relative ease – before George ran into the crafty Jimmy Young in sweltering Puerto Rico. Foreman ran out of gas after having Young hurt early, he was dropped in the 12th and final round and wound up losing a unanimous decision. Later, in the dressing room, George had the religious experience that changed his life and, just like that, this version of George Foreman was gone – for good.
George’s career continued, of course; and in many ways his true greatness was to come in the unlikely comeback he began in 1987 – some ten years after the loss to Young. But the return saw a new beginning, and as such the career that began in June of 1969 ended with the second defeat suffered by the then 28-year-old.
Even if George had not laced the gloves up again in March of ’87, he would still have made his mark on the sport. Not as big a mark as the one he made with his odds-defying return to the top, but a pretty big mark nonetheless.
George Foreman and his first incarnation: will America, or the world, ever produce a heavyweight anything quite like him again?