40 years ago today: Jimmy Young-George Foreman – “He beat the devil out of me!”

Upon entering the ring in the Coliseo Roberto Clemente stadium in Puerto Rico 40 years ago today, former heavyweight king George Foreman had Muhammad Ali on his mind; in particular a rematch with the man who had shocked, stunned and beaten him three years earlier.

But at the conclusion of his frustrating fight with Jimmy Young, Foreman would soon have nothing but God and a new life on his mind. It was “Big George’s” fight with Young – won by Young via 12 round unanimous decision – that forever changed the Texan giant’s life; or rather it was the fight’s aftermath that did the changing.

Foreman, who was 5-0(5) since Zaire, would experience major flashbacks against the tricky, clever and cute Young; being taken back to that exhausting, embarrassing night (or early morning) in the middle of Africa. Like Zaire, San Juan was sweltering. Like Ali, Young was elusive and hard to nail cleanly. As in the fight that saw him lose his crown and unbeaten record, fans at the Young fight forced Foreman to listen to cheers for his opponent.

Foreman, aged 28 and still in his prime, did manage to hurt Young in the fight, badly. A heavy left hand shook Young in the 7th, but somehow, Jimmy got through the round (after the fight, the Philly boxer would say he himself had no idea how he got through the session, so out on his feet he really had been). Foreman, who had been guilty of his share of rough tactics, really saw frustration kick in in the fight’s late rounds. And fatigue kicked in in a major way also.

Young, a year the older man and three wins removed from his own loss to Ali (Young dropping a hugely controversial 15 round decision to Ali in April of 1976; a fight that saw an overweight Ali look anything but The Greatest) was 20-5-2 overall and he had beaten big punchers before. Against Foreman, the 7th-round crisis survived, Young was winning the biggest fight of his career.

Jimmy was no big puncher, yet he managed to punctuate his brave and skilled performance with a final round knockdown, when an exhausted Foreman went down from a right with just seconds to go in the bout. Foreman was not hurt but he was seriously running on empty, had been since the 8th or 9th. Then came the decision – all three judges favouring Young’s slippery boxing and points-picking; one official having it a wide 118-111 for Jimmy.

Foreman, brooding and beaten, refused Howard Cosell a mid-ring interview, instead heading back to his hot and sticky dressing room. Once inside, George “died and became alive again.” Some put the events down to heat prostration, but Foreman knows what HE saw and felt. Foreman has vividly described the life-changing religious experience many times and what happened later is clear: George instantly retired from boxing, he walked away from $millions, and he became a preacher.

The old George Foreman was gone, the new George Foreman, smiling, spreading the word of God and never again balling up his fist, had begun his new life.

Of course, Foreman did return to boxing, in 1987, at the age of 38, and it’s a good thing – a great thing – that he did. Foreman’s astonishing comeback enriched all our lives. Who knows what would have happened if Foreman had scored the easy KO he doubtless felt he would have against Young 40 long years ago. Would the world have been deprived of the new Foreman? Would George have remained active and would he have got his rematch with Ali?

Today, George would have it no other way. He says now that he experienced the greatest moment of his life inside that San Juan dressing room.