Jimmy Young vs. George Foreman: The Fight That Changed Foreman Forever

45 years ago today (March 17, 1977) one of the most fascinating, indeed, life-changing boxing matches took place. The heavyweight fight that took place in Puerto Rico ended the career of a mean and spiteful destroyer, while at the same time it gave birth to a smiling, fun-loving entertainer who, though as prideful as he had been in his earlier incarnation, was now content to win fights “without throwing a shot in anger.”

If things had been different in Puerto Rico 45 years ago when former heavyweight champ George Foreman ran into Jimmy Young and his quite unique bag, or box of tricks, who knows – we may never have seen the 1980s/1990s version of “Big George.” The fight that took place 45 years ago – and its aftermath – prove that winning isn’t always everything.

Upon entering the ring in the Coliseo Roberto Clemente stadium in Puerto Rico, removed heavyweight king Foreman had Muhammad Ali on his mind; in particular, he had thoughts of a rematch on his mind. Yet at the conclusion of his frustrating fight with Young, Foreman would soon have nothing but God and a new life on his mind. It was Foreman’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 the loss to Ali, would experience major flashbacks against the tricky, clever, and cute Young; being taken back to that exhausting, embarrassing fight in the middle of Africa. Like Zaire, San Juan was sweltering. Like Ali, Young was elusive and hard for Foreman to nail cleanly. Also 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 round seven, yet the skilled Philadelphian managed to see it through the round. Foreman, who had been guilty of his share of rough tactics – and who his trainer Gil Clancy later said was more concerned with performing “tricks” in the fight – really saw frustration kick in in the fight’s later rounds. Foreman was close to physically shattered by the last few rounds, exhausted.

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 favoring 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 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. Very often, boxing fans have wondered this: how different heavyweight boxing history might be if Foreman had wiped Young out in a round or two?

Might Foreman, whether he won a return with Ali or not; whether he had even got the return fight or not, never have come back in the next decade?