Boxing's Greatest Fighters: George Foreman

In any listing of great comebacks, the finger of history lingers longer over the name of George Foreman than any figure in boxing -- nay, all of sports. For this fugitive from the law of averages made dust out of conventional wisdom by coming back after a ten-year layoff to win the heavyweight championship 21 years after winning it the first time. And, in a turnaround worthy of a Harvard B-School thesis on how to change your image, reinvented the George Wheel by transforming his image from that of the winner of the Sonny Liston scowl-alike contest to that of a cuddly teddy bear.

Like Gaul, Foreman's career could be neatly divided into three parts. The first began in 1968 when the former dead-end kid from Houston's Fifth Ward's mean streets and recent entrant into federal Job Corps program used his crude strength to overwhelm Soviet finalist Jonas Cepulis in two rounds to win the Super Heavyweight gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics, and then paraded around the ring holding a tiny American flag in celebration. Turning pro the next year, Foreman ran off a string of 37 consecutive victories over some of the heavyweight division's most well-unknown names, dissembling 34 of them into smaller, neater pieces with his ponderous punches, delivered in the manner of a man hewing down trees. All of which earned him a shot at the reigning world champion, Joe Frazier.

Preparing for his fight with Frazier, Foreman watched films of the champ and soon discovered that "he only knows one way to fight ... he comes at you straight ahead and wide open." And so it was that the first time Frazier rushed in, Foreman hit him with a thunderous left which sounded like that of an explosion felling six or seven bystanders. And Frazier as well. That was the first sound heard. The second was ringside commentator Howard Cosell's by-now famous call, "Down goes Frazier ... Down goes Frazier." It was to be the first of six times Cosell would utter that phrase as Frazier took on the look of a bouncing ball, once even lifted up in the air like a tree trunk being pulled from its moorings. Finally, after the sixth knockdown, Foreman called to Frazier's corner, imploring them to "Stop it ... I don't want to kill him." But even if Frazier's corner hadn't had enough, referee Arthur Mercante had, and stopped the one-sided ass-whuppin' at 1:35 of the second round.

George Foreman had won the heavyweight title. But he had won more, also being crowned with the title of "Invincible," a title he added oak-leaf clusters to with two quick knockouts of challengers King Roman and Ken Norton in defense of his newly minted title.

But even though Foreman was now viewed as the equal of the man Jack had met at the top of the beanstalk, having taken out his last eight opponents in two rounds or less, one man, trainer Angelo Dundee, insisted, "My guy will stick him, hit him with straight shots and pick him to pieces." That "guy" of course, being Muhammad Ali.

Ali would get his chance to do that voodoo he did so well in faraway Kinshasa, Zaire, in a bout aptly called "The Rumble in the Jungle." But despite his pre-bout boasts that he would dance, "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, and wait until Foreman tired and then go in for the kill," Ali neglected to mention one part of his overall plan, something he had told no one, not even his corner: his plan to use a tactic he was to call "the rope-a-dope."

The rope-a-dope strategy Ali had conceived in his fertile mind, one of retreating to the ropes and leaning back like a windblown willow, all the better to allow the younger and stronger Foreman to pummel him at will until he tired from his efforts. But when Ali first went back to the ropes and took up his semi-fetal position, with arms covering up his head and inviting George to use him for fungo practice, it was seen less as a ploy than a disaster, his corner hollering "Get off the ropes" and writer George Plimpton expressing his feelings by hollering to Norman Mailer at ringside, "Oh, Christ ... It's a fix."

Round after round Ali employed the same strategy, spending most of each round laying against the ropes while Foreman teed off with Paul Bunyanesque wide-armed axe swings. Only in the concluding seconds of each round did Ali come alive, emerging from his self-styled fistic cocoon and firing off a round-closing salvo.

By the fourth, Ali was taunting Foreman: "Come on, show me something. You ain't shown me nothing yet." But Foreman was trying his mightiest, lambasting the form of Ali directly in front of him with everything he had. However, the vast majority of his power-packed blows either landed on Ali's arms or were picked off by his elbows. By the sixth the champion was doing his best imitation of a hose going flaccid after the water had been turned off, his punches mere pawings in the direction of Ali as his strength ebbed. Then, in the eighth, Ali came off the ropes with a right to the head, then a left, and then a right to the jaw that sent the soon-to-be-ex-champion reeling to the canvas like a dying bird at the end of his flight, there to be counted out.

But while "The Rumble in the Jungle" would become the anchor of Muhammad Ali's fame and the bitterest moment in George Foreman's career, it would serve as the bitter ashes from which Foreman would rise.

Only he wouldn't rise immediately. In fact George Foreman would return home to suffer the slings and arrows from his once-idolatrous fans, emerging 15 months later in a "match" that had all the trappings of low burlesque as Foreman "battled" five of boxing's losing stuntmen, including never-wases, has-beens, and even a "kissing" opponent who tried to give him a sloppy one during the pre-fight instructions. It was such a low blow to Foreman's already shaky psyche that he promptly exited the ring and remained inactive for another nine months before surfacing again, this time against the heavy-hitting and sinister-looking Ron Lyle.

A classic exhibition of the fine art of self-defense it wasn't. In fact if the Foreman-Lyle fight had been held in a court of law the judge would have ruled, "the defense rests." But what it was was a down-and-out bar fight, one without survivors, and what Red Smith called "the most two-sided battle of heavyweights in recent memory" as both men hit the canvas with metronomic regularity. Foreman, who had been hit so hard in the first round that he almost lost his trunks, came back to take the battle to Lyle, only to be decked in the fourth and apparently out, but saved by the bell. As he went to his corner on legs that were momentarily forgetting their obligation to hold him up, he was met by his trainer, Gil Clancy, who challenged him with "He's hurt and you're hurt. The one that's gonna win is the one who wants it most." Then, thrusting his finger into Foreman's chest, he hollered, "Do you want it most?" Foreman did, and walking out for the fifth on quivering legs, picked up the pace, determined to prove he "wanted it most." He did and he did, knocking Lyle out at 2:28 of the fifth.

Foreman would fight four more times -- including a five-round KO of Joe Frazier in a rematch -- before meeting the cagey Jimmy Young on March 17, 1977, in Puerto Rico.

That night Foreman suffered his second loss -- a loss he blamed on dehydration -- and experienced an epiphany, claiming that in his post-fight exhaustion and delirium he had encountered both God and death. Remembering the moment, Foreman would later say of the experience: "I couldn't see anything. It was like being hopelessly lost at sea. I thought: This is it. I'm dead. There was a horrible smell and a feeling of loneliness. Then it was like a giant hand pulled me out -- I wasn't scared anymore. I collapsed on the floor, with people all around me. They picked me off the floor. 'It's OK,' I told them. 'I'm dying. But tell everybody I'm dying for God."'

And with that Foreman turned his massive back on boxing and turned to God, the second part of his career, dedicated to tending to the souls of his parishioners as pastor of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. But after 10 years away from the ring -- so far away, in fact, that he even refused to watch boxing on TV -- Foreman became uneasy when other clergymen at churches he spoke at used his presence to fill their collection plates. "I know how to make money," Foreman thought, and decided, then and there, at the advanced age of 37, to return to the ring and once again to win the heavyweight championship.

There must have been some argument against it, but unable to marshal up any facts, George Foreman followed that thought back into the ring after 10 years of inactivity. However, the boxing community didn't give Foreman's thought enough thought of their own to cause a headache, deriding his efforts to recycle his skills as those of an old has-been with a body the size of a large pot roast. And even as he began to pile up knockout after knockout over a string of resume-builders, many continued to dismiss his efforts, one writer moved to comment that his opponents were "only slightly more lively than Joe Louis's statue."

George took their jabs and stabs with good-natured grace, answering each and every with his own brand of self-mocking humor, all seemingly related to food -- as in his answer to the question "How far do you run every morning?" with "Depends how far my refrigerator is." Or "When do you think you'll fight for the title?" with "Today the biggest decisions I make aren't related to the heavyweight title, they're whether I visit McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, or Jack in the Box."

The writers were amused by George, but not by his chances of achieving his fistic goal of re-winning the championship, labeling him, "Captain Cheeseburger." And his quest, in foodtalk, "pie in the sky."

Despite the naysayers -- and because of his 24 consecutive wins, 23 by knockout -- George finally got his shot at the title in April of '91 against the then-titleholder, Evander Holyfield. And even though there were detractors, such as Holyfieid's trainer, Lou Duva, who said, "It's either going to be stopped by the ref or the Red Cross," the big-gutted Foreman put up a gutsy battle, not only landing several solid shots while taking everything Evander had to offer but even thanking his conqueror for "giving me the chance" during the last-round action.

With no unconditional surrender to the undeniable facts, Big George soldiered on, refusing to take "No" for an answer to his dream of once again ascending to the top of the heavyweight mountain. And so it was that after three more wins -- and a loss to Tommy Morrison for the WBO (the WBO, for Christ's sake) title -- George was given still another chance, this time against the IBF and WBA champ, Michael Moorer.

Twenty years after having been made one with the canvas by Muhammad Ali, twenty years of hiding the pain behind his big Buddha smile and all those years of telling jokes about food and fat that had attached themselves to him like pie to a la mode, George Foreman climbed into the ring at the MGM Grand Hotel wearing the same red trunks he had worn in Zaire lo those many years ago. And although a bit faded you could still read GEORGE FOREMAN, HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION.

For nine rounds Moorer picked the 45-year-old challenger to pieces, continually tattooing him with his ice-pick-like right jab and left and right bombs, even taunting him with a pop-pop-pop every time his jab landed. By the end of the ninth a weary Foreman was sporting a progressively worsening swelling under his left eye, and to all it seemed only a question of whether the exhausted-looking Foreman would be able to last another three rounds.

For particulars on what happened next we refer you to A. Lincoln's sonnet on "Fooling all the people. . ." et cetera. About two-thirds of the way into the tenth, Foreman landed a combination to Moorer's head. Then, with Moorer standing shock-still in front of him, Foreman brushed him with a range-finding left and uncoiled that tree-trunk of a right which came abruptly out of the unknown. And although it traveled only 10 inches, at best, it was a punch that had started 20 years before in Zaire, landing squarely on the chin of the champion, knocking him down and out.

When fans cheered George Foreman at the beginning of his career, that was faith; midway through, appreciation; and now, adulation. And as 12,000 fans, all as giddy as Captain John Smith after Pocahontas went his bail, erupted in a single cheer at the sight of the fallen Moorer, one reporter, then in the process of calling in his running commentary of the fight to his home office, was asked by the disembodied voice on the other end of the line whether he thought the victory by the 45-year-old Foreman was "a bad day for boxing." The writer merely held up the phone and said, "Bad day for boxing? Listen to the cheering."

What Popeye was to spinach and Edward G. Robinson was to "Dying like a dirty rat," George Foreman was now to comebacks. F Scott Fitzgerald may have written that "there were no second acts in America," but G. Edward Foreman had proven him wrong. He was not just a hero pro tem, he was one for the ages.

From "Boxing's Greatest Fighters,"

copyright 2006, Lyons Press

Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.