Yesterday, I had the privlege of briefly speaking with former heavyweight champion George Foreman. Being one of few fighters to compete in three separate decades, there’s a bunch of questions I could have asked. For me, my interest rested on two fights that didn’t happen in Foreman’s career: a money rematch with Ali and a megafight with Mike Tyson in the late 80s and early 90s.
Let’s give a little background on the Ali rematch. After suffering one of the biggest upsets in boxing history to Ali in 1974, Foreman was mentally crushed. He had been an undefeated, wrecking ball champion that ran through Ali’s two toughest opponents, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Yet against Ali, Foreman was outfought and outsmarted.
His first “comeback” was a PR disaster. Foreman decided to prove his toughness and fight five men in one night, with champion Ali at ringside to hype a return bout. A rusty and gassed Foreman looked horrible, and Ali took the opportunity to continually clown from ringside. An embarrassed Foreman would take off the rest of the year before returning officially in 1976.
Foreman effectively fell from the rankings due to inactivity and had to rebuild his name. He started off by adverting disaster in coming off the deck twice in his first bout back against Ron Lyle to score a dramatic KO in Ring Magazine’s 1976 Fight of the Year. In his next effort, he needed just five rounds to close the book of Joe Frazier’s career as an elite fighter. Foreman finished the year with two more KOs over Scott LeDoux and John Dino Denis.
On the other hand, Ali started to slip physically and in mental focus after the brutal Thrilla in Manila. In May 1976, The Greatest came in at a career high 230 pounds against Jimmy Young and looked lethargic against the younger slickster. He escaped with a highly controversial unanimous decision. Later in the year, he won a razor-thin and also highly controversial decision over Ken Norton.
By the beginning of 1977, Foreman had achieved a #1 ranking for Ali’s title. Ali stalled on making the match, prompting Foreman to face Jimmy Young. The winner would be considered a high candidate for an Ali rematch. After knocking down Young early, Foreman gassed and Young scored his own knockdown in the 12th to take a unanimous decision. Foreman would then retire for 10 years, leaving many like myself to wonder if Foreman could have dethroned a faded, 1977 Ali like slugger Earnie Shavers almost did, and novice Leon Spinks achieved one year later. When I posed this question to Big George, below was his response.
Well I know with the Muhammad Ali fight that fighting him right after I had lost to him would probably end up with a similar result. I hadn’t matured yet. It takes time to mature into the kind of fighter that can beat a Muhammad Ali.
The second intriguing question I had for Foreman was his desire to face Mike Tyson in the early 90s. Aside from it being a big money fight, Foreman thought style-wise Tyson would be the perfect foil for him. Even at his advanced age, Foreman retained his massive power. Even prime Holyfield utilized a stick and move approach against Foreman and was wary of exchanging with him. The legend for the fight not coming off is Mike Tyson was allegedly afraid of Foreman due to what was instilled in him via tape sessions years earlier with mentor Cus D’Amato. Tyson was reportedly told that none of the swarming, pressure fighters (Dempsey, Frazier, Marciano etc.) could stand a chance against Foreman, who was simpy too strong physically and with punching power to be bullied and overwhelmed. In a recollection credited to Hall of Fame matchmaker Bobby Goodman, Tyson allegedly screamed on Don King for continually hounding him about agreeing to the fight.
“I’m not fighting that fuckin’ animal,” Tyson is said to have snarled. “If you love that motherfucker so much, you fight him!”
Foreman himself is coy in his own recollections about why the fight never came off. He’s not a harsh critic of modern fighters; Foreman is one of the few retired greats that believes some of the better heavyweights of the last 20 years could have competed in the 70s. In particular, he cited Evander Holyfield as a standout case. However, he surprisingly thought Tyson would run from him like many of his other younger opponents despite Tyson, even in his worst defeats, never using that tactic.
There’s some tough guys. That Evander Holyfield, he could have existed and fought in any era. He was some fantastic boxer. When you look at him and some of the fights he’s had, that spells out that modern-day boxers are just as powerful and skillful and tough as any era. I’m just glad the other fights didn’t happen. It would just be about if could I continually chase them or not.
To add a final caveat to Foreman-Tyson, Big George made another statement to Sports Illustrated back in January 1990, just one month before Tyson lost to Buster Douglas.
He [Don King] gave me a contract and told me to sign on the dotted line. I was more afriad of Don King and the dotted line than I am of Tyson.