Man: But Big George Is Not A Top Five Heavyweight
By Mike Casey
Never assume that the title of ‘boxing historian’ makes a guy
feel grand or superior. Only the insufferably smug and deluded feel like that.
Trust me when I tell you that the one thing most of us dread is that bold new
message in the inbox that opens with the quietly chilling words, “Hey, you’ll
know the answer to this one….”
When a fellow historian is lurking on the other end of it, the
heart beats even faster, the guard goes up and the ridiculous feinting begins. I
had one such message just the other day from a friend and fellow obsessive who
mischievously asked: “How hard did George Foreman hit? And how does he stack up
on the all-time heavyweight list?”
Yikes! Two questions! The shifty rascal! Sheer instinct
enabled me to take care of the first one. “Damn hard, sir, if we’re being
It brought me a few precious seconds while I retreated to the
ropes, lolled about for a while and had a think about the second query.
Just how great really was George Foreman? The question intrigued
me, because Big George is arguably one of the most difficult of the great
heavyweights to assess and assign his rightful place. For let us be sure of one
thing, he was indeed a great heavyweight. He might just have had it in him to be
the greatest we ever had.
In the years to come, I confidently predict that Foreman’s
all-time star will rise as he becomes the new darling of the ‘cool’
revisionists. He is the ideal candidate, because he was so nearly the great
invincible before he tripped and stumbled in the blackness of a distant jungle.
I have Foreman seventh on my own all-time list, just a notch
below Jim Jeffries, and I look at the names of those two titans constantly and
sometimes wonder if I should have them higher. For all-time rankings are no
different from current rankings in the way they fidget and shift and change
shape. They just evolve more slowly. Our knowledge of old and new fighters
increases as time goes on, and our gut instinct begins to relay new messages
that sometimes conflict with the old. Any so-called historian will very quickly
lose credibility if he is too blind or too stubborn to recognise a necessary
changing of the guard.
It is fitting that Foreman and Jeffries should give me a
headache, since they shared so many similarities. Both were among the strongest
men who ever stepped into the prize ring, and I am talking here of natural
strength. This is a concept that is so often misunderstood by many, much in the
same way as natural punching power.
The legendary tales of Jeff’s strength are quite true. He was an
immensely powerful man, and Big George was similarly blessed. Their weights were
near identical in their prime years, around 220lbs, and that was natural weight
and natural muscle. These were men who didn’t need to beef up on excessive
weight training, nutritional and protein supplements or performance-enhancing
drugs with suitably vague and marketable names.
I would confidently wager my money on Jeff or George beating a
360lb Wladimir Klitscko every time in a flat out push-and-shove contest.
However, one important factor separates Jeffries from Foreman in
the all-time reckoning. Jeff, in his prime, was never beaten. George was. He
shouldn’t have been, but he was. When I interviewed him a few years ago and we
finally got around to the Ali fight in Zaire, George gave a wry grin and said
quietly, “Yeah, him of all people. Man, I couldn’t get that one out of my head.
I still can’t.”
The trouble is, nor can anyone else.
The enormous frustration of the Ali disaster is that George
Foreman so nearly reached the finishing line as a remarkable exception to a
couple of general rules. He won the richest prize in sport with a limited
repertoire of fighting skills. He won it by bulldozing thirty-seven mainly
nondescript opponents and then similarly crushing a genuinely great champion in
Joe Frazier in the acid test that was supposed to find him out and knock him
back down the ladder.
Muhammad Ali memorably christened Foreman ‘The Mummy’, an unfair
and somewhat cruel summation of George’s fighting abilities. Foreman, for those
who actually took the trouble to study him, was always more than a simple
stalker and banger. He was no Jack Dempsey for speed, variety of attack,
movement and general ring science. He was no Jack Johnson or Ali for cleverness,
guile and psychology. Nor could George match Joe Louis for pinpoint precision
punching. Louis possessed a far superior punching technique, as well as a
wonderful jab that was an immensely damaging weapon in its own right.
Yet we come back to that word ‘exceptional’ in Foreman’s case,
for he was indeed an exception at the brutal basics. George’s trainer, cagey old
Dick Sadler, taught his man how to utilise God’s natural gifts and be the boss
of every situation. George was a shuddering puncher and an instinctive ring
hunter who intimidated most of his opponents and cut off their escape routes
with often deceptive skill. He pushed, he shoved and he employed a very damaging
jab when he saw fit.
His emphatic crushing of Frazier and his annihilation of Ken
Norton offered comprehensive proof that Foreman was no less devastating at the
highest level. So many other fighters, built on the weak stilts of inferior
opposition, have been savagely exposed when stepping up to the major league.
Fresno hitter Mac Foster, the great rage of the late sixties and a contemporary
of the young Foreman, knocked out twenty-four men in a row before being brutally
punched back into line by Jerry Quarry.
Foreman took that particular script and simply ripped it up. By
his own admission, he never did stop kicking tomato cans to keep busy and pad
his record. He got it away with it to the very end, through what was effectively
two careers, because he simply wasn’t like any other heavyweight of a similar
As an older man, during his second coming, Foreman learned
patience, economy and better punch timing, because his age and increasing
slowness demanded a more measured and intelligent approach. His formidable
punching power never decreased and was probably never more graphic than in his
sudden destruction of Michael Moorer with a single blow that resembled little
more than a casual tap.
George Foreman’s standing as a special and almost unique talent
was evident from very early in his career, as was his ability to shock opponents
into defeat and leave them in a suspended state of disbelief for some time
afterwards. While his style and attack were not as cultured as that of his
kindred spirit, Sonny Liston, George was no less proficient at mentally
shredding the other man’s awareness and causing him to freeze in his tracks.
Those opponents who saw any light at the end of the tunnel were usually staring
at Foreman’s oncoming train.
In 1970, at Madison Square Garden, Foreman stopped Boone Kirkman
in two brutal rounds, weighing 216lbs to Boone’s 203. Kirkman was the last great
heavyweight hope of manager Jack ‘Deacon’ Hurley, who had suffered previous
disappointments with Harry Matthews and Charlie Retzlaff. Soon after the opening
bell, George placed his gloves on Boone’s shoulders and shoved him straight on
his backside. The fight effectively ended right there and then. Psychologically
shattered, Kirkman stumbled and spun around as he was struck by a hail of heavy
jabs and power shots. He was on the canvas four times before referee Arthur
Mercante rescued him.
In the dressing room, Kirkman still couldn’t fathom how the roof
fell in. “I don’t believe it,” Boone said. “I just can’t believe this happened
Three months before, Foreman had manhandled George Chuvalo, that
toughest of tough guys, in similar fashion. Look at a replay of that fight and
it is hard to believe that the weight differential between the two men was just
four pounds in Foreman’s favour. Chuvalo stayed on his feet (he always did) yet
looked like a man being flung around in the jaws of a playful lion.
Joe Frazier was similarly bullied and battered in Kingston, often
looking small and almost insignificant as he was bounced repeatedly off the
canvas, yet Joe was spotting George just three pounds that night.
Now, if you will, get a willing friend of similar weight and try
to shove him back just a few inches. It is an enormously difficult thing to do
if he is prepared for it. If he is naturally strong, he will then send you
reeling with a push of comparative mildness.
We get the point, then, about natural strength. But what about
natural punching power? How good was Big George Foreman in that department?
My good friend and fellow historian Mike Hunnicut studies hours
of quality film in his painstaking analyses of the great fighters. Every
conceivable aspect of their game is put under Mike’s microscope with an
objective eye. Of Foreman, Mike says, “He had great natural power and great
strength, using it to grab, pull, turn and push his opponents off balance. In
the first four rounds, he would use all of his power to knock out men or damage
them to an eventual defeat. For sheer impact, he was the hardest hitter with two
hands since Sonny Liston.
“On the minus side, George never had great balance or
co-ordination. He also threw himself further off balance by over-extending his
punches. He leaned over too far when he was doing this, pushing his punches
because his balance was too far over his front leg. Foreman never had short
power, which requires fast turns and shifts. Consequently, he would often fall
into his opponents, shove them and regroup.
“Of the ten ex-fighters and trainers I know who saw Foreman,
Dempsey and Louis, none of them picked Foreman as the hardest puncher. Foreman
could hit, no doubt about it, but on the best days he ever saw he never reached
the level of Dempsey, Louis or Max Baer.
“Dempsey – a one of a kind hitter – and Louis come out as the
elite punchers again and again. If you measure the average range from which the
great heavyweights could generate knockout power, Jack is first at between
one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half feet and Joe is his only challenger at between
two and three feet. The rest are also-rans. To break the two-feet barrier,
you’ve really got to be something.
“People talk misty-eyed about six and nine inch knockout shots,
but that’s a big exaggeration if you are measuring the punch in the correct way.
The shortest knockout blow I have seen was the eighteen inch shot with which
Dempsey knocked out Firpo. That’s going some – that’s as good as it gets.”
Mike Hunnicut makes some very correct and important observations
here, which are often overlooked in all the excitement that accompanies a
genuine giant of the ring when he is on the rampage. The bigger the man, the
more awesome the destruction can seem. Yet for all his vaunted power, the prime
Foreman was essentially a clubbing puncher who rarely put opponents into a
slumber with a single shot, save for the lesser opposition he simply scared into
taking the ten count.
Big George’s ring kills were invariably drawn out, as he was
forced to knock down opponents repeatedly to finish them off. Dempsey, Louis and
Marciano had many such nights, but those three killers of the ring could also
end a fight suddenly and devastatingly with one, two or three-shot blasts. They
quite literally put their opponents to sleep, which is why I have to place that
stellar trio at the top of the hitting tree. Dempsey felt that Marciano was
arguably the best of them all in that regard. “One smash and it’s all over,” was
Jack’s summation of Rocky’s punching power at its very sharpest.
For all that, Foreman remains a deliciously square peg that
simply will not fit into any round hole. There is one simple reason for this and
it comes in the form of a mind-bending little question: Would you confidently
bet everything you own on Big George losing to any heavyweight in history in a
one-off head to head battle? I suspect not. That is how potentially dangerous
the prime Foreman was. Alas, ‘potentially’ is the key word in assessing George’s
place in history.
The big defeat to Ali has been dissected and discussed countless
times since that incredible night in the sweltering heat of Kinshasa in 1974.
Did Ali win it? Did Foreman lose it? Yes on both counts. I confess here and now
to having never been a great Ali rooter, since I feel that he brought as many
bad things to the game as good. He clutched like a thief from the very start of
his career, mostly with impunity as a generation of otherwise competent referees
became as awe-struck by his charisma as the blind faithful who would never hear
a word uttered against him. It was also Ali who led us down the current garden
path of tasteless insults and boorish behaviour. He tortured some opponents in
the ring quite beyond reason and took pleasure from doing so. His kindergarten,
rinky-dink poems were lauded by the usual fawning ‘intellectuals’ as the
literary stuff of genius.
As a simple fighting man, however, he was an astonishing athlete:
multi-talented, teak-tough and with the heart of a lion in the trenches. He
wilfully refused to be beaten, even as he stared down the barrel and heard the
click of the trigger.
We will never know for sure if Muhammad’s game plan in Zaire was
a tactical masterstroke from the outset or half a plan that required some hasty
improvisation and a dash of luck. But he did it. He pulled off one of the
greatest victories ever seen against a George Foreman whom many genuinely
believed might literally kill him.
As to the theory that George fought the right kind of fight but
simply ran into the only man who could withstand his artillery, I disagree.
Given the heat and the opponent, Foreman fought with terrible recklessness and
lack of thought. Even in the early rounds, when he was still fresh, he was
swinging round the houses and expending terrific energy unnecessarily. He was
firing crushing punches for sure, which should have done for any other opponent.
But Ali wasn’t any other opponent and George knew that. Foreman flailed like an
amateur in his increasing state of panic and exhaustion, when a couple of calm
and disciplined shots - even as he neared the moment of death - might still have
saved his bacon. He erred both tactically and mentally, and the last small fires
from that wreckage continued to simmer and sting him for the remainder of his
The effects of that monumental defeat continued to be apparent
through Big George’s fights with Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young, in which Foreman
never seemed sure of himself. He lost faith in his ability to stay the distance
and became too obsessed with the popular notion of the time that he was badly
lacking in stamina. I do not believe he was, not radically so. But he was
lacking in mental strength and self-belief. His nose had been bloodied by the
one cocky kid in the class who didn’t fear him. To any man who trades on fear,
that is the worst kind of hiding to take.
Foreman, for my money, did a pretty remarkable job in his second
coming. Refreshed and with a more relaxed attitude to boxing and life in
general, he fared admirably well for an old fellow in calmer heavyweight waters
that had been deserted by the big sharks of his golden era.
Add up all the parts of a curiously fractured and often fabulous
career, and what do we have? We have a great heavyweight who, at his very best,
would have scythed his way through the majority of his predecessors. It all
depends how you rank them. I still maintain that the fairest possible way to all
parties concerned is to weigh all the relevant physical and mental strengths and
combine them with overall career achievement. But you have to work damn hard at
it, study hours of film and research and not play favourites.
The who-would-beat-who system is always good fun and preferred by
many, but leads to many gridlocks. One is the dreaded triangle where A could
beat B, B could beat C, but C could beat A. Actual series between the greats can
be just as entangling. Ezzard Charles was three for three over Archie Moore, but
was Ezz really the superior light-heavyweight over the long haul? Was Fighting
Harada truly a better bantamweight than Eder Jofre? Was Sandy Saddler on the
same plane as Willie Pep among the featherweight masters?
In the fantasy world of an all-time heavyweight knockout
tournament, George Foreman would be the bristling dark horse that every other
contender would wish to avoid. On power punching ability alone, I would place
Foreman in the second tier with the likes of Liston, Tyson and Baer, but firmly
behind the supreme talents of Dempsey, Louis and Marciano. Give George fourth
position in the power stakes and you will get no great argument from this
Foreman, however, is not a top five heavyweight when all of the
other essential categories for qualification are properly and thoroughly
examined. What he had, he had in frightening abundance. But he didn’t have
enough to make it to the premier division. And oh, that one mad and surreal
night in Zaire! We simply cannot let that one go and nor can George. He will
tell you as much in his quiet moments.
Harshly, in my view, he does not rate himself among the all-time
top ten. That is an honest judgement on his part and not a reflection of his
famously self-effacing humour.
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