Big George’s redemption: Foreman recalls Lyle war
Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of The Ring.
The third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier is generally recognized as the most brutal heavyweight war of the glorious ’70s but the ultimate punch-up of the era might’ve been George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle.
When Foreman was knocked out in the eighth round by Ali in the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, he lost more than the heavyweight championship of the world. Big George was stripped of his identity and pride.
The classic slugfest with Ron Lyle took place 15 months later – on Jan. 24, 1976, 40 years ago – at Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas and became a terrifying rite of passage for the former champion, who went through hell to prevail by a fifth-round knockout over the Denver-based power puncher.
“It’s one of the finest moments I ever had in boxing,” Foreman said of the bout, the RING Fight of the Year for 1976. “The media had said so many bad things about me (following the Ali fight) and I kept trying to defend myself. What better way to defend yourself than to prevail in a fight like that?
“Rarely do two pure punchers get matched together. Muhammad and Joe (Frazier) was boxer vs. slugger. Muhammad and I was boxer vs. puncher. The closest thing to my fight with Ron Lyle was probably Sonny Liston vs. Cleveland Williams.”
Lyle, who died in 2011, was known as an authentic knockout puncher at the time he fought Foreman – he was 31-3-1, with 22 knockouts – but he had an unsavory reputation outside the ring. He had spent 7½ years in a Colorado prison for second-degree murder, during which time he survived a near-fatal stabbing. That notoriety only added to his mystique as a fearless wrecking machine.
How fearless? Consider this: Following an 11th-round TKO loss to Ali in May 1975, Lyle faced arguably the hardest puncher in boxing history, Earnie Shavers, four months later and emerged with a sixth-round knockout victory. His prize was a meeting with Foreman.
And Foreman certainly remained dangerous in spite of his loss to Ali: He was 40-1, with all but three victories coming by knockout.
“I saw his fight with Muhammad Ali,” said Foreman, who was at ringside for that fight in Las Vegas. “Lyle jumped on him in spots but didn’t have the ability to overcome Ali’s boxing ability. His reputation as a puncher didn’t really concern me because, up until then, I’d only struggled with guys who moved.
“I’ve always said Ali is the only fighter to truly defeat me in the ring because the other guys just survived. They deserved victory for going the distance. Ron Lyle was one guy who refused to run, refused to be intimated, and stood there and had a fight. He physically hurt me and nobody else ever did that.”
When the opening bell rang, there was no feeling-out process. Lyle thumped Foreman with a flush right hand to the jaw in Round 1, a shot that had an immediate effect on the huge Texan’s legs. Foreman turned the tables by hurting Lyle in the second round, a session that lasted only two minutes because of a timekeeper error.
The third round would be relatively tame but all hell broke loose in an incredible fourth. Another straight right from Lyle set up a vicious cluster of hooks that again robbed Foreman of his equilibrium and this time he went down.
“My God, I was in the fight of my life,” said Foreman, who was 27 at the time. “I had to get up and fire back when I was groggy and I’d never been in that position. Lyle would point his right hand in my direction and hit me with it almost every time he let it go.
“It was my first fight with Gil Clancy as trainer and I also had ‘Kid’ Rapidez, who is rarely mentioned. Rapidez was a former fighter who helped train former welterweight champion Jose Napoles. Both Gil and Kid got me in tremendous condition for Lyle and I needed it.”
Fighters are dangerous when hurt and Foreman was no different. Invigorated by his success, the rampaging Lyle went gung ho for the finish and carelessly ran into the heavy fists of his adversary, who sent him crashing to the canvas with a pair of powerful one-twos. Now the roles were reversed; Lyle was wounded and dangerous. Attempting to end the torture, Foreman swung from his heels and was caught with a vicious right-hand counter that dropped him face first at the bell.
Not many rounds, before or since, have been as exciting – or as violent.
Clancy, best known for taking the great Emile Griffith to welterweight and middleweight titles, poured copious amounts of water on Foreman in an effort to revive him and urged his charge to work the body.
Both men were badly hurt at the start of the fifth. However, the second wind that had eluded Foreman against Ali in Africa turned up in Las Vegas. He trapped Lyle in a corner and unloaded a sustained barrage of straight shots and uppercuts to the head. With less than a minute to go in the round, Lyle, badly hurt and exhausted, slowly melted to the canvas for a third time before being counted out by referee Charley Roth.
Despite trials and tribulations and 15 months of inactivity, the former heavyweight champion of the world was back with a vengeance.
“It went beyond inactivity,” Foreman said. “I had lost the heavyweight championship of the world and was in a whole new place mentally. My confidence and attitude had been affected so I wasn’t just fighting back during the Lyle fight, I was fighting back before I even got in the ring.
“When I look at the fight today, I often ask myself how I got through it and the truth is I don’t really know. Lyle hit so hard that he froze me at times and there was no way you could prepare yourself for that kind of punishment in training. No way.”
It would be almost 19 years before Foreman would become the oldest heavyweight champion in boxing history by knocking out Michael Moorer in 10 rounds on Nov. 5, 1994, in Las Vegas. That victory is often hailed as a sporting miracle but, from Foreman’s perspective, only one fight topped his victory over Lyle.
“Other than my victory over Joe Frazier to win the heavyweight title, my redemption against Ron Lyle means more to me than all of them,” he said. “After the Ali loss, I was a shell of myself. I walked around for over a year and could barely face people. I was so low and kept making excuses.
“When Lyle floored me, the first thing through my mind was, ‘What excuses do you have now, George? He’s knocked you down, you’re hurt, and when you get up he’s gonna knock you down again.’ I said to myself, ‘I’m getting up and you’ll just have to kill me.’
“I lived through that match and was redeemed.”
Tom Gray is Managing Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing