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Fat, Funny and 42, but certainly no fraud: Foreman gives Holyfield a fight…and the world a thrill

Big George teetered but he never fell down vs. Holyfield. Photo by Getty Images
Fighters Network

Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the August 1991 issue of The Ring Magazine.

By Jeff Ryan

It was as if George Foreman and Evander Holyfield were sharing their canvas with Salvador Dali. The third round had ended, and now, the air was filled with more than just the chants of “George! George! George!” Suddenly, Atlantic City’s Convention Center was smokier than Demi Moore’s voice, courtesy of a smoke bomb ignited at ringside. A surrealistic image, but also an iconic one. At roughly the same time fans were peering through the haze, they were realizing that Foreman’s four-year promise to give the heavyweight king hell hadn’t been a smoke screen after all.

“Who would think George could go 12 with me at a furious pace,” Holyfield would marvel after he’d left the ring with a unanimous decision, three version of the heavyweight title, and some newfound respect for his elders. “He made me do things I didn’t want to do, punch when I didn’t want to punch. He cut off the ring. At 42, George is not dead.”

Foreman rarely took a backward step. He rattled the younger, faster champion with haymakers, and stayed on his feet under a furious pinpoint assault that would have felled an oil derrick. He stood in his corner after every round. He ended the fight swollen, gasping for air, and stumbling, but with a tired, safety-conscious Holyfield clinging to him like a magnet on the door of Big George’s refrigerator.

“He had the points, but I made a point,” Foreman would say from behind dark glasses at the crowded post-fight press conference. “If you can live, you can dream. I’m not through dreaming yet.”

Wasn’t it George Foreman who once handed out doses of reality like he was the world’s surliest pharmacist? Wasn’t it Foreman who, in the ’70s, used a pair of gloved sledgehammers to demonstrate that the power of positive thinking is no match for a pinch of leather between the cheek and gums? Ken Norton liked to philosophize, “What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve.” Then he faced Foreman and had an out-of-body experience that left him staring into a doctor’s penlight and trying to remember what year it was.

August 1991 issue

Foreman didn’t recapture his youth in Atlantic City, but he wasn’t foolish enough to try, either.  There was no menacing prefight stare, no attempt at intimidation. As he stood in his corner, he looked like some helpless old man huddled in a doorway. A dingy black jacket covered his faded red terrycloth robe. Holyfield probably felt like walking across the ring and handing him a quarter, until he remembered that Big George was taking home more than $12 million.

Had he attempted to become the fighter who had dismantled Norton, Joe Frazier and Ron Lyle — the tightly coiled assassin obsessed with an early knockout — Foreman probably would have flopped from exhaustion before the fifth round. Instead, he answered the opening bell looking relaxed and patient. Perhaps too relaxed and patient. He landed only a few jabs, and Holyfield easily captured the round.

In the second, however, Old Man River started flowing. Foreman rocked Holyfield with two lefts, then hammered him with a series of rights as the crowd erupted. The champion was wobbled again by a hook in the third. But when Foreman telegraphed a left uppercut, Holyfield took a short step back, as he did when Buster Douglas missed a right uppercut last October, and landed a crunching left hook. Foreman shuddered, his legs heading in opposite directions. But he remained on his feet — even between rounds.

Holyfield won the fourth, but Foreman rallied in rounds five and six. Then came the seventh, quite possibly the Round of the Year. Foreman sent Holyfield stumbling from a right to the head in the opening moments, then landed a series of punishing crosses. The crowd was insane. But just when Big George seemed to have clinched the round, Holyfield exploded with a combination, and Foreman’s legs betrayed him again. “The Real Deal” battered “The Surreal Deal” with a vicious assault before Foreman closed the round with a solid right uppercut.

“You hit him,” Foreman would say, “and when you get ready to finish him, he almost finishes you.”

The seventh would be Foreman’s last great effort. He’d hurt Holyfield with a left-right in the 10th and forced his rival to hold in the 11th and 12th. But Foreman would almost topple from a series of rights in the final moments of the ninth, be penalized a point for low blows in the 11th, and find his aged body barely able to respond when he tried to summon an impressive final-round flurry.

Still, the scoring seemed out of line. Jerry Roth gave Holyfield a 117-110 edge, and Eugene Grant favored the champion by a 116-111 count. Only Tom Kaczmarek (115-112 for Holyfield) seemed to accurately reflect the changing momentum and Foreman’s ability to often dictate the action. (The Ring tabbed the bout 116-113 for Holyfield.)

“I came within inches of my dream of being heavyweight champion of the world,” Big George said, talking for the first time about measurements without joking about his waistline. “The only thing that stopped me was the jaw of that great champion. I’ve never seen anyone take punches like that. He has a desire I don’t think will be duplicated.”

Evander Holyfield and George Foreman also threw down at Trump Plaza. Photo from The Ring archive

With that, Foreman headed back to his dressing room, where two pizzas had just been delivered. You can work up quite an appetite chasing dreams.

“I hit George with all I had,” said Holyfield, who hadn’t been extended the distance since Dwight Muhammad Qawi lasted 15 rounds in a WBA junior heavyweight title fight in 1986. “For five years, I hit guys with all I had and they went out. George didn’t. He proved to me he’s not old.”

Holyfield and Foreman proved an awful lot to each other. But what did their “Battle Of The Ages” prove to the rest of us? Some surprising things. For instance:

1) Holyfield’s forecast could call for a long period of reign: It had been assumed that Holyfield would ad-minister a brutal beating to Rev. George in a few easy rounds but would then have to walk a hellish gauntlet consisting of Mike and the Mechanics — one Mr. M. Tyson and a group of young heavyweight studs with an impressive tool collection.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Holyfield’s battle with the American Gladiators: He ran into a one-man obstacle course at the same time that the young gladiators were discovering that their suits of armor needed tailoring. In a period of four days surrounding Holyfield-Foreman, Bruce Seldon was kayoed by Oliver McCall, Michael Moorer looked slow in his heavyweight debut against Terry Davis, Tommy Morrison was wobbled and outboxed by Yuri Vaulin before rallying to score a kayo, and Riddick Bowe was awarded a highly disputed decision over Tony Tubbs.

The feeling here is that Holyfield, who lacks the firepower to repel an onrushing Tyson, gets crushed by Iron Mike early. But if The Real Deal — who displayed a reliable chin against Foreman — manages to win, or if a Tyson fight continues to be delayed, the champion looks like more of a lock to remain commander-in-chief than George Bush.

2) Foreman is one of history’s greatest heavyweights: Remember the media’s canonization of Mike Tyson a few years ago? Well, Foreman heard the same words gasped about him in 1974: Awesome. Incredible. Scary. And the same questions: Is he unbeatable? Is he the meanest fighter of all time? Would he destroy any heavyweight who ever lived?

In the years that followed, though, history wasn’t kind to Foreman because of the shadowy way in which his first career ended. He looked limited, almost robotic, when playing the dope in Ali’s rope-a-dope. He pounded five pugs in a demeaning TV fiasco one Saturday afternoon. Then came an upset loss to Jimmy Young and the bizarre happenings in the dressing room afterward. When Foreman retired to a life of preaching, he didn’t even go near an arena for years. In fact, he stopped hitting the heavy bag in the garage because he said the noise disturbed the neighbors.

Not the stuff of which legends are made.

But what is the stuff of legends is doing the impossible. A 32-year-old Ali regains the title from the invincible Foreman. A Sugar Ray Leonard, sidelined for most of five years, comes back to beat the world’s greatest fighter, Marvin Hagler. And now, a 42-year-old Foreman gives a 28-year-old heavyweight champion the most nerve-wracking night of his life.

Incredibly, Foreman has improved his defense, stamina, and confidence 17 years after his prime. imagine the 42-year-old Foreman with the younger version’s speed. Imagine the 25-year-old Foreman with the older version’s stamina? Imagine that it’s 1991 and Foreman is making us talk this way.

3) Boxing needed a night like this: In recent years, the sweet science has staged few can’t-miss events that didn’t miss. Tyson-Spinks lasted 91 seconds. Leonard-Duran III made the crowd say “No Mas.” Tyson-Ruddock and Chavez-Taylor, both gorgeous fights, ended in ugly controversies. And Foreman-Holyfield had the potential to be the most image-bruising of the bunch.

The projected scenarios had Holyfield winning a slaughter and the public crying “Farce!” Or Foreman winning by knockout and the public crying “Fix!” Or Foreman getting seriously hurt in a grueling fight and the public simply crying. But, surprisingly, boxing’s image got a rare polishing, and nobody was heard muttering that he should have saved his money for the next pay-per-view telecast of the Tractor Pull Nationals. For that, thank Foreman.

“All the boxing fans and sports fans out there owe you a debt of gratitude,” Dan Duva, the bout’s co-promoter, told the beaten challenger.

“This man has set an example for boxing that few people will ever forget,” added Duva’s partner in the promotion, Bob Arum.

His popularity at an all-time high, Foreman is now in a perfect position to become one of the hottest commercial properties in sports, fulfill the elder statesman role that had once been reserved for Ali, and accept HBO’s reported seven-figure offer to join Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant as a broadcaster on the pay network’s fightcasts.

But looming are the disturbing temptations of a rematch with Holyfield and a showdown with Tyson. Never mind that Tyson is a faster and bigger puncher than Holyfield, or that it is likely the Holyfield war, particularly rounds like the frenetic seventh, took a tremendous toll on Foreman’s tired body. Before Big George had even had a good night’s sleep, some members of his camp were already planning his next tuneup.

What they should have been planning was a grand retirement party, one that would assure us all that one of boxing’s most dramatic and heart-tugging memories in a long time won’t be trampled on: The image of George Foreman, still standing, still punching, and still landing, somewhere in the midst of a white fog, while a crowd that long ago despised him, gleefully chants his name.

Was that a smoke bomb? Big George just thought he was standing on Cloud Nine.