Since 1952 our fortunes in Olympic boxing have irregularly ebbed. In Helsinki the U.S. won five gold medals; in 1964 we won but one. Significantly, the solitary champion in Tokyo was Joe Frazier. In the past four Games U.S. fighters have won the heavyweight title three times—the late Ed Sanders was victorious at Helsinki and Pete Rademacher in Melbourne in 1956—and we undoubtedly would have won at Rome in 1960 if Muhammad Ali had fought as a heavyweight rather than a light heavy.
In line with this tradition our best prospect in Mexico City is a heavyweight—GEORGE FOREMAN, THE FIGHTING CORPSMAN, as the rhymed inscription on his robe states. Foreman, a Negro of medium hue who wears his hair au naturel, is, in a sense, a spiritual descendant of Ali. Foreman is a poetaster with a proclivity for near rhymes and, like Ali, comes prepared to dwell on himself.
"Notice me," Foreman was saying the other evening in the student center of St. John's College of Santa Fe, where the boxing team had its pre-Olympic camp. "I am a giant. I am 6-foot-3½, 216 pounds, and I cover a lot of ground.
George is nimble and George is quick.
Watch me, folks, 'cause I can really stick.
"Ali introduced speed and now speed is death.
I can move to your right,
Stick all night.
Move to your left,
Cause your death.
"I am approximately 19 years old. I am a young adult. Am I still growing? Chances are. Do I have respect for my elders? Respect is a form of fear, and I can't give you that. I'm a lover, a gamer, a woman tamer. Fight a little, talk a lot.
You people may say I talk a lot.
I'm so great, I don't dare shadow box.
It's because of my left.
I'm afraid to hit myself."
A professor approached Foreman and appealed to him to tone it down, as he was interfering with a lecture on Blake's illustrations for The Divine Comedy.
"I represent an intelligent man," Foreman said, somewhat subdued. "I never plowed a field. I never picked cotton. You'll notice my hands have no calluses. I'm a worldly man. I'm very alert. I think constantly. I'm never violent. If you wanted to fight me I wouldn't be proving anything by accepting. I don't use my beautiful hands on ordinary people. Most violent people feel they have to be violent to be accepted. Man in this day and age is such a violent creature, but the less violence put into the world the less given out.
Let's talk about a fighter of yesterday.
Now everybody remembers old Cassius Clay.
You may say Ali is good
If you feel you should,
But if he got me in the ring and asked my name,
Why, that poor boy would die of shame."
The sun had gone behind the barren hills among which the college is set—hills that disconcerted Foreman's teammate David (Baby) Vasquez, a flyweight from New York. "The sad and lonely hills," he had reflected the previous day. "All they do is stand there. They look bored."
"I'm a man, and if anyone has any doubts please feel free to ask me about them," Foreman went on, "but don't say I'm bragging. I'm just a young man trying to make a name for myself. I speak better than I box, but it's a proven fact that George can hit."
Indeed, Foreman is a relatively crude and inexperienced fighter. He has only been fighting a year and a half and has had a mere 19 bouts, winning 16, 11 by knockout. Foreman, who is from Houston, began boxing in the Job Corps, which he joined in 1965; he had dropped out of school in the ninth grade and, as he says, "got in the wrong line." The Job Corps sent him to a conservation center in Grants Pass, Ore. "I preserved the forest and the trees," he says. "We learned bricklaying and how to build houses. Building a house is an experience I'll never forget. But there weren't any soul folk where I was. You have certain wants. In the Job Corps you lose contact with the world. Everything in the center is right. You forget that things in the world are wrong."
From Grants Pass, Foreman went to an urban center in Pleasanton, Calif., where he studied electronics and got the equivalent of a high school diploma. But when he went back to Houston he was unable to find a job. "I would like to say the reason was prejudice," he says, "but I have no proof. The employment agency would send me on a job and when I got there there would be no opening. I almost got discouraged, but I had a taste of success in the Job Corps and it was hard to get rid of it."
Foreman ultimately returned to Pleasanton as an avocational instructor in the corps. "Boxing is a real challenge," he says, "but I have bigger goals, like going to college. If no one had taken notice of me I'd have gone down the drain. I want to be qualified to catch others before they go down."
However, at the moment Foreman is trying to learn how to box. For example, to his amazement he has discovered that he can throw a mighty left jab. "I've found myself with weapons I wasn't aware of," he says. "I've been told I can win a fight with a left jab!" He could at that. In his final elimination bout in Albuquerque last month Foreman knocked his opponent down with a jab.
"I'm not concentrating on slugging so much," Foreman says. "International rules represent thinking. They represent a less brutal sport."
The main reason U.S. boxers haven't fared as well as they should have in past Olympics is that they have failed to observe these rules and have been penalized or disqualified. Moreover, they haven't truly understood the nature of the sport. Boxing under international rules is very much like fencing; each properly delivered blow that lands in a prescribed area is of equal value no matter what its force. By and large, the fighter who lands the most punches wins, unless, of course, there is a knockout, but no extra credit is given for a knockdown. The rules that are most antithetical to our fighters are: 1) a blow must land with the knuckles part of the closed glove; 2) the hands must be in advance of the head at all times; 3) ducking below the belt line is prohibited; 4) a blow is illegal if at any point in its delivery the glove passes below the belt line; 5) overhand swings are illegal; 6) lying on, wrestling, holding, locking and spinning are not permitted; and 7) a passive, double-cover defense √† la Archie Moore is prohibited.
Fortunately the team that arrived in Mexico City this week includes a number of boxers who have international experience, most notably Light Welterweight James Wallington Jr. and Light Heavyweight Arthur Redden, both of whom won gold medals in the 1967 Pan-American Games, and Harlan (Baby Cakes) Marbley, who will be competing in a new Olympic division, the 106-pound, or light flyweight, class. All three have good chances for medals, particularly Marbley, who has a record of 189 and 5, a tattoo on his left forearm depicting a skunk sniffing a flower ("That's me," he says, "the little stinker") and owns 24 medallions, 40 pairs of gaudy slacks and 12 pairs of shoes. According to Featherweight Albert Robinson, the reason Marbley has comparatively few shoes is that "he ain't heavy enough to wear them out."
But the team's greatest asset may be Robert (Pappy) Gault, whose medallion reads SOCK IT TO ME in art nouveau script. Gault, a fervent, genial man of 46, is the first Negro head coach of the U.S. Olympic boxing team. Not only is he a fine teacher and leader, but since nine of the 11 boxers are Negro he has rapport. Says Gault: "My fighters believe in me. They do what I say."
Gault's major obsessions are the international rules and what he calls unity. "Boxing is usually considered an individual sport," he says. "I'm trying to make it a team sport. I don't want any stars or individualists. I believe in unity. I think this will show a new side of the U.S. We are never individuals when we support the U.S. This is one of the greatest teams—not talentwise, but unitywise. Through their unity they make themselves greater than they are.
"The boys from the foreign countries don't have us abilitywise. They have us gentlemanwise. We've gotten beat on the rules. You've got to abide by the rules. In 1964 not one U.S. boy did the right thing. They say the foreigners are cheating us. We're cheating ourselves. I'm not going to come back from Mexico City and say we was robbed. If we lose all 11 bouts and my boys abide by the rules, I'll be happy."
To which Gentleman George Foreman adds, "Pappy Gault, man, he taught me. Pappy worked wonders. If I can just do in the ring what he said. Doing the right thing is more important than winning. More important than winning is that I perform correctly."