I'm not the best fighter in the world. I'm just the fighter with the title
The recent news release from Tokyo of a heavyweight championship fight there in September electrified no one. Better they should have announced that the price of rice had dropped a yen. In San Francisco, George Foreman (see cover), the gentleman heavyweight champion in absentia, scheduled a press conference, then decided it would be a whole lot easier fighting Joe Roman than trying to explain him, and remained a recluse. Somewhere, a kid named Roby Harris must have laughed. In his first 10 professional fights Roby Harris had been knocked out by Pat Duncan and Ken Norton and Jose Garcia and Jack O'Halloran and Roy Williams, and in a change of pace had lost a decision to Ray White. Between disasters, on Oct. 29, 1971, the same Roby Harris scored a 10-round decision over Joe Roman.
Last Friday morning, Dick Sadler, the champion's manager, who resembles a small mound of cannonballs—slightly rusted and denied—slumped in his hotel room in New York City and looked sincere. Why, puzzled the little round man, would anyone suggest that Roman was substandard, substandard meaning, of course, that there was no pulse.
A man across the room laughed. "No one even mentioned the word challenger, substandard or not. Joe Roman may be the nicest person, but he is also a stiff."
June 17, 1973
The cannonballs exploded. Springing from his chair, his eyes widened and burning, Sadler said, "Damn it, stiffs can punch. If it wasn't Roman it would have been Jose Urtain or Joe Bugner or Larry Middleman, er, Middleton. I don't say that they are all that brilliant. Look up them records. They knocked out a lot of people. And there had to be a few people in there who could take a punch. And there had to be somebody who could punch. You take any 200-pound guy and let him hit you on the jaw and you're gonna get hurt, and I don't care if he is a stiff." A man given to comical theatrics, Sadler smacked himself with his right fist, lightly, and, eyes rolling wildly, fell like a stone into his chair, which screeched in protest at the impact. Laurence Olivier he isn't.
Now that Foreman has said he will make his first title defense, no matter against whom, the heavyweight division—and, by the nature of the beast, all of boxing—is once again beginning to move. When the heavyweight champion is idle, as Foreman has been since he took the title from Joe Frazier five months ago in Kingston, Jamaica, fight fans slumber. So do promoters. They cannot easily make fights for the other contenders when it is not known where or when or against whom the champion will take his next stand. So everybody tends to sit around making small talk—and generally small change.
"That's why Ali was beautiful for boxing," says Miami Beach Promoter Chris Dundee. "He fought everybody and he fought often, and people thought about boxing and were excited. It doesn't matter who the heavyweight champion fights or where, just so he fights."
Since that night in March 1971 when Frazier lifted the title from Muhammad Ali, there has been a minimum of heavyweight action. Only Ali has kept reasonably busy, taking on some of the people Frazier as champion should have met. But now, at last, there is a fresh stirring. Breathing fire—and hungry once more—Frazier is off to London for a July 2 battle with Bugner, the European heavyweight champion who surprised Ali Feb. 14 in Nevada with his strong punching. It is a critical fight for Frazier. His jaw well and his oratory unspoiled by the fracture, Ali has signed for a Sept. 10 rematch with the man who broke him up, Ken Norton. And at New York's Madison Square Garden next Monday night Jimmy Ellis picks up $25,000 by setting his little traps for Earnie Shavers. Soon there surely will be someone for Jerry Quarry, who would have fought Shavers except for a mysterious case of the flu.
There are other contenders, but they are a tainted lot; Ernie Terrell, out of another retirement and putting fans to sleep with that brilliant jab and nothing else; Ron Lyle, promising until he was belted out by Quarry, and, behind him, Middleton, whom he whipped. And the others: Jose Garcia, whose distinction is that he once defeated Norton, but of late he has been knocked out twice, once by Terrell. And, yes, Floyd Patterson, who despite his age continues to entertain thoughts of fighting. Oscar Bonavena is still listed in the rankings, but he currently is fighting relatives more often than contenders.
"I see that the World Boxing Council has rated Roman No. 10," says Teddy Brenner, the Garden matchmaker. "That's terrible. They can rate anybody they want, sanction a fight in a foreign country and then take a trip, with the tab picked up. Just a paid vacation. What do you expect from a bunch of politicians. The World Boxing Association is just as bad. Now when I put on a fight, I say the guy is rated No. 3, or No. 5. Who rates them? Me. Hell, I'm more qualified than a bunch of politicians."
"I don't care if Foreman is fighting a one-armed Suma wrestler," says Dundee. "Watch the interest in boxing boom. Foreman shook everything up when he beat Frazier. Guys are running all over the place looking for hot young prospects. And they are turning up. Look at Duane Bobick. He's a big handsome kid and he comes out of the Olympics with a name. He's had four fights and four knockouts. So what if nobody heard of the guys he beat? Who's he supposed to learn against, King Kong?"
If so much depends upon Foreman, what has he been doing all this time? Well, pouting mostly, threatening to quit and warily avoiding fast-talking promoters. For good reasons, Foreman has grown to distrust many of the people around him. He has been sliced up like the only salami at a banquet, and most of his energies recently have been devoted to getting back some of the pieces. Since late in 1971, after Sadler had talked the champion into a deal of which Foreman now says he wanted no part, the champion's world has spun in a weird orbit of thorny legal tangles and financial frustrations. It was then that Sadler, apparently tired of fighting an endless series of nobodies in an endless succession of tank towns, threw away the timetable the two had been following toward a title shot and reached for the first available quick buck. Marty Erlichman, Barbra Streisand's manager, was there to hand it out. What Erlichman asked for in return—and got—was an awful lot.
"The deal was made before I knew it was in existence," Foreman says. "I never wanted to sign that contract. But Dick believed in it so much that even before he told me about it he had an agreement and took some money. I told him I didn't want to sign, but he said he had accepted the man's money. He was so determined, that I signed. I think that Marty Erlichman just promoted Dick Sadler."
The deal was a risk for both sides. Erlichman gambled in the neighborhood of $500,000 that the young Olympic champion with 31 straight professional victories over a bunch of warm bodies would someday be the champion. Upon Sadler's insistence, Foreman signed away one-half of all ancillary rights (or, except for live gate purses, every penny he would earn, including closed-circuit television) for the next 10 years. Only if he remained a mediocre fighter could he win with an arrangement like that.
For his part, Erlichman agreed essentially to pay Foreman $100,000 then, $100,000 more by 1972, $25,000 each year for 10 years and various sundries. Most of the items and Erlichman's expenses were to be taken off the top, meaning in essence that Foreman would be paying himself out of his own earnings, and then giving Erlichman half of what remained from the ancillaries.
Had Muhammad Ali agreed to the same financial arrangement before he won the championship from Sonny Liston, the deal to date would have cost him $8 million. "We figure Ali's total purses so far are in the area of $20 million," says Robert Arum, Ali's New York attorney. "And I estimate that 80% realistically can be attributed to the ancillary rights. You pick your advisers and you take your chances. That's the problem. They are making crazy and secret deals. The result is that with that kind of percentage signed away, and who knows how much more, they can't show what they are doing. They have to go under the table."
"I have my limitations. I'm no financial genius," Sadler says hotly. "But I still say that at the time we signed that paper it was the greatest thing in the world. We didn't give up nothing because we weren't nothing. It's easy now to sit back and say, shoot, that was awful. But a man has to make a decision when he is faced with it, not years later. Damn, who was gambling? Erlichman was. He was shooting the dice, rolling the craps. Look at the next fight after we signed, the one with Luis Pires. George looked awful and Erlichman looked sick."
Sadler rocked with laughter. "We had that man tied up. George was a diamond in the rough, a maybe. Erlichman was gonna give us a lot of money, and he was gonna give us a lot of other professional public relations people paid for by him. We needed publicity. What made Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali? Shoot, they wasn't nothing until they got together on Wide World of Sports."
One morning last year Foreman awoke to discover that he was going to fight Joe Frazier for the title. He found out by reading it in a newspaper. "Oh, wow," he said, not altogether happily. Sadler was summoned. "Forget it," Foreman told his manager. "First you talk me into that stupid deal, and now you have me fighting Frazier and I won't even have time for a couple of tune-ups. You'll never make another decision for me. I'm not going to fight for the championship and have someone else get everything I've worked for, everything I've earned. We've got to get rid of all those other people around me."
At Foreman's insistence a suit was filed and interminable negotiations began. What complicated matters—and has kept them complicated ever since—was that Erlichman assigned his agreement to a Philadelphia group headed by David L. Miller, an attorney. Foreman stood the legal wrangling just as long as he could, then one morning he told everyone to forget the Frazier fight, forget boxing. He was having no part of either ever again.
"I had really had it," Foreman says. "I figured I'd better get out. I had an obligation to all the fighters who would follow me into the sport. I didn't want to be just another bad case."
What brought Foreman around was a call to Colonel Barney Oldfield, who had been an unpaid adviser of Foreman's for five years. Colonel Oldfield is an official of Litton Industries, which directed the Job Corps Center where Foreman first boxed.
"I told him he couldn't quit," says Colonel Oldfield. "People would say he was scared. What he had to do was knock Frazier on his butt. Then as champion he would have some verbal clout."
Foreman relented and agreed to fight and the Philadelphians settled for 25% of all rights. Foreman says, "I said to myself, 'O.K., but wait until after the fight.' "
After the fight is what all the recent delay has been about but not all the difficulties were created by Foreman. Among other things there was, in effect, a rematch agreement—even though legally it cannot be called that. To get the title fight Sadler apparently agreed that Foreman would make his first title defense, should he win, under the promotional umbrella of Mrs. Earl Gilliam of Houston. The promoter would pick the opponent, who would be Frazier.
When Sadler got around to explaining this to Foreman, the new champion exploded. "You made the deal, you fight him," he said.
Yank Durham, Frazier's manager, confesses to being bewildered by Foreman's reaction. "George should have taken the rematch," he says. "I don't mean because of any lawsuit. Time is on our side. As long as it isn't too much time. He should have come back against Joe while that bad beating was fresh in Joe's mind. But I think George will come to us. He's got to. Joe's the only one that he can make a big pay day with. Well, him and Ali."
Meanwhile, Frazier will not sit around waiting for Foreman to come to him. First, there is Bugner. And then in December there could be Ali, if that ex-champion finally gets past Norton. "I've already talked to Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad," says Yank Durham. "We haven't signed anything, but we are in agreement. We're both trying to figure out what Sadler is doing. He called me up twice and all I get is off-the-wall talk. I said, 'Are we fighting, Dick?' And he said, 'Hold on, Yank, let's do something else first.' What he wanted was a doubleheader: Foreman and Frazier on the same card against different opponents. He's got to be crazy or just conning me. I'm not giving Joe away at a discount sale, not at a 2-for-1 price."
A fighter knocked out is given an automatic 30-day suspension. On his 29th day Frazier stepped into the gym and went to work. He no longer speaks of the hardships of his profession or his ambivalence about fighting. He has not spoken of retirement since Jan. 22, the day Foreman knocked him out in the second round. The championship is gone, and suddenly he realizes what it meant to him. Frazier works long and hard with grim purpose. "I've got nothing bad to say about George," he says quietly. "He's a good man, but when I get him in the ring again I'll have a lot better things to say about good old George." He smiled. His eyes were cold and hard.
In California, Norton already is at work for his rematch with Ali. He had an offer to fight Foreman but his backers spurned it. A strange contract, reportedly, came in the mail: Norton would be given a $250,000 guarantee to fight Foreman at an unspecified site for an unspecified promoter. Win or lose, Norton would give up 5% of all future purses and a major portion of all future ancillary rights. It is an old boxing ploy—as is Sadler's denial of any such contract.
"I don't want to talk about that contract," says Art Rivkin, a vice-president and general manager of the Coca-Cola bottling company in San Diego, and one of Norton's managers. "I'll just say it was an unlivable offer, one we would never acquiesce to. There is no way we are going to tie up into an unknown situation. There was no definition as to where the so-called fight would be held, or who the promoter would be. We simply want to know who we are climbing in bed with. We staunchly guard our independence. We have no connections, and because of that Ken literally had to claw his way up. The bout before the one with Ali, Ken made $300 fighting before 400 people. It was a grind but we don't have the obligations other fight managers get into."
Rivkin smiled. He knew he had only to look to Foreman's camp and at what had happened to Foreman to illustrate his point.
The contract between Sadler and Foreman ran out recently. There will not be another, at least nothing in writing. "I'll never sign another contract with anyone," Foreman says, not meaning, of course, that he will not sign a contract for another fight. "If a man can do something for me, then he can shake my hand and take my word. Dick will always be in my corner. But our agreement will be verbal."
And, ah, how does he feel making his first title defense against a stiff? Foreman sighs. He is a nice and understandably naive youngster. "There are no stiffs," he says. "Not when you get up around 200 pounds. I've been called a stiff and I felt I had the best right hand in boxing." He chuckles. "Of course, I didn't always hit what I aimed at."
He should hit Joe Roman without difficulty, however, and now that things seem to be moving again among the heavyweights, maybe even some more formidable types.