Though GeorgeForeman won the heavyweight title, 1973 was not the greatest of years for thenew champion He fought less than two rounds in winning the championship fromJoe Frazier, then less than one round in his only defense. A total of fewerthan seven minutes. Hardly a busy, thrilling or profitable year for a strongyoung man who genuinely loves the sights, sounds and smells of the gymnasiumand the glare of the ring.
As the year drewto a close, Foreman was not in his natural habitat of the gymnasium but in aLos Angeles hotel room, waiting for a call to rehearse an appearance on a TVshow opposite Sonny and Cher, who between them weigh about as much as his rightforearm. He himself weighed a chubby 240 pounds, fully 23 more than when hefought Frazier.
He was still upto his trunks in lawsuits, including a divorce, and he still had no fightslined up for the future. He was not very popular in the business. In the wordsof Teddy Brenner, matchmaker for Madison Square Garden, "The wholeheavyweight division goes as the champion goes—and right now the champion's notgoing. Somebody ought to make him defend his title."
But Foreman sworethat everything was changing. "I know that fighting seven minutes in a yearis nothing to be proud of—but '74 is going to be different; I think it will bea bright and good year. If I can manage it, I'll fight at least five times in'74. And this time I'm not going to rely on anybody else to get me the fights.I'm going to take the initiative myself and make sure I get them."
December 24, 1973
Foreman acts likea man who is ready to take the initiative. He carries a pocket calculator now,the better to figure out his tangled financial affairs. "Somebody offeredme a half million today for a fight. I worked it out on the machine. The waythings stand, my share of the half million would be $159,500."
He also soundslike a man who expects some improvement in the way things stand, meaning theproblem of who owns how much of his contract. "I've got a new law firmrepresenting me and I've never been so comfortable. Also I love to fight, and Ialways wanted to be champion. I get turned on just by walking into a gym. Ilike to work out right alongside the other fighters; I like the excitement oftalking to the reporters before a fight and walking down the aisle in front ofa big crowd. When I don't fight, I'm just sitting around with nothing todo."
There is asuspicion in the fight game that Foreman has been an inactive champion at leastin part because he wants to meet only setups like Jose Roman, whom he knockedout in two minutes in Tokyo this September in a bout that Teddy Brenner calls"an international joke" and that Muhammad Ali's lawyer calls "thekind of fight that demeans the whole business."
Looking atForeman, however, the suspicions are hard to believe. Even upholstered with 23pounds of fat, Foreman is an imposing man—6'3", long arms, thick biceps,hands like boxing gloves. He is one of the new breed of heavyweights, who inthis age of scientific nutrition and vitamins make most of the fighters of thepast look like pygmies. Against Jack Dempsey, a good-sized heavyweight in hisday, he would have the advantage of 27 pounds, two inches in height, 1½ inchesin reach.
He soundsconfident. "You've got to remember that I had 25 fights as an amateur; Itook everybody on. I've never had any thought of being afraid of anybody. Well,there was a time when I thought a lot about Joe Frazier. I knew he was tough, ahard fighter. Then one time I went to see him fight and stood near him when hewas being interviewed on TV afterward. His eyes just didn't look as strong as Ithought they would. He looked more like a little boy. I knew then I'd beat him;I never had any doubt about it. I didn't even bother to study his fight filmsbefore I went up against him."
Foreman's victoryover Frazier in January was one of the stunning upsets that made '73 one of thestrangest of all years in heavyweight boxing. Who outside of the confidentchallenger would have guessed that the seemingly invincible Joe Frazier,conqueror of Ali in one of the sport's faster and more furious heavyweightfights, proud and mature champion of the world, would be annihilated by thisgreen kid? And annihilated was the word for it—Frazier was knocked down sixtimes and out after just four minutes and 35 seconds of fighting.
What crystal ballwould have foreseen that 1973 would be the year brilliant Muhammad Ali suffereda broken jaw and a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ken Norton, who up to thetime of the bout was a household word in few houses besides his own? Or thatRon Lyle, one of the most highly regarded young contenders, would be decisionedby Jerry Quarry and then draw with Gregorio Peralta?
To fightpromoters, '73 was a year of bitter financial frustration. Foreman got to bechampion too fast, wiping out a whole series of suspenseful and profitabletests of his right to light for the title: Foreman vs. Bugner, Foreman vs.Quarry, Foreman vs. anybody in the top 15. For all his fine record, Foreman hadmet few of the heavyweight division's brightest lights. In Brenner's words,"Frazier fighting Foreman was the worst thing that's happened to boxing fora long time." A lot of glamour was knocked off Frazier and Ali and Lyle.All told, the year's two biggest upsets probably cost the boxing industry about$20 million in gate receipts and closed-circuit TV rights.
To ringhistorians, it was a year of fascinating question marks. How good, really, isForeman? Did Frazier lose to Foreman by a fluke—or is the ex-champion ineclipse after holding the title for three full years? How far back has Aligone? Who if anybody is coming along to challenge the men at the top? And thenthere is always the eternal debate, never so timely as now, as to how today'sfighters compare in general with yesterday's.
Foreman is hardto figure. He certainly has all the equipment to be one of the best fighterswho ever lived, if not the best. Despite his immense size, his hands are quick,a fact that makes all that muscle an asset rather than a handicap, as it wasfor some big fighters of the past such as Willard and Camera. He is awesomelypowerful and now has shown that he can punch from either side; many think thathis left hand—which at one time he was not supposed to have—has developed to apoint where it may be even more lethal than the lefts with which Joe Louis andSonny Liston rocked so many of their opponents.
If there is aknock against Foreman it is his boxing style, which his more charitable criticscall awkward, and harsher ones claim is downright illegal. Foreman has alwayshad a tendency to shove his opponents off balance. In a 1970 bout he rushed outof his corner and pushed Boone Kirkman right down on the seat of his pants,before a single punch had been thrown. The round, rightfully, was taken awayfrom him by the referee—though this hardly had an effect on the outcome of thefight. Foreman knocked Kirkman out in the very next round.
Foreman waswarned for shoving when he beat Frazier and did some more shoving in his briefbout against Roman, not to mention hitting the poor fellow a glancing blow whenhe was seated against the ropes. Shoving is illegal in boxing—and, thoughreferees are inclined to be lenient about it in important bouts, it offendsmany of the purists.
Foreman deniesthat he does any shoving except in self-defense. "I'll never push a manwhen he's fighting. But I'm not about to let anybody get in on me and startbutting, because it's butting with the head where 90% of a fighter's cuts comefrom. When they come in at me I know what they want—that's a good way to causedamage without throwing any punches. And in that fight where I won the title Ikept saying, 'Get off of me, Joe Frazier." He was the one that startedit."
Assuming thatForeman really intends to fight a lot in 1974—and can manage to do so despitehis legal entanglements—the world should soon know how to rate him. At themoment, only one of four experienced observers asked by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED todraw up a list of the alltime best heavyweights (see boxes) ranks him among thetop 10. He is tentatively rated ninth by Brenner, who says, "I'm sure he'sa very good fighter, but he hasn't yet proved he's a great fighter."
Frazier isanother question mark left in the wake of the events of 1973. Though notparticularly big, he is extremely solid and is another one of the fast,powerful heavyweights of the new school. His victory over Ali, in that gruelingbout of 1971, is enough in itself to make many rank him among the alltimefinest. He has never been beaten since turning professional except in the upsetby Foreman. Was that defeat a fluke or is Frazier, who is clearing 30, over thehill?
For the Foremanfight, Frazier was obviously not in top shape. He weighed 8½ pounds more thanhe had weighed for Ali; when he bounced up and down in his corner there was acontrapuntal jiggle of the rolls of fat on his chest and belly. Moreover, headmitted afterward, "I fought a dumb fight." Instead of working to wearhis man down, which is his usual style, he seemed to come out trying for aquick one-punch knockout—and to continue to try for one even after he had beenhurt and should have retreated. It was almost as though he could not—or wouldnot—believe what was happening to him.
Of course, it maybe that Frazier was done in by a single lucky punch landed near the start ofthe fight. Whatever, he took a terrible beating as Foreman swarmed all overhim. Frazier has now been badly hurt twice—in this fight and in his winningbout against Ali, although the extent of the injuries in the latter probablyhas been blown far out of proportion by—who else—Ali. His return bout with Alion Jan. 28 will help tell the story.
For Ali, thisyear was twilight. He still packed crowds into the arenas and theclosed-circuit TV theaters (except in the Orient, where his exhibition tour hadto be called off for lack of cash customers, or customers with cash). Hislegion of fans may have been more vociferous than ever. Yet it was obvious, inhis two fights with Norton, that he had seen his better days; the Ali of '73could hardly have lasted five rounds with the Ali of 1964.
Indeed, to thosewho have seen Ali fight over the years, his '73 matches were notable chiefly asa bittersweet reminder of how superb he once was. Virtually all knowledgeableboxing people rank Ali among the top fighters of all time, and many considerhim the best. So after his Norton fights the memories were savored like vintagewine.
Oh, for thatFebruary night in Miami Beach in 1964 when Ali challenged Liston for the title.There was Liston, the big bear of the ring, so powerful, so intent ondestruction that he scared spectators almost as much as he did his earlyopponents. A man undefeated for nine years and seemingly getting better all thetime. Fresh from knocking out Floyd Patterson twice in the first round. Andthere was Ali, looking frail (at 210½) and boyish by comparison, the 8-to-1underdog. Yet Ali picked Liston to pieces.
Though Liston wasas relentless as a locomotive, Ali deftly kept switching him onto side tracks,moving around him, keeping him off balance, putting him in a spin and hittinghim from the side. Ali's legs and arms operated like a cunning series oflevers, multiplying his strength to a kind of irresistible infinity. Achampionship wrestler at ringside exclaimed in awe, "My God, this fellowhas studied karate—or physics."
At his peak—inthe period after he became champion and acquired a genuine inner confidence andbefore he quit boxing for three years during the draft dispute—Ali was awizard. His footwork and his quick hands dazzled his opponents into bewilderedfrustration. He was also a marvelous defensive fighter; he had the uncannyability, which he did not mind telling the world about, to pull away from apunch that he may not have known he had seen. For a long time the world couldonly guess how well Ali could take a punch, because nobody ever really hithim.
His brain workedeven faster than his hands. Zora Folley, one of the forgotten fighters he metin his prime, was convinced that he could outthink Ali. Folley was a seriousstudent of boxing who believed himself capable of designing a countermove forevery move made against him. He had memorized all of Ali's fight films and hefelt prepared for anything Ali could do. After being knocked out in the seventhround, the much-chastened Folley explained what had gone wrong. Ali did not dothe expected. Instead he baffled and confounded Folley by starting with a newstyle, changing it from round to round—and sometimes even improvising newtactics two and three times within the same round.
Though Ali wasonly a shadow of himself in his '73 bouts—no longer able to escape everythingthrown at him, no longer able to shoot that lightning left from any angle—heremains a very good fighter. He has turned 31 and his era is over, but therestill remains the interesting question of how far he has gone back and how muchhe has left.
What about theother heavyweights?
One man to watchis Jerry Quarry; he has been beaten by the best but he has also won a lot,sometimes against the best. Always a superb counterpuncher, he showed againstLyle that he may have at last curbed his worst instinct—to put up the wrongfight against the wrong boxer. As Matchmaker Brenner says, "He's simplyoutlasted everybody else and he's still young."
Lyle cannot becounted out. Though in '73 he lost once and drew once, the latter on aquestionable decision, he also won seven times, keeping busy and in fightingtrim. Jeff Merritt has impressed some as an exceptional puncher; he is 26 andmay have any kind of future. Joe Bugner, the British fighter, put up a goodshowing in losing a 12-round decision to Frazier in July; he, too, may havepossibilities. Earnie Shavers was disposed of last Friday by Quarry.
And then there isDuane Bobick, the hope of the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics. Many around boxingthought Bobick looked just about as good in the Olympics as Ali, Frazier andForeman had before him. He is big (6'3", 210 pounds), strong and quick. Asa professional, he has not done much as yet. His handlers have brought himalong slowly, and all his 1973 schedule called for was a succession of bouts(15) against unknowns, all of whom he knocked out with ease. Now just 22,Bobick is one of the very newest generation of fighters who may be making newsin 1974 and in the years after.
Mention Bobick'sname to anyone in the fight business, however, and all you are likely to hearis a great and anguished sigh. What fight people remember best about Bobick ishow decisively he was beaten in the Olympics by the Cuban, Teofilo Stevenson.If Bobick is good, Stevenson is just several times better—or at least wasseveral times better on one particular day.
Alas for boxing,Stevenson languishes behind Fidel Castro's brand of the Iron Curtain. He is ahappy captive, a thoroughgoing Communist who recently told SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDthat he sought only to uphold the honor of the people's republics and wanted nopart of capitalist professionalism. As for Castro, he was approached not longago by some U.S. boxing representatives who pointed out how many lovelycapitalist dollars might flow into Cuba if Stevenson turned pro: but Castrosaid he preferred to have his fighter win another gold medal in 1976.
Stevenson, ofcourse, is not the only potential titleholder hiding his wares. As one promotersaid recently, more in sorrow than in anger, "You want to know where thebest heavyweights in the world are? They're playing basketball orfootball."
A few decadesago, fighting was about the only way an athlete could hope to make money,unless he happened to be good at hitting a baseball. And a heavyweight canstill make more money faster than any other kind of athlete. Ali and Frazier,though neither is champion, should take down about $2 million apiece for theirJanuary bout. But there are only a few top contenders in any generation, andbesides, boxing is hard and dangerous work. Some of today's young athletesstill opt for boxing—but a lot more choose the generally safer and surerpastures of basketball and football.
Which brings upthe debate: How do today's fighters—in this affluent period when no goodathlete has to get his head knocked off to make a living, in this period ofexpansion that almost guarantees any good athlete a long and prosperous careeron the playing field or the basketball court—compare with the fighters ofyesterday?
When a fightperson talks about the old times, he often sounds like a self-made businessmanciting his own rigorous, paper-route childhood to a flower-child son. Says CusD'Amato, the trainer and sometime manager, "When I was a kid it reallymeant something to be a boxer. If there was a fighter in the neighborhood, justany kind of a fighter, we followed him around like puppies. If anybody hadasked us, would you rather be heavyweight champion or President, we wouldn'thave hesitated for a minute.... And the fighters lived up to their position.They were tougher and better conditioned: they had more pride in what they weredoing. Sometimes they'd get knocked down 10 times in a fight—and come on towin."
Says HaroldConrad, onetime boxing writer and now a promoter, "The training methodsused to be much more rugged; there was total concentration on the fight. Iremember Marciano's training camps, which were of the old school. His trainernever called him by name; he'd say, 'Where's the fighter? Get the fighter inhere.' It was as if the boxer were just a robot, being programmed for thefight."
Nat Loubet,editor of The Ring magazine, says, "A lot of the oldtimers spent hourssoaking their hands and even faces in brine to toughen them; you could smellsome fighters coming down the street, like a pickle factory. Can you imaginetrying to get a young fellow to do anything like that today? Also, there weremore fight clubs in those days, and a boxer had more chance to learn his trade;his manager could line up a tour taking him to a dozen different cities ormore. A boxer used to have 30 fights a year, where now he's lucky to get adozen."
Still and all,virtually everyone around boxing agrees that today's fighters—though they maynot work so hard or so obsessively at their trade—have more to work with"Today's fighters are bigger and stronger and faster; they've just got tobe better," says Brenner.
Partly it is amatter of skills. D'Amato says, "You can almost divide the history ofboxing into two periods—the old and rather primitive days and the modern era ofsuperior techniques that began with Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. EvenTunney, though he was considered an exceptional boxer, didn't so much haveskill as speed, something there is a lot of today."
D'Amato's opinionis shared in large part by Film Archivist Jimmy Jacobs, who probably has spentmore time watching light movies than anyone else. Jacobs disagrees aboutTunney: "The impressive thing about Tunney was that he didn't win any closedecisions; he usually won shutouts. He fought 20 rounds against Dempsey and won19 of them." But he believes emphatically, "Anybody of the earliertimes, like a Corbett or a Jack Johnson, fighting now the way boxers did intheir day, couldn't get past the first round of a Golden Glovestournament."
Even Loubet,though he includes oldtimers on his list of the best, does so only on thetheory that a man has to be judged on the degree of superiority he displayedover the other heavyweights of his era.
"All athletesare better today," he says. "The swimmers swim faster and the runnersrun faster, so why shouldn't fighters fight better? Besides, the trainers knowmore and the corner men do a better job on cuts. The ringside doctors stop afight before a man gets all busted up and gets scar tissue that will open thenext time out. The fighters don't do a lot of body punching that leaves themopen for a damaging counterpunch. Any way you look at it, the really topfighters today are better than any of the oldtimers of the past."
NAT LOUBET, EDITOR, The Ring
1. JACK DEMPSEY
2. JOE LOUIS
3. JACK JOHNSON
4. MUHAMMAD ALI
5. JIM JEFFRIES
6. JIM FITZSIMMONS
7. GENE TUNNEY
8. SAM LANGFORD
9. ROCKY MARCIANO
10. JAMES J. CORBETT
Loubet justifies the preponderance of older fighterson his list because they kept busy, tough schedules. Still, he might have ratedAli first had it not been for his three-year layoff (as a conscientiousobjector) at the peak of his form.
JIMMY JACOBS, FIGHT FILMS ARCHIVIST
1. MUHAMMAD ALI
2. JOE LOUIS
3. ROCKY MARCIANO
4. GENE TUNNEY
5. JACK DEMPSEY
6. EZZARD CHARLES
7. JOE FRAZIER
8. SONNY LISTON
9. MAX SCHMELING
10. JOE WALCOTT
Newer fighters are favored because. Jacobs says, Iheir techniques were more sophisticated, and Ali over Louis because "Louiscould not handle a fast, little man [viz. Billy Conn]." The last five arelisted alphabetically, not in order of merit.
TEDDY BRENNER, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN MATCHMAKER
1. JOE LOUIS
2. ROCKY MARCIANO
3. MUHAMMAD ALI
4. JOE FRAZIER
5. EZZARD CHARLES
6. JOE WALCOTT
7. SONNY LISTON
8. FLOYD PATTERSON
9. GEORGE FOREMAN
10. NO SELECTION
Louis' concentration and will impressed Brenner most,Marciano's persistence and stamina next. But Foreman, he says, "could provethe best fighter ever. We don't know, though. You can't judge a man on thebasis of one bout [Frazier]."
CUS D'AMATO, TRAINER AND MANAGER
1. JOE LOUIS
2. ROCKY MARCIANO
3. MUHAMMAD ALI
4. JACK DEMPSEY
5. EZZARD CHARLES
6. JOE FRAZIER
7. SONNY LISTON
8. FLOYD PATTERSON
9. JOE WALCOTT
10. NO SELECTION
Mystical about boxers, D'Amato feels the best have anaura about them that affects opponents. Dempsey was ferocious in the earlyrounds, thus picked over his conqueror, Tunney. Like Jacobs, D'Amato lists thelast five alphabetically.