It was the best of times and the worst of times, this world championship fight between George Foreman and Ken Norton in Caracas, Venezuela. For Latin internal revenue officials, room clerks, pickpockets and Foreman, it was the best of times. For promoters, visitors, spectators and Norton, it was, to say the least, taxing.
Foreman, as everyone knows by now, defended his heavyweight title almost effortlessly. He belabored Norton into senselessness in five minutes, bringing to 11 minutes and 35 seconds the total time he has spent in winning and defending the championship in three fights. He raised a sweat only because he warmed up in his dressing room before the fight.
"You got to get the oil moving in the engine before you step on the gas," he said later. "That's why I was sweating when I got in the ring. I wasn't nervous."
Norton was nervous. Before the fight he said that he would outthink Foreman in the ring. "He's like a Mack truck," Norton said. "He's far more physical than Ali. With Ali it was a chess game. But Foreman is not as fast as I am, physically or mentally. My conception is that he will come out winging, and I'll move away from him and he won't be able to think as fast as I do. I have been working on thinking, working on this fight, considering what I will do if I get hit, how I'll react, so it will be instinctive, and I won't have to think."
April 7, 1974
"He better do all his thinking now," Foreman said, lazily. He was sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Avila, dressed in a blue jump suit, stretched out comfortably with his hands quiet and relaxed on the table in front of him. On the middle knuckle of each hand is a long, dark and thick callus, a memento of the time he spends punching the heavy bag.
"When he gets in the ring, he ain't gonna have time to think," Foreman said. "He don't know what I'm gonna do, but he can pretty well guess. Wherever he goes, there's gonna be George Foreman, right in his face. Somebody got to pay for all that nice weight I lost. I like to eat. I'm prettier slim but I'm happier fat. If I can ever afford it, I'm gonna eat all I want and I'm gonna be very fat. He gonna have to pay me for making me stay slim."
Norton paid. He was destroyed in the ring and if he thought at all, it was a momentary thing. "I tried to draw him in and counterpunch," he said after the fight. "It didn't work. I don't know why I did it."
It was a puzzling end to a puzzling week. Many who came to Venezuela for the fight were greeted by a corps of rapacious room clerks who demanded $50 under the counter to release rooms that had been reserved and confirmed long before. The Venezuelan government (new in office, as are many South American regimes) had welcomed the fight to attract tourists and to seduce the world press into extolling the virtues of the country. But then its officials held up essential equipment for TV coverage and press photographers until hours before the fight began, releasing the gear only upon the payment of exorbitant tax charges.
For Hank Schwartz, vice-president of Video Techniques, the theater-TV outfit that beamed the fight out into the world, it was a week of wrangling. Aside from the continuing hassle about hotel rooms, he had to arbitrate, as best he could, another argument about officials. The Venezuelan boxing commission wanted to appoint the judges and the referee. Foreman's camp, represented by rotund, aggressive and prolix Trainer Dick Sadler, wanted no part of a Venezuelan referee. Foreman himself regarded the whole issue as inconsequential, as indeed it proved to be. "I don't care if three little old ladies judge the fight," he said.
The argument went on until the day of the match, when Sadler decided the issue by staging his version of the Battle of Wounded Knee. In the morning Foreman limped out of the hotel, supported under his left shoulder by one of his trainers, bound for the hospital and an X ray of his right knee, which had suddenly been taken sore. An hour later he limped back, this time supported under his right shoulder.
For the rest of the day rumors flew that Foreman could or could not fight. Explanations for the knee injury were numerous and imaginative. Someone said that it was an old football injury. Foreman's physician, Dr. Peter Hacker, who came with him to the fight from Hay-ward, Calif., was a bit vague about what was wrong. By that time the rumor had shifted to a pinched nerve, but the physician said it was a strained muscle. Whatever it was, it cleared up dramatically when the Venezuelans finally capitulated on the referee issue: it would be Jimmy Rondeau, the boxing commissioner of the state of Washington.
After the fight, Dr. Hacker explained the miraculous recovery by saying that he had given the champion a shot of cortisone and novocaine at five o'clock. He was very explicit. Asked about the shot, Foreman said, just as explicitly, "I didn't get no shot. I hate needles."
But shot or not shot, Foreman seemed fit moments before the opening bell. He trotted ponderously around the ring, looking like nothing so much as a Percheron in a show circle, then jumped up and down several times in his corner, showing no signs of a limp.
Once the fight began, Foreman forgot showmanship and demonstrated, briefly, what a good fighter he is. He has been criticized as an awkward, clumsy man who makes up for his deficiencies with brute power, but he is far more than that.
The clumsiness disappears in the ring and Foreman becomes an economical, precise fighter. He does not move with the balletic grace of an Ali, but he does not have to. He spent the first round stalking Norton, moving his feet in small, shuffling steps, always on balance, always ready to fire the salvos that are a mark of his powerful style. Norton moved around the periphery of Foreman's range for a while, then tried to move in. When he moved in—or when he did not move back fast enough—he was damaged by one of the strongest left jabs any fighter has ever felt.
Foreman uses the jab not only in the familiar way; he also uses it to beat down his opponent's defenses and to bring him a message. His hands are quicker than his heavily muscled arms would lead one to believe, and the jab lands with the impact of a battering ram. Toward the end of the first round, the jabs had carried the message to Norton, who seemed shocked by their power and unable to react profitably. After the jabbing attack, Foreman hooked Norton once high on the side of the head, then hit him with a tremendous left hand under the heart just before the round ended.
"He acknowledged that punch," Foreman said later. "I heard him grunt and I knew I had him."
In the second round Foreman advanced quickly to end the fight. He has a curious ability to anticipate his adversary's moves and to counter them by taking short, controlled steps that put him in place to use all of his lethal power. Foreman did this time and again, in the second round. The left hand, thrown straight and hard, broke down Norton's defenses. Then, with Norton confused by the murderous jab, Foreman started punching from farther back, putting all the strength of the thick shoulders and arms into each shot. He does not throw wild, swinging hooks; if one compared his punches to a baseball pitcher's deliveries, one would say he throws sliders, not curves. The punches travel on a flattened trajectory and they reach their target more quickly than a wider punch would—and land more heavily.
Four of them, all right hands, drove Norton across the ring into the ropes after about a minute of the second round. Although Norton did not fall, the referee gave him a standing eight count.
"He was tangled in the ropes," Rondeau said later. "He could have been seriously hurt."
Foreman lashed Norton into the ropes seconds later with a brutal right upper-cut, followed him around the ring to land a left to the jaw, hit him again with the uppercut as he began to drop and once more with the left hand as Norton fell out of reach. The uppercut had picked Norton off his feet so that he was turning in midair as he landed, and the back of his head hit the canvas with a sound audible at ringside over the noise of the crowd. Somehow Norton got to his feet at the count of nine. Then the referee stopped the mismatch.
"His eyes were rolled up and he had turned his back on Foreman," Rondeau said. "His corner was asking me to stop the fight, but I already had."
After the bout, back at his hotel, Foreman described the victory. "I was in certain places before he was," he said. "I knew where he wanted to go and I went there first. It's like magic when I lay my hand on these guys. I know Norton isn't hurt at all, because I went over to his corner and I heard him saying, "What happened? What happened?' I got to give credit to the referees, too, because they haven't let me hurt anyone. Or anyone hurt me."
Immediately after the fight a crowd broke through the police cordon and climbed into the ring to cheer and to take pictures of Foreman. Eight or 10 of them had their pockets picked, including a member of the United States embassy.
"I had my camera over my head taking pictures and I felt my wallet go," he said. "The crowd was so thick I couldn't get my hands down. By the time I did and turned around, the man behind me was a Venezuelan cabinet official. I'm sure it wasn't him." Another man had his wristwatch ripped clear of the band while a pickpocket lifted his wallet, and he didn't see either thief in the crush of people.
The thievery in the ring was only penny-ante stuff compared to what took place afterward. The principals reconstruct it this way: the fight had originally been set for Caracas on the basis that all taxes would be waived. But at 9:07 p.m. Monday, the night before the match, Schwartz was handed a government memo saying, with-deep apologies, that some taxes would, indeed, be assessed.
Next afternoon Aldemaro Romero, who manages the Poliedro fight arena, assured Schwartz that the tax problem had been solved, that the Poliedro would put up a tax bond. The day after the fight, the government insisted on collecting its full 18% of the purses guaranteed to the fighters—$700,000 for Foreman and $200,000 for Norton, a sum including the rights for worldwide theater television. To enforce the demand, Venezuelan authorities stopped the fighters at the airport and said they couldn't leave the country until they had posted bonds for the tax money. Both Foreman and Norton took the news calmly enough but other tempers flared and U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Robert McClintock was enlisted to mediate.
As a lagniappe the Venezuelans impounded a truck and its load of valuable TV equipment owned by Video Techniques. By the weekend Schwartz was still negotiating to free it, and the ransom had reached some $50,000.
Based on the discussed tax bite, Foreman should have had to fork over $126,000 to get out of the country, Norton $40,000. On Saturday, McClintock said Norton posted the bond and was able to leave, but the latest government word was that Foreman somehow owed $300,000 and was languishing with Sadler in a downtown hotel.
Meanwhile, arrangements were going forward for Foreman, who won the championship in Jamaica and has now defended it in Tokyo and Caracas, to fight Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire in late September. The match carries a purported guarantee of $5 million for each principal. Needless to say, this seemed fine to both Foreman and Ali, who was suited up at ringside in Caracas for his role as a TV commentator and staged his usual antics on the side.
Kinshasa used to be called Leopoldville, and Zaire used to be the Belgian Congo. The site offers a soccer stadium seating some 70,000. Zaire is a rich country (copper, cobalt, diamonds) but its people are not. "The price of admission to fill the stadium would have to be in peanut shells," one Zairian observed.
And visitors to Zaire who are veterans of the Caracas rip-off will feel right at home. Every visitor to the African country is obliged, by law, to spend $40 a day while he is there.