Joe Frazier's shaved head looked like an egg, and George Foreman cracked it. That essentially is what happened last week in the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., where the two former heavyweight champions met in what the promoters, Caesars Palace and Jerry Perenchio, billed as "The Battle of The Gladiators." Newspaper ads pictured Frazier and Foreman in gladiatorial garb, and the TV commercials, which struck a Bicentennial note, were so cornball awful—one had Foreman in drag dressed up as Betsy Ross vowing that Frazier would see stars—that skeptics said this was one fight that just had to be better than the buildup. In this instance they were right, even though the paying public turned thumbs down on the bout, for which each combatant was guaranteed $1 million.
The fight was one-sided, all Foreman's, yet it was a rouser with some surprise twists. After Foreman lost the title in a ridiculously stupid fight against Muhammad Ali in Za√Øre two years ago, he made a sad joke of himself by taking on five opponents one night in Toronto and then got knocked down by Ron Lyle in Las Vegas last January. But he did get up to beat Lyle, and the way he handled Frazier gives substance to his conviction that he will regain the title.
The first surprise came when Frazier, to tumultuous cheers, entered the ring and removed his hooded robe, revealing his glistening skull. A few hours earlier while alone in his room, he had shaved it on pure impulse, and he fancied that he looked like a black Kojak. Another surprise was his weight, 224½ pounds, the same as Foreman's and nine pounds heavier than he had ever weighed for a fight. It did not become him. In the glare of the ring lights, he showed flab and age. It was as though Jersey Joe Walcott, who had been introduced to the crowd from the ring, had stayed to substitute.
The final surprise came when the bell rang for Round 1. Frazier was not Smokin' Joe at all, but Retreatin' Joe, a defensive boxer who let Foreman carry the fight to him. "I was surprised," said Foreman later. "I was under the impression Frazier could fight only one way, movin' right at you." Foreman called it a change in strategy while Eddie Futch, Frazier's trainer, termed it "a change in tactics." The idea of the change was twofold: 1) Frazier had to switch rather than fight to avoid a repeat of his disastrous loss of the title to Foreman in Jamaica in 1973, and 2) by becoming an elusive target, Retreatin' Joe would, in theory, induce Foreman to punch himself out as he had in his loss to Ali and thus become prey to a knockout punch as the night ground on.
In a further effort to lure Foreman to thrash about fruitlessly, like Cyclops blindly chasing Odysseus, Frazier sporadically imitated Ali by dropping his hands, grinning (albeit nervously) and dancing. On occasion, he would even taunt Foreman. Caesars Palace pre-fight publicity had promised, "No dance steps. No stalling. No stick and move. No clowning. No time to catch a breath." These promises were a promotional mistake. Vaudeville turns are extremely popular in boxing—the Coliseum crowd relished each two-step, and had fans known Frazier was going to trip the light fantastic there undoubtedly would have been a sell-out 17,000 instead of the 10,341 who did attend.
Frazier's change in tactics did him little good. Despite Foreman's astonishment at Retreatin' Joe, he took the initial round with solid left jabs and right uppercuts. In Foreman's corner all was calm. Trainer Charlie Shipes gave instructions and then Foreman turned to Gil Clancy, who has recently become an adviser, and asked, "What do you think, Gil?" Foreman had the assured air of a board chairman discussing the opening of a new factory in Philadelphia. "That was the best corner work I had in boxing," he said after the fight. "There was respect. I enjoyed that more than anything. The precision, the way the corner people worked."
Round 2 was much like Round 1, but at the end there was a decision in Foreman's corner to change tactics. With Frazier obviously relying on a long night as his ally, Foreman said, "I went to work. I could see it wasn't going to be no easy knockout. I went to the body to do a certain amount of weakening."
Foreman applied himself methodically as Sid Martin, another of his corner men, shouted encouragingly, "Dig him! Dig him!" Frazier felt the body blows. "George's punches, you get caught flush with them," he said. "When he throws them, he throws all 224 pounds at you." Foreman kept pressing Frazier on the ropes, but toward the close of the third round his punches seemed to be losing a bit of steam.
With the crowd chanting, "Joe, Joe, Joe," Round 4 was Frazier's best, to be generous. Foreman began dropping his guard, and Frazier landed a couple of left hooks to the head. "Keep your right up, George!" Clancy yelled. Foreman's punches were slowing, and the round ended on a hint of hope for Frazier partisans.
The hope proved misplaced in the fifth and final round. Frazier kept retreating to the ropes and, as Futch said, "Joe made one basic mistake all night. He stayed against the ropes too much. Foreman throws too many punches, and it just takes one bomb."
The first bomb was a series of combinations that exploded with Frazier on the ropes. The finishing punch in the sequence was a left hook to the head. Face bloody, eyes glassy, Frazier straightened up and then, with an odd delayed reaction, tumbled to the ring floor as his legs sprawled in different directions. He lurched up at the count of four to take the mandatory eight count. Immediately Foreman was on the attack and cornered Frazier against a ring post. A savage right sent Frazier sliding down in the corner like Buster Keaton doing a collapse. While Referee Harold Valan tried to lead Foreman away, the fighter paused to stare out at the crowd that had booed him when he entered the ring, as if to say, "See what I did."
Frazier pulled himself up at the count of seven, but Futch, who had raced along the ring apron, wisely told Valan to stop the fight. Despite his protests, Frazier had no hope of continuing, and his son, Marvis, helped him back to his corner. The time of the technical knockout was 2:26.
The right-hand punch made Frazier decide to retire from boxing. Now 32, a pro for the last 11 years and battered by Ali in Manila and Foreman in exotic Uniondale, he said after he was stitched up and patched, "It's time for me to put it on the wall and go boogie, boogie, boogie," which translates as keep on living and have a good time. There was no bitterness, simply acceptance that his time had come to stay at home with the family and go to the gym just to work out. "The whole doggone game was a highlight, a lot of fun," he said, "and if I had the chance to do it again, it still would be a lot of fun."
Foreman was pleased with his fight. He sounded more assured than arrogant when he said, "That was a good boxing performance for me. I was fighting his corner and his strategy. I had to fight Joe Frazier but keep his corner amazed. It was a tough fight for me mentally." He felt only one punch, a left hook that had raised a puff near his right eye. "You don't say oops when Joe Frazier hits you," he said. "You say Oh Lord."
Foreman is now back at the ranch he recently bought 15 miles outside Marshall, Texas, his birthplace. There he has two Appaloosas, 16 Tennessee walking horses, a parrakeet, two hounds (he likes to hunt and eat raccoon), a lion, a tiger, an English bulldog named Leroy, a Doberman pinscher and nine German shepherds, including a bitch he bought in Germany for $25,000. Foreman's ambition is to breed the best German shepherd the world has ever seen. Bill Caplan, who made the Frazier match and has known Foreman since he was a green amateur in the Job Corps, says, "George likes to look at animals, admire their strength and learn from them."
"Jimmy Young would be interesting," Foreman says of future matches. "I can't sit idle. I have to stay active. Inactivity can kill me. Just like a great pianist. He's got to play to stay in tune. I want to fight for the title. I'm not interested in going into fights just to make money."
Champion Ali is booked against wrestler Inoki, the Pelican, in Japan this Friday night, and should he win that circus, he is signed to take on Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium in September. Foreman is confident of beating whoever wins that match and regaining the heavyweight title. He destroyed Norton in Caracas two years ago. And as for Muhammad, well, "If I got him into the ring now, it would be like pickin' peas, a country boy pickin' peas."