A puncher, the kind that can suddenly eviscerate your heart and will, is a rare and wondrous creature. The pedigree is barely visible today, having fallen victim to the rising expectations among the young poor. "They all wanna be muggers now," complains Paddy Flood, one of the best of fight managers. "Or, if you do get 'em in the ring, they wanna be hoofers like Ali." Flood is just one of many managers who have waited for years in fetid gyms, listening for the sound of an animal in the distance, searching for the meanness behind a pair of sullen, antisocial eyes. There is no roar or flash to their presence when they do turn to the ring, just something deadly metallic, like a bullet clicking into a rifle chamber. It is a beautiful sound.
Two of the best, if not classical, punchers in the business shifted the major boxing scene to Hollywood, Fla. last week—namely, heavyweight George Foreman and lightweight champion Roberto Duran. With the brutal clarity of Duran and the messy avalanche that is Foreman, boxing left behind the abjectly vague title defense by Ali against hesitant Ken Norton, moved downwind from Ali's Istan-bull declaration of retirement and returned to its most elemental form on national television—freeing humans from their faculties. The victims were Dino Dennis and Alvaro Rojas.
"God is always on the side of the puncher," Foreman likes to say. The money is, too. Foreman collected $450,000 from Don King and CBS, both of whom are delirious over their ungainly barbarian. CBS prizes him for the quality of violence. King, the promoter with a million aphorisms, all of them so bad that they're good, sees George as the poleax over the heads of Ali and his manager Herbert Muhammad, who dropped King as if his hair were truly electrified. King has gone to conspicuous lengths to court Foreman; it is a wise but risky gamble, if one considers George's history of alliances and his suspicious nature. At the moment, Foreman is the heavyweight division, and he may indeed be a bloodcurdling show on television—which is observed by any number of inexpert eyes. Up close, live, Foreman is hardly the executioner television presents. Of all the name heavyweights past and present, none has been slower than the big Texan. He throws a jab as if he had an icebox on the end of his hand. The time between the start of a punch and when it lands is so long that War and Peace could be carved on his glove with a penknife. He cannot think in the ring; he is purely a beast of nature, absolutely oblivious to the functions of his job.
More serious, though, is Foreman's complete lack of stamina, a flaw that Ali exposed in Zaire. Ever since then, after Foreman's return from bewilderment and lostness, the word has been this: take him past five or six rounds and he becomes just a huge piece of clay to be worked into easy form. That was on the mind of Dennis. He was young (24), he thought, and undefeated in 29 fights; he could move well, maybe do some sharp point work—in on Foreman quickly, flurry some, then out to the side even quicker—and he might steal a decision. There was more to be gained: $110,000 and that most elusive of things in the ring—an identifiable name with the public.
White, Italian and from Rocky Marciano country (the Providence, R.I. area), Dennis would have been placed in a nice little box and then put in the window at Carrier's had he won. "Platinum gold" was the way King described Dennis to the Miami press, which had responded sluggishly to his waves of superlatives. They never did buy Dennis. As it was, about 6,000 came to the Sportatorium to gawk at Foreman and hope with Dennis and his aggressive corner. The hope lasted 2½ rounds, then the 238-pound Foreman blasted Dennis in the stomach with a right hand. The Cartier window, it was evident, would soon be in shards. Dennis' right hand leads, few as they were, came no more; the jab wilted into a drooping left hand that was stuck to his chin for survival.
Physically immature and without the kind of a cracking punch to keep a big man off, Dennis floated serenely toward the quicksand of the ropes. It was here that Foreman pawed him with a heavy left hand and turned his eyes to glass. It was here also that Dennis' corner, led by co-Manager Al Braverman, made that part of the ring a small version of the Johnstown Flood—infamously, so far as Foreman's corner was concerned. "The water, the water!" screamed Foreman's trainer Gil Clancy, showering it upon his fighter. Rights and lefts chased the water from Dennis' head, but still it came—in buckets now. At the end of the round, Dennis was on his knees. Had he been drowned by Braverman?
Braverman carried Dennis back to the corner, and he answered the bell for the fourth. More punishment descended on Dennis, and now Braverman was halfway up the ring apron with wet towels, which were being handed to him. At this point a state trooper behind Dennis' corner took the big bucket of water away from one of the handlers. "You gotta stop this," the cop yelled. "The people at ringside are getting drowned."
"Wait a minute," said Paddy Flood, who was working with Braverman. "Look, officer, how would you like it if I took your pistol away?"
"I wouldn't like it. You wouldn't, either, pal."
"Well, this bucket is his pistol," said Flood. "You can't take his pistol away." He then looked up and yelled at Braverman, "Al, Al! Don't throw it on Foreman. You're hittin' Foreman! You're gonna wake him up. He's half dead already!"
Flood was right. Foreman, his arms rolling eerily like heavy tree branches in a high wind, was near exhaustion, but not even that, nor all the water in Biscayne Bay was going to spare Dino Dennis. The fight was stopped at 2:25 of the fourth round. In his dressing room, Dennis had no excuses. "This was a big fight for me," he said. "I came apart. My nerves got to me. The tension got me. It made me tired, and I didn't do anything right."
Said Braverman, "He's still a baby." The baby took eight stitches over his right eye. Why didn't Braverman stop the fight sooner? "I had to see, to be sure," said Al. "Foreman was so tired. I thought he might drop over any second."
Dennis' heart and Braverman's water ballet saved the night for King and television, for the Duran-Rojas title fight, which went on first, was a ridiculous affair. "This was the 26th time he's knocked out Rojas," said a Panamanian. "He's knocked him out 25 other times in the gym." An exaggeration, no doubt, but there is little question that Rojas was a pitiful opponent for the furious punches of Duran. Rojas was knocked out at 2:17 of the first round, leaving him unconscious for a long time. Duran is a little assassin, a quick volume puncher with a fine mean streak in him, yet the Panamanians and the game-playing WBA (the head of it is Dr. Eliasm Cordova Jr., a Panamanian who is related to Duran's manager) have clamped a lock on the lightweight title; tough lightweights like Edwin Viruet are ducked forever.
"Why did you make this match?" King was asked. "Fights like this killed boxing on television."
"It's not my fault," he protested. "The WBA forced me into it."
"Duran does not deserve $125,000 for an opponent like Rojas, does he?"
King just shook his head, then turned the subject back to Foreman, whom he calls his "duration champion," implying that if Ali does come back he should not have the privileges of a champion, that he and Foreman should meet even-up, financially. That surely would be a bout worth seeing: the cerebral Ali, his physical gifts in a sorry state, against Foreman, the magnificent beast or bum, depending on your ring esthetics. It would be hard to bet against Ali, for George Foreman has never been the same since Zaire, and he seems to be a troubled man, often a brooding recluse, forever alert for unseen villains.
The night before each fight now, he has three different meals brought to him by three different aides. No one knows which meal he will choose, or from where it will come. George Foreman, you see, is afraid of being poisoned.