The first time I ever saw George Foreman, he was leaning over the railing of a second-story balcony at a hotel room in Kingston, Jamaica. His huge forearms rested on the railing, and his shoulders bulged through a T-shirt. There was a split seam under his left arm.
Back then, unlike now, Foreman's face was forever a brooding, forbidding mask, a visage that spoke of his hard days as a boy in Houston's Fifth Ward. That afternoon in Kingston he turned it on Joe Frazier, the heavyweight champion of the world, as Frazier crossed a small footbridge below the balcony. It was the middle of January 1973, and Frazier had come to Jamaica to defend his title against Foreman. That morning, Foreman had been quoted in the Kingston papers as saying that Frazier's days were over. "I'm gonna knock Joe Frazier out," Foreman had said. Crossing that footbridge, Frazier looked up at Foreman and called out, "On January the 22nd, I'm gonna smoke you out, man, smoke you out! You really believe you're goin' to knock me out? You really believe that?"
Foreman glared at Frazier. Turning in to his room, he said, almost in a whisper, "I do believe. I truly believe."
At the time, Frazier seemed indomitable. He was the conqueror of Muhammad Ali. He threw a left hook that started from way down in South Carolina somewhere and ended at the point of his opponent's chin. In the press corps in Kingston virtually no one could conceive of Foreman's beating him. What nearly all the reporters failed to see was that Foreman was perhaps the most devastating two-handed puncher in the history of boxing, and Frazier's style was to take three punches while giving one. He could do that with Ali, who was not a heavy hitter, but not against young Foreman, who knocked Frazier to the canvas six times before referee Arthur Mercante stopped the fight.
Thus began Foreman's brief career as king. In Caracas, on March 26, 1974, he hit Ken Norton with a punch thrown so hard that when the back of Norton's head hit the canvas, several boxing writers thought he would never wake up. "I feared he had killed Norton," said Bob Waters of Newsday.
As Foreman prepared to fight Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire, seven months after the Norton fight, only Waters, among the regular writers, picked Ali to knock him out. The rest feared for Ali's life against this most formidable giant.
Of course, Ali feared no one. On the eve of the bout he visited the press center in Kinshasa, which was populated almost exclusively by white journalists, and looked at a bulletin board on which the writers had made their picks. Except for Waters and one or two others, all had picked Foreman: in one, in three, in two, in five. Ali scanned the list and told The Cincinnati Enquirer's Tom Callahan, "What you don't understand is, black folks ain't afraid of black folks like white folks are afraid of black folks."
Waters had picked Ali in seven. Boxing, moving, rope-a-doping, Ali knocked Foreman out in eight. So ended Foreman's first career. I saw the tail end of his second, three years later. Foreman was in Presbyterian Hospital in San Juan, P.R., the morning after Jimmy Young had whipped him in a 12-round decision. The fight had left him so dehydrated that he succumbed to heat stroke, though Foreman says the hallucinations he experienced weren't because of the heat but were divinely inspired. He would not fight again for 10 years, until he began his current comeback, his third career. That night in San Juan, his trainer, Gil Clancy, led me into Foreman's room. Under a clean white sheet the huge shape of Foreman lay still, except for a wiggling of his toes.
Lifting the top of the sheet, Clancy said, "Excuse me, sir." Two large black hands pulled the sheet down, revealing Foreman's smiling countenance. A bottle half-filled with a clear liquid hung above his head, and drop by drop it was draining into his arm through a length of plastic tubing. "I'm wakin' from the dead," Foreman said. "Wait around till midnight, and I will come out of my coffin."
That was 14 years ago. Next month, Foreman, age 42, will fight Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship of the world. The man is still very much alive. As the fighters on the following pages, men who faced Foreman in his first two careers, attest, it could be a scary night for Holyfield.
KO'D IN ROUND 3
JUNE 23, 1969; NEW YORK CITY
"It was the toughest fight I ever had, and it was my last fight. Foreman hit very hard. When you get hit by George, you feel like you've been pumped with Novocain. The first time he hit me in the face, it went numb; I had no feeling in my cheeks or lips. It was like going to the dentist. When it was over, I told my brother, 'Foreman's going to be the heavyweight champion of the world.' Foreman's kept himself in good condition. He has a very strong heart, and I believe he will take Holyfield out in the fourth round."
Waldhelm, 54, who was Foreman's first professional opponent, has been a bouncer for the last 23 years and now works at Christopher's Supper & Nightclub in Brooklyn.
KO'D IN ROUND 3
AUGUST 4, 1970; NEW YORK CITY
"Foreman a heavy puncher? I make the Joe Frazier analogy. You fight a guy like Joe, it would be like a Pontiac hitting you at a hundred miles an hour. With a fighter like Foreman, it was like a Cadillac hitting you at 50 miles an hour. There is a different impact. George is more heavy-handed, not fast. George has done a marvelous job in terms of p.r. When he was a young guy, he wasn't likable; he was surly, almost arrogant. Now, he seems like a different person. He's always smiling. People identify with him, all that stuff about burgers and pork chops. But I think Holyfield will outbox him. He'll make George miss him. After about four or five rounds, Foreman will be like a sitting duck."
When not playing cards at the Lansdown Gym in Toronto, Chuvalo (center), 53, produces boxing shows for TV syndication. He has also had parts in 15 movies. "I had my arm ripped off in The Fly," he says. "I'm always being beat up. I never get the girl."
LOST 10-ROUND DECISION
DECEMBER 16, 1969; MIAMI BEACH
"It was a close fight. He had me down in the first round. He broke three of my ribs, but I still went the distance. He's a heavy hitter, but not the heaviest. George Chuvalo hit the hardest. I was paid $1,900 for the fight, but Foreman told me I gave him a million dollars' worth of experience."
Forte, 50, is attempting a comeback, guided by his first manager, Mack Goodman. "I never really retired," he says. "One of the reasons for my return is because I want to get even with Foreman." Forte was Ali's traveling sparring partner for several years and has been a bellman at the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort and Spa in Miami Beach since 1968. He was the National Bellman of the Year in '90. Says Forte, "I have checked some famous people in: Elvis Presley, some presidents, Jim Brown, Aretha Franklin. Sugar Ray Leonard came over to me and said, 'You don't look like no fighter.' I said, 'You don't either.' We both had the same trainer, Angelo Dundee, and his fighters don't get beat up."
KO'D IN ROUND 1
MARCH 31, 1970; HOUSTON
"I had a lot of second thoughts about fighting Foreman. I had just come off a fight with Jerry Quarry. I knocked him down in the first round, but they said I hit him after the bell. They robbed me. I wasn't in any frame of mind to be fighting Foreman. Plus, my son, Michael, was born that day, and I wasn't able to be there. George is a pretty heavy puncher. He hit me on the top of the head, and I went numb. I thought I could have continued, but the referee stopped it. As far as Holyfield, Foreman doesn't need the money, so what's he doing fighting at his age? I don't think he has any chance of beating Holyfield."
Brassell, 48, retired from the ring after 23 fights and settled in his hometown of Lima, Ohio, where he worked for the state welfare service. "That was depressing, investigating welfare fraud," he says. Today, Brassell manages a Clyde Evans supermarket in Lima.
ROY (COOKIE) WALLACE
KO'D IN ROUND 2
SEPTEMBER 23, 1969; HOUSTON
"George is a devastating puncher. He threw the hardest punch I was ever hit with. He will be the world heavyweight champion again. People don't understand that age is just a number; George is not old, he's just aging. People don't want young whiskey, they want whiskey that has aged."
Wallace, whose age is unknown, says he won this trophy for being heavyweight champion of Texas in 1972. He has known Foreman since '64, when both of them used to work out at the Red Shield Boys Club in Houston. In '74, while working as a cargo supervisor for Braniff Airlines, Wallace suffered a hip injury, and today he lives with friends in Dallas and gets by on welfare and disability checks. "Some days I can't get out of bed," he says. "I'm told I have a disease in my lower pelvic bone. I'm very depressed." He is devoted to Foreman, who, he says, bought him a red Corvette in '76. "I love this guy," Wallace says. "I would carry George's bag if he needed a handler."
KO'D IN ROUND 1
DECEMBER 6, 1969; LAS VEGAS
"The fight should not have taken place. I was a very skinny heavyweight, six-six and 183 pounds. When I looked at George at the weigh-in, I knew I wasn't ready for him. I was hit by a right hand and an uppercut that split the inside of my mouth. I had 33 stitches. I give him a 70 percent chance of beating Holyfield, and I'm sure he could beat Tyson. Age has no bearing on anything you do in life. George is doing things the right way. He's learning to pace himself. He is learning how to go into the later rounds."
Hazleton, 43, was taking steroids to build himself up as far back as the late 1960s. "I was taking maybe 100 milligrams a week about the time I fought George," he says. "I shot up sometimes just before I would fight. In the '80s I was up to 3,000 milligrams." In the early '80s, Hazleton began to suffer from blood clots in his left leg, which were attributed to his use of steroids. The leg was amputated in 1986, but he continued to use steroids. His right leg was removed the following year. Today, Hazleton, who lives in Detroit, spends much of his time lecturing on the evils of bodybuilding drugs. "I try to stay healthy and strong," he says. "I still want to keep my looks. I would like to get into acting."
JAMES (BABA) WOODY
KO'D IN ROUND 3
APRIL 17, 1970; YORK CITY
"George came out like a house on fire. He is the hardest puncher in the world, but I felt the referee stopped the fight too soon. I was the kind of fighter who got better as time went on. When I fought him, I don't think George was confident about his boxing ability. He would try to conquer with brute strength. George is a powerful person, but unless he can box, I don't think he can beat Holyfield."
Woody, 48, who is retired from the New York City Transit Authority, where he worked as a maintenance engineer, has tried unsuccessfully to obtain a license to work as a sparring partner. "I have seen bad times, like most fighters do," he says. "But I have a good solid body. I have aged just a little slower than most guys." Of late, Woody has embraced the teachings of the Indian mystic Meher Baba, to whom he has built a shrine in his Bronx apartment.
KO'D IN ROUND 3
SEPTEMBER 21, 1971; BEAUMONT, TEXAS
"George was the Number 2 contender when I fought him. He never talked too much, he did all his talking with his fists. He was a deadly puncher, the hardest puncher in the world. Earnie Shavers, Cleveland Williams, Ron Lyle, Oscar Bonavena could punch, but George was the hardest. I don't believe in age, and I think George can beat anybody. Holyfield won't be able to take his punches."
Since leaving the ring, Caldwell (middle), 44, has worked as a bodyguard and is now a trainer at Gold's Gym in Las Vegas. Here he poses with two clients. "They paid me $1,500 for the Foreman fight," he says. "Out of that, they took expenses. I knew I had been robbed and stolen from, and I left boxing with a bad feeling. I'd get calls on a Tuesday saying, 'We got a big fight for you on Thursday—in Africa.' "
WON 12-ROUND DECISION
MARCH 17, 1977; SAN JUAN, P.R.
"I had a lot of confidence. I knew I was going to win. I had him down in the 12th round. He caught me in the seventh round with a left hook, and 14 years later I can still feel that punch. I remember that when he caught me, I was asking God to help my soul. I have never told George this, but when he caught me with that punch, I was out cold. All he had to do was push me with his little finger. How I survived that round I will never know."
Young, 42, who lives with his son, Jason, in Philadelphia, has sparred with Mike Tyson, and fought last year in Biloxi, Miss., where he knocked out his opponent. Since then, a spine injury suffered in a car accident has forced him to quit boxing. He is looking for a job. "I would like to join the police force," he says, "but I'm too old."