By George, boxing is wearing smile again

Phil Jackman

April 22, 1991|By Phil Jackman

It was a glorious night of boxing. Forgotten is the last time

those two words were linked in the same sentence.

"From what I gather," said George Foreman, wryly, "it was very exciting."

That's putting it mildly. Not since the heyday of Muhammad Ali had the fight game's showcase division seen such exhilaration, interest and good will.

Sure, it started out as a curiosity, this seeming lummox of a man, Foreman, pretending that time had somehow missed playing its tricks on him.

However, just 10 minutes into his brawl with heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield the other night in Atlantic City's Convention Hall, all the senior citizen and fat jokes were suspended.

Then it became abundantly clear that Big George was being done a huge disservice if it was mentioned more than in passing that he is 42 years old. Clearly, he was near the equal of the man we refer to as champ.

This was so much more than a fight. It was the spectacular it was supposed to be when you charge $1,000 for ringside seats and at least $35 to the 1.7 million per-per-viewers at home.

To the strains of an original tune entitled "Here Comes George," Foreman lumbered into the ring and the packed house went bananas. A star-studded VIP section -- Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman and Billy Crystal -- hollered and high-fived as they heard the words, "his punches are so hard, they sound like thunder."

Other fighters dance and prance around the ring. Big George walked. He smiled as Holyfield entered politely. Foreman gave the old staredown during the pre-fight instructions, but couldn't hold it long enough and grinned. Good vs. good. Heavens, what is the fight game coming to?

Just how competitive was George? The scene after the seventh -- that is, the first round of the second half of the fight -- spoke volumes.

It had been a spectacular three minutes. Foreman's overhand right caused Holyfield to resemble a drunk on roller skates, causing the crowd to think it might be privy to a momentous knockout. He pressed his advantage with a series of lefts only to be stopped in his tracks by a firestorm of blows from the champion.

No way the challenger could withstand the assault, was there? First, George battened down the hatches, then turned things around with another big right hand. "I had to find some place where I wouldn't get hit," admitted Holyfield, "so I clinched."

The crowd booed the champion and cheered Foreman mightily as he returned to his corner. "George, George, George" filled the old hall as he stood in his corner -- he didn't sit for 12 rounds -- facing the Holyfield corner and noting what looked to be the beginnings of panic as three men ministered to a slumping favorite.

Momentarily, the men were fighting at the same speed, and in a punch-for-punch exchange, Holyfield was no more than even money. "I hit George with everything I had," the champ said. "For the last five years, when I did that, guys went down. Who would have thought he'd go 12 rounds with me?"

All too soon it was over and spectators were the worse for it, particularly when Foreman won the 12th round on the cards of two officials.

As they announced a unanimous decision for Holyfield in his first title defense, it was easy to tell who was the hero of the hour. "Only thing that stopped me was the jaw of Evander Holyfield," said Foreman. "He's a great champion."

There were compliments all around as fans stuck around in the hall to kibitz and drink in the atmosphere. Normally at these affairs, it's like the start of the Oklahoma land rush as folks beat a path back to the casinos and the gaming tables.

"I didn't let George go 12 rounds; he was easily that good," said Holyfield. "I thought he was slow. He was quick. He proved he had a granite chin."

"I had no idea he could take so much and give so much," Foreman said of the victor. "He has a desire in him I've never seen before and I don't think we'll see duplicated any time soon."

Both fighters were asked about their future plans. When will Holyfield fight Mike Tyson? Is Foreman going to continue?

All inquiries appeared ill-timed. Clearly, this was a crowning moment for boxing, something the game doesn't see too often. Therefore it should have been protracted and savored.

George Foreman's intention wasn't just to give it a good try, but that's probably how his effort will go down in history. The fact is, he was responsible for a truly memorable heavyweight title bout and in no way did it discredit Holyfield.

You have a chance to compare notes Wednesday (10 p.m.) when the fight gets its first airing on Home Box Office.

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