GEORGE FOREMAN ON MUHAMMAD ALI AND JOE FRAZIER
“I do believe he’s the greatest, but forget about boxing — -give that to Joe Louis or somebody — -I believe he’s one of the greatest men I’ve ever met…I love you Muhammad Ali.”
George Foreman — January 2012
“Joe Frazier the only guy I was afraid of…I loved this one.”
George Foreman — November 2011
Later on maybe, George Foreman loved everyone it seemed.
But George Foreman was an angry young man. A powderkeg and a powerhouse.
As is so often the case, boxing rescued him from a fate far worse than the humiliation of being knocked out. The streets of Houston’s Fifth Ward were fixin’ to swallow him up whole. And they very nearly did.
He was a prime candidate, ripe for the plucking when he dropped out of school at fifteen.
A stint in the Job Corps, ostensibly a step in the right direction, didn’t really help.
Thank God for boxing.
George Foreman learned to thank God a lot. The winding route his life has taken is proof positive that God was looking out for him.
As the Olympic Heavyweight Gold Medalist in 1968 (Mexico City) — eight years following the then-Cassius Clay’s scintillating triumph in Rome and four after Joe Frazier’s Tokyo Gold — Foreman, though raw, was on his way.
He was nineteen years old.
Turning professional in 1969 Big George amassed a record of 32–0 (29 KO) largely against tomato cans although he did beat Gregorio Peralta twice and George Chuvalo.
By 1972 he was ranked as the Number One Challenger in the Heavyweight Division by both the WBA and the WBC.
Pretty heady stuff that was beginning to attract plenty of media attention.
In a storied boxing career which not only stood, but defined the test of time — after all, Foreman began all this in his late-teens during the mid-1960’s and retired for the final time in 1997 at age 48 with an overall record of 76–5 (68 KO) — his two most memorable bouts of course were against Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica dubbed “The Sunshine Showdown” [01/22/1973] and versus Ali in Zaire, the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” [10/30/1974].
(One rung below on the ladder of notoriety was the 1976 rematch between Foreman and Frazier in Uniondale, NY won by Foreman again, this bonanza known as “Battle of the Gladiators”).
These boxing galas have been well-documented by the sports pundits and aficionados — reaching the ad nauseum peak (or nadir) for others I’m afraid — but what is not as widely known is how these men really felt about one another.
Boxing promotion is hype; nobody cares about anything but selling the fight.
It’s all about the Benjamins: the essence of old news.
So what’s the story behind the stories?
To enter the ring at almost any level, it’s kill or be killed. The smell of fear is pervasive and permeating. The inevitability of pain becomes an afterthought.
You and me.
I must beat you in every sense of the word. Beat you into submission and maybe within an inch or less of your life in order to win.
And you must try to do the same to me.
Let’s get to it.
“Let’s get it on.” May the best man/woman win.
But do I have to hate you or even dislike you to get it done?
Or is that too, just part of the sell?
In the ring George Foreman was a killer, not unlike Ali, Frazier or any trained accomplished pugilist.
Outside the ring these men were simply themselves.
Foreman was a teddy bear and parlayed his oversized persona into lucrative careers as an author, and a world-class entrepreneur. (He also was an ordained minister).
He made many, many more millions outside boxing than when he thundered up the steps and leaned between the ropes, aching to do harm.
Ali’s ring exploits were the stuff of legend and in concert with the travails and triumphs of his personal life, made him one of the most charismatic and recognized creatures on the planet.
Smokin’ Joe was a hardscrabble champion, old-school and as tough as they came. His personality was nowhere near as colorful or engaging as those of his cohorts and he was the least articulate of the three which made him appear all the more sinister and dastardly.
My how appearances can be deceiving.
Foreman, Ali and Frazier all shared at least one trait and an admirable trait it was.
They all had enormous kind hearts. Truly big-hearted men.
Who — believe it or not — were very good to each other.
When Ali was stripped of his title(s) in 1967 it was Frazier who quietly and very much behind-the-scenes gave him money while publicly lobbying for his reinstatement.
The reinstatement would have been — and was — good for Joe’s career, but a self-serving man he surely was not.
And Ali, his unyielding bluff and thunder aside, appreciated Joe as “a helluva man” and his respect for him — obvious in his post-Manila quip, “It was like death…Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.” — ran far deeper than that.
With Frazier, the feelings were mutual, buried underneath all of his obligatory responses to Ali’s relentless taunting.
Foreman called Ali, “the greatest human being” he ever met and claimed that Ali “made you love him.”
And there was reciprocity involved.
George remarked that “as the years would go by I found out he loved me equally…whatever you see in him, he had something to say to make you feel good about yourself.”
A bit removed from Ali’s public perception, is it not?
It was heart-warming to see Foreman help a then-Parkinson’s-addled Ali to the stage during the 1996 Oscars as the film “When We Were Kings”, chronicling the Ali-Foreman ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ was honored.
And it was real.
Foreman and Frazier also operated in the arena of mutual respect.
Foreman readily admitted that Frazier was “the only guy [I was] ever afraid of.”
This out of the mouth of the man who brutally battered Smokin’ Joe, knocking him down six times in their ’73 celebrated affair.
And Frazier on Foreman?
In his inimitable straightforward and concise way, Frazier paid Foreman what he considered to be the ultimate compliment when he said, “George is a man.”
Perhaps Foreman’s heightened spirituality might explain, if not demand, the facile outpouring of his love.
Ali and Frazier were also spiritual beings in their own right and in their own ways.
As championship boxers they projected certain images. As men, their true feelings were largely kept private, as was their wont.
But one thing is clear.
Contrary to what was conveyed to the public they loved and respected one another unconditionally.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in July 2016.]