“About two years ago, some IRS guy came by my house and said they were going to subpoena my contracts with promoter Don King. I said, 'I never had any contracts with Don King.' Not always, at least. Sometimes he'd just give me some money after a fight and say, 'This is your share.’” – Jimmy Young (1986)
The last time I saw the late Jimmy Young fight, he weighed 237 pounds, most of it jiggling like something poured from a Jello package. This was in 1979 and Young had fallen on hard times, if one period in Jimmy’s life can be described as harder than any of the other periods, and on this night he was reduced to fighting a young and potential tiger named Wendell Bailey for a few thousand dollars.
Bailey was a Don King fighter, or at least King promoted him, and after 13 straight victories, all of them against people named Opponent, he had lost in his moving-up party to another rising King fighter name Michael Dokes. King hoped to resuscitate Bailey’s reputation by matching him with Young, damaged goods who had lost controversial decisions to Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali and had defeated George Foreman, but was no longer capable of the magic that had made him a serious contender.
Young lions love to pad their resumes with the names of aged and burnt-out stars.
That night in late June of 1979, a crowd of 14,136 fans had shown up at Madison Square Garden to watch Larry Holmes defend his heavyweight championship against a former Marine named Mike Weaver. As one of the opening bouts, to fill time while the Romans found their seats in The Coliseum, King sent out Bailey to snare Young’s scalp.
A defensive genius who made opponents look ugly even while they were winning, Young had stopped being a fighter the moment they announced that two of the three judges thought that Ken Norton had done enough to win their title elimination bout in November of 1977. In Las Vegas that night, justice was truly blind; so were two of the officials, as incompetent a pair that ever judged a fight.
One, Raymond Baldeyrou, a Frenchman working in his third title fight, voted for Norton, but had him winning only six of the 15 rounds; he called six even. The other myopic gentleman was Jim Rondeau, out of Seattle, who gave Norton seven rounds; he called five even. Art Laurie of Las Vegas only scored one round even; he gave eight rounds and the fight to Young. It was only Rondeau’s seventh championship fight, of which only two ended cleanly, by stoppage. The others were four split decisions and a mandatory decision.
“If I had a vote,” said referee Carlos Padilla, “I would have given the fight to Young.”
(The tainted victory set up Norton’s eventual claim to being the answer to boxing’s No. 1 trivia question. When Muhammad Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks three months later, Jose Sulaiman, the World Boxing Council’s pompous presidente for eternity plus a year, order Spinks to defend first against Norton. When Spinks elected to first give Ali a rematch, Sulaiman stripped him and handed the WBC championship to Norton. Now: which heavyweight champion had three title fights and never won any?)
His spirit broken, Young would fight 26 times more, a once bright bulb flickering, showing brief flashes of illumination, but mostly showing a long slide in the dark until he was reduced to fighting nobodies in hick towns for a boxing parasite named Rick Parker, who spoke of future million dollar fights while selling him for pennies.
His last fight was in August of 1988 in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Parker gave him a few hundred dollars for defeating a tomato can out of Rapid City, S.D, who fought under the names of Frank Lux, Frank Williams and Frankie Albert, but as none very well. Then Young went back to Philadelphia, where an auto accident ended his boxing career.
When Young entered the ring that June night in 1979 to face Bailey, he was wearing a tattered old robe, red with silver piping, which needed washing. The laughter started when the robe was shed. The cruel barbs followed: Hey, Jimmy, put on a bra. Hey, Young, you’re in the wrong ring, the sumo wrestlers are next door. Jimmy, you used to be a bum, and now you are a fat bum.
The man from Philadelphia who should have been the heavyweight champion winced, as though struck by bricks and bits of broken glass. At first he was embarrassed. Then that great pride that had carried him into the ring against the fists of Foreman and Ali and Shavers turned up an inner flame too long banked.
For two rounds Young handled Bailey easily, but he failed to shut down the insults hurled at him from outside the ropes. He had never fought angry, for he knew that is when clever boxers get hurt. But when he came out for the third round, he did not come out to win. He came out to create hurt. For a little more than two and one-half minutes he hammered Bailey, dropped him once, until finally referee Billy Graham had enough. The fight was stopped at 2:37 of the third round.
When Graham raised Young’s hand, the crowd cheered.
For a moment, it was just like being in Puerto Rico when the house chanted “Jeemy Young! Jeemy Young! Jeemy Young!”
They stole a lot from you, Jimmy. But they could never take away that night in San Juan . . .
San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 1977 – In Joseph Conrad’s novel Victory, the old man advised his son Heyst, “Look! Do not pounce.” Jimmy Young must have read that line and taken it to heart, for it is the sum of what he is about as a fighter. He is a circling lion, pawing at his prey, a quick darting attack, a flick of the claws, and then back outside, circling, looking; always looking. But even a watch-and-wait boxer like Young sometimes has to pounce, has to gear up into an offense mode, and he did that just often enough with near perfection last week in the exacting heat of Robert Clement Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto. When done, he had pulled off an astonishing upset of heavily favored George Foreman, who went back to his dressing room and found Jesus in the bathroom.
There is little doubt that Young’s unanimous 12-round decision over top contender Foremen is a cannon shot into the belly of the heavyweight division, causing dreams of large sums of money and the plans of backroom schemers to become as flat as last night’s undrained beer. The decision, and it was a correct one, thrust Foreman back into the comeback thicket, where he had landed after his devastating loss to Muhammad Ali 2½ years earlier in Zaire.
The loss to Young leaves Foreman poorer by the $5 million he was demanding for a rematch with Ali. It also places the relatively unarmed and almost childlike Young on the verge of becoming a million-dollar fighter. The underdogs of the world are ecstatic.
The jolt of Young’s reversal of form, at least to those who misread his performance while losing a controversial 15-round decision to Ali the previous April, left the so-called power brokers of boxing numb. The Magi of mayhem stared at each other, as though they had peeked behind the psychic curtain that hides the answers to questions like: Do dreams really come true? To that question, Young now qualifies as an expert.
“For weeks,” said the man who knocked down Foreman in the 12th round and left him barely able to stand at the final bell, “I would be sleeping and dreaming and scheming how to beat George Foreman. Combinations, combinations, combinations. That’s all I kept saying in my sleep. Then I’d wake up cold and sweating. Dreams do come alive. It ain’t no dream no more, is it? It’s a fact.”
In the Presbyterian Hospital bed to which he was taken after the fight, after he tried to convince his handlers that he just had a conversation with Jesus in the small bathroom connected to his dressing room, Foreman was hooked by tube to hanging bottle from which an intravenous solution for extreme heat prostration dripped into his huge left arm. “He said he had a spiritual awakening,” said Gil Clancy, the former heavyweight champion’s trainer. “It was hot as hell in the ring; he was hallucinating from dehydration.”
Foreman told Clancy in the dressing room that as he left the ring, he was plunged into despair. He thought he had died, and a giant hand was carrying him out of the emptiness surrounding him. Then he said his head and hands were bleeding, and he began to yell, “Jesus Christ is coming alive in me.” With that, Foreman jumped into the shower before Clancy and the others in the room could stop him. As the water poured down on him, Foreman began to shout: “Hallelujah, I’m clean! Hallelujah, I’ve been born again!”
That’s when Clancy reacted secularly; he called for an ambulance. Now the veteran trainer stared down at the hospital bed, where the huge ex-champion was covered in entirety by a sheet. Clancy lifted the top of the sheet and said, “Excuse me, sir.”
Two large black hands pulled the sheet down further, revealing Foremen’s smiling face. “I’m waking from the dead,” the fighter said. “Wait around until midnight, and I will come out of my coffin.”
“Oh, boy,” said Clancy.
The trainer knew that what Ali had exposed in Zaire, Young had certified in San Juan; Foreman was what Ali said he was – magnificent but hollow. The hope after Zaire had been that all the dysfunctional parts of Foreman’s awesome body would finally blend into the one great fighting machine. His second victory over Joe Frazier, a 5-round stoppage in June of 1976, and a knockout in the fifth round knockout of hard Ron Lyle five months before that, had given birth to great promise.
Look how he handled Frazier and Lyle, they said; look how he shortened his punches, they went on. Sure, how else are you going to hit a guy who is in your face trying to pull out your wisdom teeth? “Both those guys are easier to hit than a heavy bag,” Young said a few days before the fight. “Foreman still cannot punch when he has to chase somebody.”
Pursuit takes time, patience, instinct, and a sure sense of one’s own body. Foreman’s style leans more to sledgehammer; when somebody moves the target, he has a problem. That, along with his traitorous stamina, did him in – aiding and abetted by Jimmy Young. When you are as big as Foreman, sometimes it can work against you. His first 40 fights added up to less than 113 total rounds. By averaging less than nine minutes a fight, he never understood the value of pace.
Young explored the great bulk of Foreman like a cartographer, his magnifying glass to eye, going over an old and valuable map. This is the Philadelphia heavyweight’s forte: he discerns, he probes, he seldom pounces. He is the August mosquito that drives you mad. By any standard, he does not qualify as a world-class heavyweight. He is too short, too light, too slow, and he cannot punch. He improves at a snail’s pace.
“What I see in Jimmy,” said Foreman the day before he found Jesus, “is a guy trying to imitate a lot of people. It means he has no growth. Jimmy Young today is the same Jimmy Young of two years ago. No worse, but no better.”
Young found that amusing. “You look at Foreman and you see a lot of muscle. You look at Ali and you see a body built for speed. You look at Frazier and you see a body built for power. What I have, you can’t see. The key to any victory is to outthink the other man, whether it is combat, shooting craps, or playing chess. And there is no heavyweight alive that I can’t outthink.”
Young said that no matter how strong an opponent might be, and he admitted that most were stronger than he, there was neither a horse that could not be broken nor a man that could not be thrown.
He grinned, as though the thought of Foreman being thrown – or broken – pleased him.
Before a crowd of 8,000 and a TV audience that produced an astonishing 36 rating, Young set out to do just that. Knowing that Foreman had never gone more than 10 rounds in his career (and only twice had he done that since 1970), and having seen Big George so often left exhausted and arm weary after no more than just four or five rounds, Young began to use him up, making those big, powerful and heavy arms work against empty space. For the first six rounds, Young moved side to side; he is relatively slow of foot, but quick. He lounged on the ropes and held. He was a gentleman out for a stroll, and Foreman clumsily stomped after him, desperately asking his hands and feet to work together.
When Foreman did get close, he tried to manhandle Young. He pushed, laced, hit on the break and once, in a clinch, made an ungentlemanly move that almost broke Young’s left arm. The crowd reacted at though it were witnessing Godzilla mug Peter Pan. Before long the cry “Jeemy Young! Jeemy Young! Jeemy Young!” swept through the famous old baseball stadium, and it did not cease until Foreman had staggered off toward his epiphany.
Until the seventh round, that made for a horrendously dull fight. With the round not half over, Foreman finally landed one of his ponderously slow hooks high off Young’s head, sending his smaller opponent reeling and scrambling for his life. Resembling a man up to his hips in mud, Foreman plodded in pursuit.
“When he caught me with that punch, I asked God to help my soul,” said Young. “George did not know it, but while I may have been standing, I was out cold. He could have pushed me over with his little finger. How I survived that round I will never know. I think what may have saved me was that when George thinks he has you, he goes crazy. He leaves a lot of openings.”
Shaking off the effects of that big punch, Young pounced; his counterpunches forced the tiring Foreman to back off. As he moved briskly back to his corner, Young raised his hands in triumph. Across the ring, Foreman blinked. After their 60 seconds of rest, Young, sensing a growing softness in Foreman, became the aggressor. The oppressive Puerto Rican heat did the rest.
In the 12th and last round, two rounds deeper into combat than Foreman had ever gone, the badly flagging former champion missed with an overhand right. Young countered with his own right hand, caught Foreman on the side of the head, and dropped him. A solid punch by Young barely budges a heavy bag; Foreman regained his feet at the count of one. He wobbled but stayed on his feet. Several hours later, after his electrifying encounter with Jesus, he was on his way to the hospital. Promoter Don King elected not to accompany him.
King had put in a lot of time and effort on Foreman’s behalf, making him somewhat wealthier – if not wiser – as he pointed him toward a multi-million dollar rematch with Ali. All of that was set aside, at least for the moment. King pondered his next step, the most the obvious being replacing Foreman with Young as Ali’s next opponent? King winced at the thought. Artistically, their styles offered little promised of a dramatic confrontation.
“I told George that if Jimmy Young beat him, he would get a return shot,” said King, sighing. “But I got to go where the wild goose goes.”
In this case, the new wild goose was Jimmy Young. Now all King had to do was figure out what to do with a small, relatively slow heavyweight who can knock you out with his smile, but not his hands.
As King has said more than once: “This is a hard business.”
(Special to TheSweetScience.com from the Pat Putnam Classic Series. Portions of this article originally appeared in Sports Illustrated.)