Clancy’s One Strategic Miscalculation “Reinventing Foreman To Face Ali Again”

clancyGil Clancy was the trainer of many world champions and is probably best known for guiding the hall-of-fame careers of Emile Griffith and Rodrigo Valdes during the sixties and seventies. Ironically, both Griffith and Valdes fought middleweight champion Carlos Monzon twice each during his reign as champ circa 1970-77. Griffith, after being stopped by Monzon during their first fight in 1971, lost a disputed decision to him in their rematch 21 months later. Valdes was the only fighter to drop Monzon as champ when he turned the trick during the second round of their July 1977 rematch. So it should come as no surprise that one of the greatest middleweight champs of all-time was given two of the toughest fights during his reign as champ by fighters trained by Gil Clancy.

With Clancy’s passing last week the accolades have been pouring in. Gil loved to talk boxing and I remember having him on my ESPN 1490 radio show in the late nineties after George Foreman lost a controversial decision to Shannon Briggs in what turned out to be George’s last fight. We discussed how terrible the decision was in that bout, which led us to talking about the careers of both Foreman and Gerry Cooney. Gil intimated that Gerry Cooney could’ve been a great heavyweight had he only believed it himself. He also went into how if Foreman could punch as fundamentally correctly as Jerry Quarry, he would’ve never lost to anyone.

During the conversation regarding Foreman’s physical strength and career, Gil went on about how a trainer should never change a fighter from being who he really is as a fighter. And that Angelo Dundee’s greatest asset to Muhammad Ali was the fact that despite immense pressure, he never attempted to convert Muhammad Ali into a by the book boxer/fighter. That took me back a little because if there ever was one miscalculation that Clancy did strategically to a fighter, it was him changing George Foreman’s style from a catch-an-kill aggressor into a wait and react counter-puncher after he lost his undisputed heavyweight title to Muhammad Ali in “The Rumble In The Jungle.”

As everyone knows, Foreman dismissed his trainer Dick Saddler after he lost to Ali. At that time Foreman was blaming everyone but himself after the fight. George was embarrassed that he punched himself out against Ali and thought he should’ve been better prepared for Ali’s rope-a-dope style. This was a strategy that failed miserably against “Smokin” Joe Frazier in the “Fight Of The Century” three years earlier. Enter Gil Clancy, who was hired by Foreman to replace Saddler and help him prepare for an impending rematch with Ali.

The first fight Clancy worked with Foreman was his comeback bout against the underrated boxer and big punching Ron Lyle. Foreman, under Clancy, fought more in a more measured fashion and didn’t go all out and attack Lyle. The thought was George would conserve his energy and have more stamina for later in the fight if he didn’t get the early knockout. The only problem with that was – Lyle almost took Foreman’s head off in the process. Finally, out of desperation, Foreman reverted back to the pre-Zaire version of himself and knocked Lyle out in the fifth round. In his subsequent fights against Joe Frazier, Scott LeDoux, Dino Dennis and Pedro Agosto, the measured Foreman looked like a more finished fighter. However, what was hidden in the victories over Frazier, LeDoux, Dennis and Agosto was, Foreman could easily jab their heads off from the outside without really having to push the fight. And if by chance they’d try to change things up and bring the fight to him, it only sped up the inevitable and got them knocked out sooner. In those fights between Lyle and Agosto, the supposed new George Foreman looked like he was ready to dethrone the aging and physically declining champ, Muhammad Ali.

In March of 1977, after beating five consecutive contenders by stoppage, Foreman met third ranked Jimmy Young. If George could beat Young, Ali would have to make his next title defense against the top ranked heavyweight in the world, George Foreman. Young, a slick boxer, was thought to be the perfect tune-up fight to help get Foreman ready for Ali’s style. Against Young, Foreman wouldn’t attack. Instead he’d fight at a measured pace¬† (under Clancy’s instruction) and hope to draw Young to him and nail him with big counters. Only Young didn’t go for it. For the first five rounds while Foreman was laying back and looking to conserve his stamina and land the perfect shot, Young peppered George with straight lefts and rights while he was winning the rounds. In the seventh round a desperate and tiring Foreman caught Young with a big left-hook that knocked Jimmy across the ring. Foreman tried to finish Young in a somewhat measured fashion because Clancy embedded it into his head that he shouldn’t go all out. And because of that Young survived the round and his confidence escalated.

In the other corner, Foreman appeared concerned and caught in-between styles. For the last five rounds of the fight Foreman fought just hard enough not to punch himself out, but not hard enough to prevent Young from picking his spots and flurrying in spurts and winning the rounds. The fight went the distance and Young won a deserved unanimous decision. Six months later Earnie Shavers, not Foreman, challenged Ali for the title at Madison Square Garden. Shavers gave Ali a tough fight, but Muhammad eventually prevailed and would make what turned out to be the last successful title defense of his career. Had Clancy not changed Foreman’s style, more than likely there’s Ali-Foreman II.

In the years since the Foreman-Young bout, it has been speculated by many what would’ve happened if George fought Ali a second time. Well, there shouldn’t be any speculation what so ever about how it would’ve turned out. If a measured and counter-punching Foreman couldn’t beat Jimmy Young, he would have never defeated Ali fighting that style. Clancy changing Foreman’s style looked as if it initially worked, and at the time Gil was receiving plenty of praise for re-inventing George Foreman. The only problem was, the fighter Clancy was brought in to help George beat ended up being the beneficiary of his new wait and react style. Had Foreman not changed his style and tore into Young like he did the first forty opponents of his career, Jimmy Young wouldn’t have got out of the third round with him – and Ali would’ve met Foreman in a rematch in September of 1977 instead of Earnie Shavers.

The bottom line is, Foreman was an attacker. If you make him box and taper his aggression, he’s no longer George Foreman. The only way George was going to beat Young and have a chance to beat Ali in a rematch was to go after them and be driven by his strength and punching power. Foreman didn’t lose to Ali because of his style. He lost to Ali because Muhammad had one of the greatest bodies and chins in heavyweight history. It wasn’t like Ali was out-boxing George and Foreman couldn’t get to him. It was purely the case of Ali being durable enough to take his Sunday punch. And had that not been the case, Muhammad Ali would’ve been stopped during the “Rumble In The Jungle.” So there was no need to try and re-invent George Foreman. His style worked for him, and only Ali could’ve survived the wrecking machine version of Foreman. The last way in the world you’d ever advise Foreman to fight Ali would be to go at him in a measured way and then react to what he does. Because of Ali’s reach and speed the fight would’ve been like Muhammad and George playing tag. And George would’ve been “it” the whole fight and lost.

Sure, when Foreman made his comeback 10 years after losing to Young, he had success fighting at a slower pace. But that pace wasn’t by design, it was more because George was older, slower and less powerful in his late thirties opposed to his mid to late twenties. And he was out-boxed by Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison fighting at a measured pace and not going for the kill during his second career.

Gil Clancy was a great boxing trainer. That’s part of history and has been well documented over the last 50 years. However, Clancy made a monumental miscalculation strategically when he took over for Dick Saddler and began training Foreman after he lost to Ali. The thing Gil admired most about Angelo Dundee was that he didn’t change Ali from who he was as a fighter, which is the exact opposite of how he approached Foreman with the intent being to defeat Ali in a proposed rematch.

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com