One of the most bizarre events in the history of heavyweight boxing took place 42 years ago this week. On April 26, 1975 in Toronto, George Foreman fought five men in five three round exhibitions that had all the markings of a freak show.
This was the first time Foreman fought after having lost to Muhammad Ali in Zaire –a loss he regarded as a fluke. The Toronto exhibition (which George rarely mentions, although he takes full responsibility for organizing it) sprung from his felt need to reestablish his aura of invincibility and intimidation. But things backfired in a bad way.
The opponents, in order, were Alonzo Johnson, Jerry Judge, Terry Daniels, Charley Polite and Boone Kirkman. The show was televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports with nasal-voiced Howard Cosell and Ali, seated next to Don King, sharing the microphone.
Cosell, in his usual sarcastic manner, labeled the opponents “the frightful five.” He said, “the thing is a carnival and it’s not pleasant to see.” But the truth of the matter was that the “thing” was made to order for Howard.
Ali publicly made a fool of Foreman, mocking him from ringside and urging the fans to do the same. His non-stop verbal barrage began the minute George entered the ring. Foolishly George took the bait and engaged Ali as well as the hostile crowd. Once again Foreman was the villain to Ali’s hero.
This was not what Big George had hoped for. Ali’s antics seemed to disorient him and the event turned into a freak show. Foremen ended up punching an opposing cornerman and even a couple of his own cornermen. As one wag put it, “rarely will you ever see a man’s psyche so exposed and battered in just over an hour.”
The first three fights ended as expected with Foreman stoppages. After the second one — against Jerry Judge–the two engaged in a brawl while howling fans started throwing things into the ring. As Foreman threw them back, Ali stood and led the crowd in loud chants of “Ali! Ali! Ali!” It was an ugly scene. To make matters worse, some of the opponents joined in with the taunting.
Next up was Terry Daniels. Foreman stopped in the second, whereupon Daniels followed George back to his corner and another brawl broke out. This time the respective cornermen fought one another. It was even uglier than the Judge ending.
Charlie Polite added to the circus atmosphere by blowing wet kisses at Foreman during the pre-fight instructions for the fourth bout. “This is the weirdest thing you will ever see,” said Cosell with tongue in cheek. Polite went the distance. An exhausted George then beat Kirkman but was unable to put him away. He exited the ring to jeers.
As Cosell pointed out, Foreman had fought 12 rounds, going longer than any single fight in his entire career. However, Big George did not look especially intimidating or invincible; in fact, he had weighed in at 232 pounds – well over his normal fighting weight. In a word, he looked sluggish.
Thanks in large part to the relentless heckling from Ali and the nasty and sanctimonious behavior of Cosell who seemed intent on making the exhibition a carnival act, this was likely the low point of Foreman’s entire career. He remained inactive for another nine months before going up against the equally heavy hitting and dangerous Ron Lyle. The exhibition bouts had done little to help his already shaky psyche — au contraire.
The Comeback (1987-1997)
“…he emerged from a 10-year retirement fat and happy, but with the same gift for bludgeoning the guy in the other corner into submission”—Daniel Roberts, Fortune, March 6, 2015.
In 1987, after 10 years away from the ring, a no longer sinister looking George surprised the boxing world by announcing a comeback at the age of 38. On March 9, a massive 267-pound Foreman stopped journeyman Steve Zouski in Sacramento, Calif. in five rounds. Most paid scant attention as ten years is a long time to be away from boxing and Zouski was no world-beater, but George’s slow but steady mission had begun.
Defying the odds and fighting in a more relaxed, intelligent, and economical manner with no stamina issues caused by the tension that had haunted him in his “first” career, the second version of George Foreman won his first 18 bouts by KO until Everett Martin took him the distance in 1989. The comeback – the most astounding comeback in the history of sports — was well under way.
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Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records in the Grand Master class. A member of Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame, he enjoys writing about boxing.