Down Goes Terror: How A Frightened George Foreman Shocked Joe Frazier

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Excerpted from Bouts of Mania: Ali, Frazier, and Foreman—and an America on the Ropes.

The fight crowd did not particularly care where it was. It was a movable mob, circulating here and there, reconvening at assigned sites, resuming old narratives. Location was of little consequence. Just so there was a gym, a hotel lobby, a bar, and some kind of atmospheric window to accommodate a satellite signal. Anyplace would do. All the regulars were showing up in Kingston this time. Here was Red Smith from the New York Times, George Plimpton from Sports Illustrated, even Howard Cosell from ABC.

Once again, Cosell had been overlooked for the closed-circuit broadcast (those duties went to Don Dunphy once more, although this time his color commentator would be singer Pearl Bailey). But he would provide his braying expertise for the Wide World of Sports delayed telecast and would inform and annoy his print brethren in the meantime.

"Take a gander at these limbs," Cosell commanded Plimpton, the two of them enjoying a drink on a hotel balcony during the week before the fight. Cosell was not often in Bermuda shorts and seemed delighted at the chance for such exposure. "At the PSAL [Public Schools Athletic League] championship held in 1931 at the 168th Street Armory in Manhattan, these legs carried me to a second-place finish in the standing broad jump." Plimpton made no record of a reply.

Others were making this scene for the first time. Don King, a man without apparent portfolio, busied himself in both camps, striking up friendships, making acquaintances. Among them was Roy Foreman, the fighter's 17-year-old brother, who'd tagged along with the rest of the family for this strange road trip. Once King recognized the connection, he latched on to him, started introducing him to his new friends, even Pearl Bailey. Suddenly, he was appearing at George's training.

Roy, who was largely agog at his first international experience, met someone else, and it was even more unnerving. He was trying to negotiate passport control upon arrival when he received a horrifying jolt, recognizing his brother's opponent in line with him. "Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor," the man said, shaking young Foreman's hand, just going up and down the line, greeting everybody. Whatever camp confidence had existed vanished in that instant. Foreman struggled for a proper description, running through a number of geological properties. Finally, he hit upon one. "He's like a boulder with a head!" This was just awful. He'd had no idea what they were up against. "What's one loss," he thought. "Lots of great fighters have one loss."

Frazier's superiority was the prevailing opinion, and young Roy needn't have apologized for any doubt. Frazier had all the experience, all the pedigree, and that left hook. Not to mention the heavyweight title of the world and that win over Ali. He was as much as a 4-to-1 favorite to retain his title and move on to the real money, a rematch with Ali. Frazier had put that off as long as he could and, even with a hard-punching youngster at hand, found himself dreaming of the day when he could silence Ali for good, and reap a considerable windfall while he was at it. He could barely wait. "I want him real bad," he said. "I might buy another plantation."

Money—Frazier-Ali money—seemed to dominate the prefight chatter. "I want a percentage," explained manager Yank Durham, talking about an Ali fight, even as Frazier was appearing with Foreman at a prefight press conference. "They're talking about $20 million, $30 million, I want a piece of that." Referring to Jack Kent Cooke, who had fronted the first fight and consequently held the paper for the rematch, Durham said his offer of $3 million, especially as it was for a fight in Cooke's Los Angeles Forum, was simply not enough. "I asked Mr. Cooke if any promoter was entitled to as much as the athlete. He said that's a matter of opinion."

Ali was definitely looking forward to the rematch, too, having been remaindered in their 1971 fight, without a title and without alternative prospects. He'd fought nine times since the Frazier decision and was growing desperate for his redemption. "Don't let nothing happen to Joe Frazier," he'd said the week before the Foreman fight. He wanted some of Cooke's Los Angeles money, too. He'd dispatched several from his considerable entourage to the fight to look after his interests.

There were a few among the fight crowd who did give Foreman a chance. One of them was heavyweight great Joe Louis, who'd been lured from the golf course to come to Kingston and help promote the fight, presumably to encourage the notion of a competitive bout. "He's always in front of you," said Louis, describing Frazier, "and he's easy to hit." Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, was another. He was on hand, as if to safeguard his investment, but he was growing increasingly worried as the fight drew closer. "I'm rooting for Frazier," he said, "but I've got this feeling Foreman will win. Why? Because he has all the attributes to beat Frazier's style. He's got a jab like I've never seen on a heavyweight since Sonny Liston. He has a strong left hand. I mean strong. He can stop a man in his tracks."

Dundee seemed to be getting depressed at his own analysis. "I don't know why, but I feel this 'dream match' between Ali and Frazier is going to go up in smoke. I feel like it's going to blow up." Dundee said he wouldn't be surprised if "Foreman puts some hurt on him before the fifth."

Another lonely voice, though considerably louder and more aggravating, was Cosell's. By 1973 Cosell had become almost bigger than the sports he broadcast. He'd been a fixture on much of the fight coverage, had come to be identified with the political left that had freed Ali from his exile, and had reached through to even bigger audiences as the self-styled and highly self-absorbed intellectual on Monday Night Football. Probably half of America hated him; probably half loved him. But there was little question that he was a knowledgeable and important asset to sports entertainment, possible even an authority when it came to boxing.

Here in Jamaica, Cosell was once more telling it like he thought it was, reminding listeners that he'd "been with George in Mexico City when he took out the Russian, Ionis Chepulis, on a TKO [technical knockout] in the second round." That was all he needed to have seen. He advised, "There are going to be some shocked people in the world."

Finally, there was Lucien Chen, who, like many Jamaicans, had jumped on Foreman's roomy bandwagon. "He hits like a tornado," he said, coming away from a training session. Odds on Frazier had dropped to 2–1 at Chen's betting shops. Foreman himself had not gotten over his initial wariness of Frazier. You would have thought he'd be at peak confidence. He had just turned 24, had learned of the birth of a daughter the week before the fight, was about to make the biggest money of his life in front of the whole world, and was assured of that mysterious transfer of power. He was undefeated, knockouts galore, as feared as any man to enter the ring. Things were clearly going his way. But, truth be told, he had just about the same opinion of his chances as his little brother. He was going through the motions of the big-talking challenger, building himself up, telling reporters how he was going to "dry-gulch" Frazier, all the while wondering if he'd freeze in the ring at the introductions.

"I'm worried none," he told one of those reporters, with a bravado that might not have been false, but was certainly exaggerated. "I thought I would be, but I'm not. Last couple of times I saw Joe fight, he was just looking for that one good punch. It's the matter of a blind man trying to get somewhere. Keeps tapping his stick around. But I ain't gonna be waiting while he's tapping. I'll be punching. If I throw 10 punches in a row, I'll get him with six. Can't anybody stand up to that."

Archie Moore, on board as a "technical adviser," even though Foreman had retained Sadler after all, understood just how delicate the big man's psyche was. He had stood at Foreman's shoulder during a particularly tense showdown at a press conference, Foreman surprising himself and telling Frazier to shut up. "You can't tell me to shut up," yelled Frazier, more in surprise at the audacity of this young pup than in anger. Moore whispered from behind: "Look him in the eye. Look him in the eye." Foreman tried.

In Jamaica, Moore had devised another confidence-building exercise, built around their post-training ritual of table tennis. Moore would announce at critical points in the game that they were now playing for possession of a red rubber mouse. The loser of the point would have to pick up the mouse and squeak it—"man or mouse," Moore explained. "I like a man who puts priorities in perspective," he said. "I like a man who wants to win the championship of the world."

Yet it took all of Moore's ministrations to even get Foreman into the ring that night. Perhaps 36,000 were in attendance, many more than were anticipated, and as Foreman walked through the warm evening air he began to recognize just how foolish this enterprise was. He had no business being there with Frazier. Frazier was 29–0, 25 knockouts! He truly was sharp as a razor. Foreman began to dance around a little, afraid his knees could be seen shaking if he stood still. It occurred to him, they might even stop the fight if his real condition was realized.

Moore, wearing another of his strange woolen caps, prodded him to the center of the ring, where referee Arthur Mercante was giving instructions. Good Lord! There was Frazier, too! "Look at him," Moore said from behind, rubbing his neck. "Look at him." Foreman tried.

At ringside the reporters were settling in for what they imagined would be a long evening, Frazier eventually cutting this poor young man to ribbons, his steady onslaught taking a tremendous toll, round by round. Cosell turned around to Plimpton and said, "Boyle's Thirty Acres, Jack Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier. 1921. But you know that. You were there." Plimpton wrote this down but, again, did not record a response.

And then, entirely against Foreman's wishes, the bell rang.

There are few events, in life and even in sports, that have the same capacity for surprise as a boxing match. A heavyweight bout, even one for a title, can be dull, inconclusive, a plodding affair as two tacticians struggle for the smallest of advantages, each mindful of terrible consequences that are natural to the game. Sometimes there will be flurries of abandon, as the combatants briefly reach beyond their comfort zones. Or, on the rarest of occasions, it can detonate in a sudden explosion of surprise. It can happen in less than a second: long-held values vacated, a bias corrected, the surety of opinion canceled, a whole foundation of belief instantly subsumed, swallowed up in an instant. What was once a strictly choreographed dance becomes a blast sector. All in the time it takes a man to swing his arm.

No sooner had that bell fallen silent than Foreman, as instructed by Sadler, rushed to the middle of the ring and threw a wild, looping right hand. It appeared to be a ridiculous haymaker, amateurish, born of desperation. It was not confidence inspiring. Dunphy, at ringside, said, "Foreman's a little tense looking." But it was actually a calculated move. Sadler, who was still trying to regain Foreman's trust, had told him to swing once, not two or three times, but just once. Don't even try to hit Frazier. Just swing. That maneuver, which took up a lot of space, established a danger zone. Frazier was not used to people setting boundaries, and he wasn't likely to respect them. But, even if subconsciously, he now recognized an area that probably wasn't safe to be in.

Foreman kept up a brisk pace, determined not to let Frazier in his chest, and to never back up. Several times he used both his mitts to simply push Frazier back. Or else used that left jab to keep him at a distance. "Now," Dunphy admitted, "Foreman looks a little looser."

Cosell had an alternate view. Broadcasting simultaneously, if for a delayed telecast, he immediately sensed something was different. "There's another left hook by George. He's getting into Frazier's head. We'll find out tonight how much the Ali fight took out of Frazier, if anything. And we'll find out just how good George Foreman is at giving and taking a punch." Seconds later, Foreman shuddered Frazier with a left of his own. "I think he hurt Joe Frazier," Cosell said with mounting urgency. "I think Joe is hurt."

From the corner, Moore competed with the ringside commentary and yelled, "Uppercut!" Foreman threw an uppercut.

It was the single most shocking sight in the world, so totally unexpected. The punch caught Frazier flush, and he simply capsized. Nobody was prepared for this, not this soon and, probably, not ever. It didn't even take a second, destinies altered, fortunes reversed. "Down goes Frazier!" Cosell screamed. "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!"

In truth, Frazier was up before Cosell finished the call. And, in truth, Foreman was not that much encouraged by the damage he had just wrought. Frazier had gotten up, after all. In the next 30 seconds, Foreman backed Frazier into the corner and delivered a succession of thudding right hands and then, perhaps responding to Moore's screams of "Underneath!," one more uppercut. "Frazier is down again," yelled Cosell. "And maybe, no, he is rising. He is game." And then, at the bell, Frazier's corner becoming hysterical, Foreman clubbed him to the canvas once more. At ringside Frazier's 12-year-old son, Marvis, was slapping the canvas. "Daddy, quit playing around."

The second opened, and Foreman again forced him into the ropes, just pounding away. Frazier fell again. Cosell: "He is down for the fourth time in the fight. George Foreman is doing to Joe Frazier what a 19-year-old did to a veteran Russian, a fellow named Ionis Chepulis, in October of 1968 in the Mexico City Arena."

There were two more knockdowns—six in all—before the fight was finally called at 1:35 of the second round. None of the knockdowns was conclusive in itself; none showed the neural disconnect, a man going suddenly vacant, as if a switch had been flipped. But each showed a steady degradation of the nervous system, Frazier in less and less control of his body, his legs almost palsied, wobbling, as he attempted to keep his ground, assault after assault. Knockdown by knockdown, he was being reduced from heavyweight champion to a clumsy and helpless husk. It is a sad corollary. A fallen fighter is not simply defeated; he must look ridiculous as well. "A pitiful sight," the local paper proclaimed. It was only after the sixth that Foreman, forever wary of Frazier, a kind of undead the way he kept getting up, allowed himself to believe he'd won. It was only after the sixth that Mercante stopped it.

"George Foreman," screamed Cosell, "is the heavyweight champion of the world!"

There was chaos in the ring, even with more than a thousand police and militia to patrol it. Not only had sports artist LeRoy Neiman, with his signature mustache gleaming in the ring lights, gotten to Foreman's corner, but so had Don King. King had come to the arena in Frazier's limo but was now grabbing Foreman by the shoulders. "My man!" he kept repeating. The chaos followed Foreman to his dressing room, only partially restricted by law enforcement. By the time Roy Foreman got there, bringing up the rear, he saw a rather remarkable sight, King spread-eagled against the door jam, one leg in and one out. "I'm family!" he screamed.

The tumult was actually going to reverberate much further and much longer, boxing's world order totally disrupted. This was going to take a while to sort out. Even Foreman seemed to have misgivings. Back at the hotel he appeared on his balcony, celebrating with his arms aloft, a crowd below cheering him on. He really had been a favorite of Jamaica. But then he looked to the balcony next to his and recognized Frazier's sister—she looked just like Joe—and he was immediately chastened. He waved an apology in her direction. He was apologizing for winning the heavyweight championship of the world.

"Don't feel bad, Mr. Foreman," she said. "We've had many victories."

He waved back and returned to his crowd.

Richard Hoffer is an award-winning sports writer and author of four books. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and The Los Angeles Times. He was last seen around these parts telling a wonderful story about Pedro Guerrero's dick. Bouts of Mania: Ali, Frazier, and Foreman—and an America on the Ropes can be purchased here.