It was, in the words of Red Smith, who had witnessed almost all of the heavyweight bouts in the more than 50 years of his career at ringside, “The most two-sided battle of heavyweights in recent memory.” It was the George Foreman-Ron Lyle heavyweight set-to.
The scheduled 12-round heavyweight elimination contest between Foreman, the former heavyweight champion, and Ron Lyle, the number-five ranked contender, was reminiscent of a battle between two bull moose locked in battle, butting heads to protect their turf. A classic exhibition of the manly art of self-defense, it was not. It fell somewhere in between the manly art of self-destruction and a down-and-out bar fight, tempered in part by a hint of something right out of an old Laurel and Hardy film clip — you know, Ollie hits Stanley in the face with a custard pie, Stanley reciprocates with a good, swift kick in the shins of the incredulous Ollie, who, in turn, plants a right to the top of the head of hit-willing foil, et cetera, etc., etc., the et ceteras going on for about five pages or more. It was, in short, a marvelous mélange of mayhem, with Foreman and Lyle playing it to the hilt, turning it from a comedic sketch into a war, a war in which neither side was seeking survivors.
Foreman had not fought since he lost the heavyweight title to Muhammad Ali in “The Rumble in the Jungle” some 15 months before. That is, if you don’t count his exhibition fights, including the afternoon in Toronto the previous April when he took on five different opponents in one afternoon. The “match” had all the trappings of low burlesque as Foreman “battled” a group of has-beens, never-wases and even a “kissing bandit,” parading around the ring as boxers. It was such a low blow to Foreman’s already shaky psyche that he exited the stage left, after his episode with the five, and remained inactive for yet another nine months — a proper gestation period for him to put together a new fighting “family,” including the veteran Gil Clancy and trainer Kid Rapidez, and embarked upon a comeback in quest of the heavyweight champion he viewed as rightfully his.
“I think 1976 is going to be the year of George Foreman,” the 27-year-old ex-champ intoned solemnly to those who were willing to listen. “I think with the bicentennial coming up, it’s going to mean a lot to me. I feel I have a lot to do with the image of the United States,” the man who had once carried America’s colors around the Olympic ring immodestly said. Now waving the flag again, he also admitted to having something to do with “the image of young people as well. And, if I can lose the title in one year, and win it back in 1976, it will inspire George Foreman to do a lot of other things.”
George’s reference to his self-perceived All-American image dated back to his glory days at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when he held a tiny American flag in his massive hand — in contrast to other Black athletes who chose, instead, to hold up a black-gloved, black -power salute after their victories.
Born in Marshall, Texas, on Jan. 10, 1949, the fifth of seven children born to a railroad construction worker, George was somewhat of a delinquent as a youngster. A high-school dropout, he spent the better part of two years hanging around street corners contemplating wayward acts. In his own words: “You name it, I’ve done it.” Inspired by footballer Jim Brown, George then joined America’s Job Corps and was sent to Fort Vannoy Conservation Center in Oregon where he learned the trades of masonry and carpentry. And boxing under the tutelage of Doc Broadus, the Parks Job Corps Center vocational guidance director.
In 1967 George terminated his training in the Job Corps after winning the national Amateur Athletic Union heavyweight title, a victory which assured him a spot on the 10-man Olympic team headed to Mexico City.
His gold-medal performance in Mexico City behind him, George turned pro in June of 1969. George fought at regular intervals, winning most of his fights against some of the greatest no-names in boxing history, many of whom were not even household names in their households — except for his crushing win over the durable and tough George Chuvalo, whom he destroyed in less than three rounds.
On Jan. 22, 1973, in Kingston, Jamaica, Foreman challenged the undefeated Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship. Frazier, a 3-1 favorite, was floored six times by Foreman before referee Arthur Mercante had had enough, even if Frazier hadn’t, and called a halt to the slaughter at 1:35 of the second round.
Foreman’s first title defense was in Tokyo against someone called Joe “King” Roman. The fight was over in less than two minutes of the first round. The powerful Foreman smashed the inept Roman to the canvas three times with devastating right-hand blows, one time even resorting to the unnecessary tactic of hitting Roman after he was down.
Next he defended his title against challenger Ken Norton in Caracas, Venezuela, the bout lasting five minutes as Foreman smashed Norton to the canvas three times with such a dull thud that Norton’s trainer, Bill Slayton, personally jumped into the ring to stop the mismatch.
But Foreman, the indestructible, came tumbling down from his seemingly invincible perch on Oct. 29, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, when Muhammad Ali “rope-a-doped” his way to an eighth-round knockout in what was billed as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
Now George, having suffered the slings and arrows of his once idolatrous public, was determined to make a serious comeback. His choice for an opponent was the sinister-looking Ron Lyle. Lyle, by his own admission, had been to “hell and back.” The third of 19 children, Lyle had spent 72 years of a 15-to-25-year sentence for second degree murder in the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City, where once, after a prison brawl, the seriously injured Lyle had been declared “clinically dead.”
His life in the ring was also one of survival, his career a series of comebacks. “I’ve made so many comebacks in and out of the ring that I’ve lost count,” Lyle was to say. “When I was twenty, I was cut up in a gang fight and pronounced dead, but I came back. All those years in a jail cell, and I came back, all the way to a title shot with Ali. I lost to Ali, but I came back to knock out Earnie Shavers. I lost to Jerry Quarry, and came back to beat Oscar Bonavena and Jimmy Ellis.”
Lyle had begun boxing professionally in 1971. After four years, he had won 29, with 20 knockouts against only two losses, good enough to earn him a title shot against Muhammad Ali. Lyle stunned the experts by out¬scoring Ali, and was leading on all cards through the first 10 rounds before succumbing to an Ali attack in the eleventh. In Lyle’s mind, it was time for yet another comeback.
The first round of the battle was a little slow as the two circled the ring, sizing up the other. Suddenly, a sneak right hit Foreman so hard his pants almost fell off. As his trunks drooped dangerously low, Foreman staggered around the ring like a drunk trying to find his two legs under him. The bell rang saving George from further embarrassment. And harassment.
Rounds two and three were Foreman’s, but just slightly, as Lyle spent a lot of time trapped in corners and not doing much about it. Foreman seemed to justify the 5-2 odds favoring him by popping away at Lyle, but not inflicting any real damage. By the end of the third, Lyle’s eye was beginning to puff. But that was the extent of the damage done by Foreman’s blows.
The fourth round was another story. Stunned by a right hand early in the round, Foreman went down like the proverbial sack of wheat, landing flat on his head as if he were trying to assume a Yoga position. He got up hurt, and angry, and fired a roundhouse right that dislodged Lyle’s mouthpiece. A left hook knocked Lyle under the lowest rope. Lyle got up with a look that said, “OK, now it’s my turn.” And it was. A wild left-right dropped Foreman on his shoulder. Everyone, including promoter Don King, who was in attendance — and hollering, “Now we won’t have to deal with Foreman anymore” — thought it was over. But the bell saved the fallen Foreman.
Foreman’s new cornerman, Gil Clancy, laid down the law to Foreman between rounds: “He’s hurt and you’re hurt& The one that’s gonna win is the one who wants it most.” And with that he thrust his forefinger into Foreman’s massive chest, saying, “Do you want it most?”
“Sure I do, Gil,” Foreman answered. But when he got off his stool for the fatal fifth, his knees quivered.
The two combatants met in the center of the ring, both spent from their efforts and their pounding, both of and to each other, and commenced pummeling one another. A left hook drove Lyle’s mouthpiece out of his mouth.
“When the mouthpiece went,” Lyle said afterwards, “I lost control of my breathing for a while. That was the main thing. I had split earlier in the week and it was too late to have new one made.”
Thirty seconds later, a barrage of blows from Foreman caught Lyle in his corner. Lyle seemed about to pitch forward on his face. When a man lands on his face, he hardly ever gets up. Lyle didn’t and it was over at 2:28 of the fifth.
“It was definitely the toughest fight I ever had,” Foreman said after the fight. “It could have gone either way. But I think I showed a lot of determination. I proved to have a little heart, and I could have gotten up in Africa, too,” he said, alluding to the Ali knockout.
“But this time I got some instructions on what to do if I got hurt,” said George, referring to Clancy’s exhortation, “and I didn’t look in any corner, I knew I had to get up. When I went down I said & please forgive me for saying this, ‘I’ll be G*d-damned if somebody is going to knock me out.”
Writer Len Koppett, when asked if he had ever seen anyone fight like Foreman and Lyle, answered, “Sure, John Garfield, many times.” But other than Garfield, few had ever seen such a stirring “two-sided” fight.