On this day in 1995, George Foreman was stripped of the heavyweight championship of the world. You might know the story of how, at 45 years of age, ‘Big’ George became the oldest man ever to wear the heavyweight crown. But you might not know what happened next. Foreman’s journey after knocking Michael Moorer out cold in 1994 has echoes of Tyson Fury. You see, ‘The Gypsy King’ was not the first boxer to place significant emphasis on being the lineal heavyweight champion…
As well as a record that still stands to this day, Foreman’s historic win over Moorer also gave him the WBA and IBF heavyweight title belts. In the wake of his victory, the new king tried to jockey for a fight with Mike Tyson. ‘Iron’ Mike was a month away from release on parole after his 1992 rape conviction, and Foreman said the fight hinged on whether the youngest heavyweight champion in history signed with Don King on his return to society. In the end he did, leading Foreman to look elsewhere.
When he did pick another opponent, the WBA did not like his choice. Their number one challenger at the time was Tony Tucker, a former IBF champion who had seen better days. Despite being on the slide, Tucker had still seen better days than Axel Schulz, Foreman’s chosen challenger, ever would. The WBA wanted nothing to do with Foreman’s defence against the 21-1-1 German who had fought just twice outside his homeland. Foreman was stripped of his newly-won title.
The Schulz bout went ahead for the IBF title, as well as the lightly-regarded vacant WBU belt. But, crucially, Foreman was still the lineal heavyweight champion. He had beaten the legitimate ruler in Moorer and thus he was the rightful champion, WBA be damned.
Foreman would soon wish he had never taken such a stand. He struggled mightily with the 26-year-old in front of him. Foreman recovered from a slow start to cut his man in the fourth and stagger him in the fifth, but largely the fight was one way traffic. Schulz used speed and movement to unbalance the veteran, closing his right eye almost completely by the time the 12 rounds concluded. While HBO’s unofficial judge, Harold Lederman, had Schulz a 117-111 winner, the judges disagreed. Foreman won a majority decision on the scorecards, and was pelted with boos from the crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The IBF were even less impressed than the crowd. They ordered their champion to give Schulz an immediate rematch. Foreman, perhaps conscious of receiving another battering from a man 20 years his junior, declined. Just like that, his second heavyweight title was gone. The IBF stripped ‘Big’ George of the title and put it up for grabs in a bout between Schulz and Francois Botha. Schulz initially lost a unanimous decision, which became a No Contest when his South African foe failed a drug test. Schulz would get his third crack at the famous red belt in a row against Foreman’s old victim, Michael Moorer, in 1996. He lost a split decision, ending his three-fight dalliance with world title contention.
Here’s where Foreman’s story begins to echo Fury’s. Shorn of his sanctioning body gold, beyond the scrap metal of the WBU strap, Foreman continued undeterred. Still the lineal heavyweight champion, the preacher from Houston, Texas simply began defending that title instead.
Foreman did somewhat take advantage of the unregulated status of his heavyweight champion status. Challengers Crawford Grimsley and Lou Savarese, both beaten by decision, are the sort of fighters that would never normally get close to the richest prize in the game. Grimsley never did anything to warrant this title shot, either before or after the bout. Savarese is best known for getting splattered in a round by Mike Tyson, in a bout where ‘Iron’ Mike threw the referee out of the way in order to keep his attack going after the fight had been waved off. Hardly the equivalent to previous foes like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Evander Holyfield.
George would eventually lose his invisible crown to Shannon ‘The Cannon’ Briggs at the end of 1997. Ironically, most fans in attendance and watching on television thought Foreman had done enough to win the decision. He would never fight again, but his legacy lives on. For now boxing has another fighter who proudly plies his trade as the lineal heavyweight champion.
Fury became ‘the man who beat the man’ when he stunningly decisioned Wladimir Klitschko in 2015. Retirement followed, with the Mancunian star enduring substance issues and mental health problems during a turbulent sabbatical from the ring. But Fury fought his way bravely back to health, and to a place in the boxing ring.
When he returned in 2018 to face unknown Albanian boxer Sefer Seferi, he did so without the IBF, WBA and WBO titles he had so spectacularly relieved Klitschko of. Those were left behind upon his retirement. But he did bring something more lasting than a physical belt, the unbroken legacy of the lineal title. Fury had beaten the champion, making him the champion. Now he was back to defend that claim.
Defend it he did, taking Seferi out in four rounds. Francesco Pianeta was then beaten by decision. Like Foreman, these weren’t necessarily names you’d expect to find in world heavyweight title bouts, though Pianeta had at least competed in them a few years prior when he was closer to his peak. But Fury was keeping the lineal championship alive, liberating boxing from its usual status of being beholden to selfish sanctioning bodies.
Fury would eventually win the WBC title to back up his claims as the best heavyweight on the planet. Though not before a few more lineal defences. After his instant classic draw with Deontay Wilder, Fury once again put his lineal status on the line against Tom Schwarz and Otto Wallin. Even after beating Wilder in their 2020 rematch for the WBC strap, and racking up two successful defences, Fury continues to hold his lineal status above all else.
Fury and Foreman have both shown that the idea of the true heavyweight champion is more enduring than any piece of metal and leather. The championship is a concept born out of what happens in the ring, not what happens in the offices of corporations. You might not get a belt for being the lineal heavyweight champion, but some would argue you get a whole lot more.
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