On This Day: Golden George Puts The Boxing World On Notice At The 1968 Olympics

On this day in 1968, George Foreman seized Olympic gold in Mexico City
19:32, 26 Oct 2021

George Foreman is one of those sportspeople that means something to everyone. You might know him best as the canvas upon which Muhammad Ali painted his Zaire masterpiece. Perhaps you are better acquainted with his knockout of Michael Moorer to become the oldest heavyweight champion in history, at the age of 45. You may even be most familiar with ‘Big’ George as the spokesman of a particular line of grilling apparatus. But before George the grimacing knockout artist, George the punching preacher, or George the grinning grill salesman came George Foreman, the teenage Olympic champion.

On this day in 1968, the boxing world was put on notice by a man who would define such a large chunk of its future. 19-year-old George Foreman was looking to follow in the footsteps of America’s heavyweight gold medalist from four years earlier. ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier had parlayed Olympic success into professional dominance, and was the reigning heavyweight champion when a young Foreman travelled to Mexico City. The Olympic heavyweight gold medal was not the last title where Foreman would prove to be Frazier’s immediate successor.

Before the games though, not many were tipping Foreman for glory. The official Olympic website lists Foreman’s pre-games ledger as 20 amateur contests, while the United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum page credits him with just 18 unpaid fights. Either way, Foreman was carrying very little experience with him into the biggest competition in amateur boxing. However, as he did 26 years later when winning an improbable second heavyweight title in middle age, Foreman relied on his power.

Olympic boxing was a very different sport in 1968, sharing much more in common with the professional game than the 21st century amateur code. There were no head guards, and scoring was carried about on the judges’ scorecards rather than the tabulating of punches landed with a designated part of the glove. This played into the hands of Foreman, a crude but immensely impactful heavyweight steamroller. In four fights at the games, only one of ‘Big’ George’s opponents heard the final bell.

Poland’s Lucjan Trela took the mighty puncher the full distance, but lost 4-1 on the scorecards. From that point on, the boxing world got a look at the embryonic stages of one of its future legends. Ion Alexe was the next to fall, when the referee stopped the bout. The fact the Romanian scooped a silver medal four years later in Munich makes this an even better scalp on reflection. Italian Giorgio Bambini was forcefully made to settle for bronze by the rampaging Foreman, via second-round knockout. The La Spezia native would contest 15 bouts as a professional without defeat.

Jonas Čepulis was the only thing standing between Foreman and Olympic glory. The Lithuanian, representing the Soviet Union, had won his three bouts by stoppage, and was expected to be a match for Foreman. In truth, it was a massacre. The referee waved the final off just a minute into the second round, and the American teenager with just a handful of amateur fights was the Olympic champion.

What followed for ‘Big’ George is well-documented. He crushed Joe Frazier for the heavyweight crown, before having the title stunningly wrenched from his grasp in the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’. He won a legendary shootout with Ron Lyle, took out ‘Smokin’ Joe again and then retired after losing a decision to Jimmy Young. 

He found God during a decade out of the ring, and eventually found his rhythm when he was back inside it. Foreman lost title wars with Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison, but eventually lifted his old crown against Moorer. He would relinquish the belts for refusing to meet his mandatory challengers, before Shannon Briggs was incredibly lucky to get a decision over him for the lineal crown in 1997. 

Nearly 30 years on from his Olympic triumph, George Foreman retired from the ring. We all know how his story ended, but that incredible summer of 1968 is where it started.

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