Context has a funny way of altering our cultural history. Things are rarely remembered the way they are perceived at the time. We laugh at the record labels that rejected The Beatles now, but the executives who laughed off their mop-tops weren’t dismissing the visionaries who made Revolver. They were saying no to a talented, but not yet supernaturally so, group of Liverpool youngsters peddling R&B covers. George Foreman’s remarkable comeback in the 1980s and 1990s is much the same.
The return of ‘Big’ George is remembered as a glorious triumph. Lifted from the pages of a Rocky screenplay, the redemption of the Texan has long since entered boxing folklore. But contemporary opinion during the early days of Foreman’s return was far harsher. When Foreman squared off with undisputed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfied on 19th April 1991, there were many who felt he didn’t deserve to be in the ring.
Since returning from a ten-year retirement in March 1987, Foreman had been winning. A 24-0 record with 23 wins by knockout can be enough to land you a world title shot on its own, not forgetting Foreman was a legendary former champion with 47 fights behind him pre-comeback. But the issue people had with Foreman challenging Holyfield was not his volume of fights, but the quality of his opposition.
Foreman had been allowed to amass a king’s bounty of victories, but the vast majority came against journeymen. Even the smattering of recognisable names on his ledger came with caveats. Dwight Muhammad Qawi was a former champion, but that was at cruiserweight. Qawi met Foreman in his first ever heavyweight fight, and he would not return to the banner division for nine years after George knocked him out. Gerry Cooney was a star name from his fight with Larry Holmes eight years before, but he had been retired for three years by the time Foreman pumped him full of leather. Bert Cooper would go on to title contention, but was an unremarkable 20-4 slugger when Foreman met him. The fact the next most recognisable name of Foreman’s 24 pre-Holyfield victims is David Jaco, eviscerated in a single round by a teenage Mike Tyson in 1986, speaks volumes.
The fans were still on Foreman’s side. The glowering presence who had terrorised the greatest heavyweight division there ever was in the 1970s had been replaced. Foreman was an altogether softer man. His features rounded, his mountain of muscle replaced by the looser physique of a middle-aged man, and his personality had eased. Still a merciless finisher inside the ring, he was now an affable and kind-hearted soul outside of it. But his popularity had not done quite enough to convince anyone he had the beating of Holyfield.
The management team of ‘The Real Deal’ certainly weren’t buying it. Holyfield’s manager, Dan Duva, famously dubbed the bout “The Real Deal vs The Big Meal” and quipped “Some people say George is as fit as a fiddle. But I think he looks more like a cello.” The giggles extended to the press row, with the Baltimore Sun trumpeting a headline where “Foreman Chews The Fat”. Foreman was lampooned where he had once been lauded. The mockery would not last long.
Like Foreman, Holyfield was also perceived far differently than he is today. The Bowe trilogy, the glorious comeback and the two victories over Mike Tyson were still in his future. In fact it was the small matter of the latter fighter that had precluded Holyfield from getting the credit he deserved. Holyfield had won the title from historic underdog James Douglas. ‘Buster’ had famously knocked out ‘Iron’ Mike at the Tokyo Dome in boxing’s greatest ever shock result, but had ballooned in weight since. The excesses of his newfound stardom made him easy pickings for the gifted Holyfield, who dismantled him in three easy rounds. The upshot of this was that few took Holyfield’s triumph seriously at the time, viewing it as a facile proxy for a win over Tyson. Accepting a fight with the 42-year-old Foreman instead of Mike, whose reputation had been partially revived with three straight knockout wins, was seen as treason.
Redemption would arrive for both men inside the Convention Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Both men set their stalls out in round one. Holyfield danced on the balls of his feet, firing speedy combinations Foreman’s way. The big man bullied his way forward behind one of history’s most underrated jabs, bludgeoning his younger foe with hooks when in range. The second saw the crowd roar George through a series of missed power-punches, as Evander skilfully evaded the artillery and punished his foe with straight rights.
The greatest adversity of Foreman’s comeback thus far was exerted by Holyfield at the end of the third. Short, spiteful hooks ripped in from the heavyweight champion, sending Foreman’s head on a swivel. One after the other, these nasty little digs waxed and waned Foreman’s moon-like visage. At the bell to end the round, the ex-champion bowed his head. “What have I gotten myself into?”, his gait seemed to say.
The exchanges were more even in the fourth and fifth rounds, Holyfield’s athletic volleys met with clubbing ripostes from the veteran. Foreman began going to the body, trying to put the brakes on the Rolls Royce effortlessly gliding around him. The strategy paid off in the sixth, as the young champion planted his feet and tried to trade punches with Foreman. Bad idea. The fearsome puncher took the opening he had been gifted with glee, and his own punches now echoed the focused, shorter trajectory of Holyfield’s rather than the wide and wild swings he had exhibited thus far.
If any single three minutes of boxing can be said to have shaped the fortunes of Evander Holyfield and the 1990s vintage of George Foreman, it is the seventh round of this fight. ‘Commander Vander’ started fast, pounding his jab into Foreman’s skull. The wise old stager waited for his moment to strike, and a missed Holyfield hook permitted him to uncork a right. Foreman emptied the reserves, putting the champion on the brink of losing his throne. But Holyfield found something deep within himself, a well of inspiration he would return to against Bowe, against Tyson, on so many of his greatest nights. Suddenly he was throwing combos like Foreman’s bald head was a speedball, rocking it back and forth with abandon. But George was not done, he was breathing heavily but had enough gas left in the tank to unleash hurtful uppercuts. The round would win The Ring magazine’s Round of the Year gong. It is easy to see why. This round has taken on a wider significance in the history of heavyweight boxing. It was the moment Holyfield proved once and for all that he was a warrior of the highest order. It was also the moment Foreman proved that at 42 years old, he could hang with any heavyweight on the planet.
And hang he did. Holyfield had a bright eighth, ‘Big’ George came out fresher in the ninth but ended the round under heavy fire. His chin was tested, but remained unbowed. The tenth saw Foreman find yet more energy in his ageing body, with sickening hooks colliding with the younger man’s head and midriff. The Texan tried to turn the trick again in the eleventh, but this time Holyfield had some hearty blows with which to reply. Holyfield finished stronger, but by now it was obvious Foreman would hear the final bell. The official scorecards read 116-111, 117-110 and 115-112 in favour of Holyfield. But both men had won something more important than the fight or the belts on this night. They had won the respect of their peers, and the hearts of the fans.
What each man did next is well-documented. Foreman would bravely lose a WBO championship challenge to Tommy Morrison, before his record-breaking title win over Michael Moorer at the age of 45 years old. A heavyweight is yet to hold a version of the prestigious crown at an older age than Foreman in the three decades since. Holyfield would retire as a four-time heavyweight champion, another record that stands to this day. Two heavyweight immortals met on this day in 1991, and in doing so they defined what was to come in the remainder of their glorious careers.