By Chuck Mindenhall
June 1st, 2016
History remembers Howard Cosell’s famous call from the “Sunshine Showdown” in 1973 with the same intensity it does Herbert Morrison’s “oh, the humanity!” cry during the Hindenburg disaster. In just nine words — “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” — Cosell sent an echo through the halls of sports history. To this day, whether you’re a boxing fan or not, those words have come to convey not just the colossal feat itself, but, somehow too, the idea that nothing is impossible.
Yet seldom remembered were the subsequent words on that call from Kingston, Jamaica during Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s title bout with George Foreman. “The heavyweight champion is taking the mandatory eight-count, and Foreman is as poised as can be! In the neutral corner, he is as poised as can be!”
And that was the lasting image. The vast cathedral of Foreman.
There stood Big George in his red trunks, relaxing on the ropes with no expression on his face whatsoever as the mighty Joe Frazier — the man who’d defeated Muhammad Ali, and everybody else that had crossed his path — groped about for his wits. Foreman appears completely detached from what his right hand had just done. He shows no apparent care if Frazier is able get up, and no real preference one way or another. There’s a chilliness to his calm, like a man with remote conscience after committing a crime. It’s like he’s looking at nothing. Thinking nothing. Expecting nothing.
He’s just a hunter surveying his wounded prey.
This was when George Foreman, just 24 years old at the time and still undefeated, became the scariest heavyweight of his day. He would drop Frazier a total of six times over the course of two rounds — looping rights, powerful uppercuts, short shots that sent aftershocks down Frazier’s legs — before the referee, Arthur Mercante, Sr., stopped the bout. From that moment on, Foreman was the most feared fighter on the planet. Heading into his bout with Ali a year later in Zaire, the concern was that Foreman may actually kill him. Such was the size of the man’s respect in the mid-1970s. Such was the size of his punch and his menace.
Just a month after the fight with Frazier, with Foreman’s shadow now cast over the rest of the world’s great heavyweight icons, Smokin Joe appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and filled the world in on what it’s like to stand in against Foreman.
“I know one thing, you asked me how well George could fight, I don’t know,” he said. “But I can tell you one thing…he punch good. He punch real good.”
And yet, all these years later, it’s hard to imagine George Foreman as somebody who was once that ominous.
Foreman’s career was a voyage like no other boxer in history. One of the greats from the golden age of heavyweights, he had a religious experience after dropping a decision in his memorable fight with Jimmy Young in 1977 — only his second loss in 47 pro fights (the other being his loss to Ali in “The Rumble in the Jungle”). He found God and became an ordained minister after what he considered a near-death experience. For the next ten years he stayed out of the prize ring, spending time with the church and his family.
Then, of course, he returned as the happy-go-lucky Foreman a decade later in 1987, the great warm uncle we never knew we had. He was a soft touch at 38, full of humor, laugher and memories. The juxtaposition was startling. The punching power, however, remained the same. He won 25 fights in a row heading into a heavyweight title clash with Evander Holyfield. Four years later, at 45 years old, he knocked out Michael Moorer to take home the WBA and IBF world heavyweight titles. He fought for the last time in 1997, a full 28 years after his boxing debut against Don Waldheim at Madison Square Garden in 1969.
Foreman was glorious for three decades; he had two primes, each of which bookended what should have been his prime. No other fighter can make a claim like that.
But the first Frazier fight was the moment he truly arrived as a fascination, as a terror, as an icon. Before then Foreman had notched a couple of eye-popping wins — namely against George Chavulo, whom he knocked out in the third round in 1970 — but nobody knew just how good he was. Then he decimated Frazier. And he was ruthless in doing it. It was one of the defining moments of the era.
“I remember Joe Frazier, he was the toughest guy I’d ever seen — Smokin’ Joe Frazier,” Foreman would concede many years later. “My mother watched a fight of his on television, and she said he hit a guy so hard, the guy’s back turned. And I kept thinking, I want to be champ of the world, but I sure hope Joe Frazier dies.”
That was the later Foreman, the affable champion of champions. Like most things he said in the early-1990s, that drew a laugh. He could make people look back with a different kind of fondness at the young George Foreman, the one that could intimidate the greatest fighters of his day by glaring through their souls.
“I had this habit of staring guys down, I’d look them in the eye to psyche them out,” he said. “If they dropped their head, I knew I had an advantage. But I was hoping Joe Frazier wouldn’t drop his head because I didn’t want him to see that my knees were shaking.”
Foreman would beat Frazier again in 1976, a fifth-round TKO. But that first fight was the classic encounter between two undefeated forces. It was the fight of old adages — what happens when two heavyweights collide.
Amid the bedlam in the ring afterwards, Foreman — with his trainer Dick Sadler and Archie Moore hovering about — said that the great Joe Louis had stopped by his dressing room before the fight, and had expressed more to him in moments than his camp could in months. “He said, ‘George, your left is gonna do it, and your right hand is going to come out whenever it’s necessary,’” Foreman said.
As a man who took his epiphanies wherever he could get them, Big George did just that. He used his left to set up the right, and he stood by like a cold-blooded colossus as down went Frazier.
Down he went.