Forty-seven years before KSI claimed he became the first to fight more than one opponent on the same night, George Foreman fought, and beat, five. Declan Warrington recounts perhaps the strangest happening of one of the most remarkable careers of all
“I WAS trying to get back off the ground again with my career,” George Foreman recalls. “I thought it’d be a great way to show everybody how strong I was, and that something was wrong in Africa – I’d been protesting all along. What greater way would be than to box five men at one time?
“That first one, I was actually more exhausted than I thought. Because I had to do a lot of moving, and the guy was trying to get me as well, so I had to get my wits together, and that’s tiring too. I was exhausted after the first one.
“But it didn’t concern me. As a matter of fact, I wanted to know exhaustion, and to keep going. A fresh man would come in after him. How do I adapt to that?
“There wasn’t a lot of pressure. Just, to get one fight under me and think, ‘Boy, I’ve got four more’ – that, you’ve got to sit down and think about. I’d go back to my corner and really try and get myself together, mentally and physically, for the next guy.
“I was rusty. Ordinarily when I got into the ring it was always Dick Sadler giving me this instruction, that instruction. This night was the first night I got into the ring with total instructions from myself, because after the Muhammad Ali fight I fired Dick Sadler, because I didn’t think he had performed correctly.
“I’d lost the title but I put most of the blame on Dick Sadler, because I trusted him. Everything he told me, I would do it. Now, fighting in Canada, the instructions came slowly from me.”
Foreman was 26 – little over two years removed from establishing himself as a heavyweight supernova by so destructively dismantling Joe Frazier to win the world championship, and little over six months on from confronting Muhammad Ali in the most storied fight of all – when his latest attempt to both test and promote himself proved largely misguided.
He had lost the popularity contest in Zaire when wrongly wearing traditional African clothes in a country that was to prove unexpectedly modern and was increasingly falling under the spell cast by Ali, and in the months after his struggles with exhaustion contributed to Ali stopping him in the eighth round, he had found himself questioning not only his stamina, but what it was he needed to prove to both himself and the public in the process of rebuilding.
Sixteen months before The Rumble in the Jungle, Foreman, increasingly and instinctively seeking greater independence, had announced the dismissal of Dick Sadler. His then-trainer and manager regardless remained by his side in Kinshasa, where Ali clinically inflicted his first defeat, and whereafter Foreman’s dissatisfaction with his conduct finally lead to their permanent split.
Determined not only to rediscover the sense of momentum that prior to fighting Ali had seemed irresistible, Foreman had a unique vision for how to begin both reestablishing himself as the world’s leading heavyweight and to address the doubts he, for the first time, found himself encountering. His vision had also involved neither Don King nor Ali, but both were ultimately prominent on the afternoon of the Toronto five.
“It was my idea,” he continued, to Boxing News. “I wanted to do it. There was a local promoter I’d known for years, Henry Winstone, and I sold him on it. We started looking for opponents, and when I turned my back he went and sold the idea to Don King. That’s how it ended up on ABC.
“I don’t think confidence was ever a problem at all, but it was mysterious for me to lose a boxing match, because I’d gone all my time in my professional career without losing, and when you lose you have a lot of questions to be answered, inwardly.
“I hadn’t found anyone to work my corners. It was something I chose to do, because, when you go out there walking in deep water, you gotta feel around yourself, see how deep it is; when to back-stroke. All those things you gotta figure out yourself, and I wanted to know how it felt to fly solo as far as instructing myself in the corner.
“I thought about that [the need for instructions] before, especially. How would I be able to get in the ring without Dick Sadler? I thought about it constantly.”
Even measuring the calibre of opposition – Alonzo Johnson, Pedro Agosto, Mac Foster, Terry Daniels and Boone Kirkman were those originally scheduled to challenge him at Maple Leaf Gardens – against Foreman’s fearsome reputation didn’t consign his efforts to ridicule. It was instead when Ali appeared ringside in Toronto alongside the ever-scheming King and so effortlessly rivalled Foreman as the centre of attention that the atmosphere around what the Ontario Boxing Commission stipulated had to be classed as five exhibitions truly began to change.
King had agreed to pay each opponent $5,000 for each of the three three-minute rounds they completed against someone who would outweigh them by between 20lbs-40lbs; Foreman, perhaps reflecting the conviction he retained in his unconventional return, was due 50 per cent of the net income from the television revenue and live gate, ultimately a reported $200,000.
“I trained hard,” he said. “There was no doubt that I would have to be in shape to do it. So nothing changed.
“I got myself in the best possible shape by running – the heavy punching bag was my next friend – and trying to find sparring partners. I looked for two or three sparring partners, but it was all about endurance.
“I had fought Charley Polite and Boone Kirkman [winning in four and two]. The other guys I didn’t know anything about. That was part of the whole idea, because I would be able to step in the ring, and have to adapt quickly to one style. Not knowing their style was good because that would help my instinct.”
Johnson – a sparring partner for Ali – was Foreman’s first opponent, and perhaps the first to benefit from the significant distraction Ali represented when drawing the scowling Foreman’s attention after Foreman had made his way to the ring, and when then starting the process of taunting him in as he had in Zaire.
“I didn’t expect that,” said Foreman, a then-career heaviest 232lbs and who in turn struggled to convince, performing carelessly when recording two knockdowns until two right hands forced a third and Johnson was rescued in round two. Before the first, Ali, commentating alongside Howard Cosell, had repeatedly yelled to Johnson to “Get on the ropes – he’ll get tired”; Foreman, triumphant after the first knockdown, made his way across the ring to respond to him.
“Muhammad Ali and his antics brought on the atmosphere of a circus,” he said of an evening when he repeatedly stood in his corner without using his stool “I didn’t expect him to be there.
“Alonzo Johnson was the most stable of them all. I couldn’t get him into a proper position to knock him out. I tried, but he was a good, stand-up boxer. It was probably good he was the first.”
Jerry Judge – who alongside Charley Polite had replaced Agosto and Foster – followed, and after being dropped by a heavy uppercut that came after a further exchange between Foreman and Ali he returned to his feet to test Foreman with a strong right hand. When he too was rescued by the referee Harry Davis insults were traded. Judge pushed Foreman, and Foreman responded by punching him again before they started to wrestle. If it hadn’t already done so, the promotion was descending into farce.
“I was still a really serious man when the boxing ring came,” said Foreman, at the end of each fight subjected to boos and then chants of “Ali” from the 4,000 in attendance. “When it came time to box, I was still too serious.
“I remember slightly, being out of my ordinary self, and I decided I was going to enjoy myself during it as well. So, talking, and raising hands, and waving fists. All of the things I ordinarily didn’t do, I was going to do this time, and not think much of it. I did enjoy it.”
Daniels had in 1972 been stopped in four when challenging the then-champion Frazier. He, too, was stopped in the second round, but was on his feet when Davis, to another chorus of boos, prematurely responded to Foreman’s calls for his intervention. Again, words were exchanged with Ali; a further exchange with Daniels then led to each fighter throwing further punches, and an escalation that also involved a fight briefly breaking out between their corners.
“[Daniels] used slickness; he’s kind of smart, and I had him in the right position because I was able to take a breather from the fights before him,” Foreman said. “We were just pushing and playing, and one of my corner people got serious and threw a punch for real, and so I tried to cover it up so that nobody would pay any attention to it. It wasn’t a serious brawl with me; it was just the guys in my corner.”
“This is the weirdest occasion you’ll ever want to see,” the experienced, respected Cosell could by then be heard saying, even before Polite had started blowing kisses at Foreman during their pre-fight instructions. Burt Sugar later observed: “[It] 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.
Polite, a sparring partner for Frazier and Chuck Wepner, fought with such little ambition Foreman was encouraged to wind up windmill uppercuts and throw the laziest of jabs. Largely owing to the former champion’s decreasing intensity he remained on his feet until an unorthodox right hand thrown with 30 seconds remaining of the third, and he then survived until the final bell, at which point their fight’s status as an exhibition meant that no scores were announced.
Says Foreman: “He was listening to Muhammad, laying on the ropes and all of that, and that took away from it, so I had to play some games, because I was hoping that he’d keep the excitement going with the boxing matches.
“I was bothered about the crowd reaction. The action started to stop and the clowning begun. I just went along with the clowning game. I had to make fun out of it – what could I do?
“It’s a different kind of tiredness, because afterwards I knew I had to be ready for the next opponent, and I had to have the same enthusiasm as I did the first fight. It’s a more scary type of exhaustion.”
Kirkman, the opponent with the best record of the five, was the one also drawn to fight Foreman last. A strong right-left combination forced a knockdown in the opening round, shortly after which the unmistakeable voice of King, wary his hopes of enhancing Foreman’s reputation were going to the same destination as the money he owed each opponent for each additional round, could be heard yelling “Take him out, George”, but Kirkman, too, survived.
“He hit me so hard in the ribs it cracked one of my ribs – it could have been two – and that hurt bad,” Foreman said. “I was happy to have that last fight over. Everybody thought it was a joke, but I got hurt.
“I wanted to knock all of the guys out and I couldn’t. That bothered me. But then I realised, unless a guy was willing to take a chance, and really mix it up, you’re not going to knock ‘em out. It’s easy to avoid being knocked out, as long as you don’t invest anything.
“I’d put on a show. I was head cornerman myself. I’d fought five guys, and I’d made it through. It was a big victory for me, inwardly.
“Man, that was such a satisfactory night for me. It made boxing easier for me. I realised then, I could be a professional boxer on my own. It’ll live there forever in boxing history. It’ll live there and nobody will be able to wash it away.”