In late 1997, George Foreman was among the most well-known names in all of sports, having captured the imagination of the public with his transformation from the sullen knockout artist of the 1970s, to the cheerful pitchman of the 1990s. In 1987, after a ten year absence, he made a most unlikely return to the ring, gradually worked his way into shape, and by 1991 found himself battling Evander Holyfield for the world title. George lost the decision, but acquitted himself better than almost anyone expected, cementing his status as a legit contender, despite his advanced age. But after Holyfield, Foreman’s comeback stagnated for a time, the only highlights being a difficult win over Alex Stewart and a points loss to Tommy Morrison.
Then, in November 1994, Foreman, just shy of his 46th birthday, violently seized the heavyweight title from Michael Moorer with a monumental knockout. For a time, the boxing world was turned upside down. “Big George” continued fighting, but after a difficult title defense against Axel Schulz, in which many thought the German challenger deserved the decision, cautious matchmaking and hand-picked opposition became the preferred formula, which in turn led to the sanctioning bodies stripping Foreman of their belts. Eventually most fans and pundits came to recognize Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis as the top men in the division, and while some continued to acknowledge George’s claim to the lineal title, it was a distinction of minimal clout by that point. George was nearing the end of the line, though he remained, even at the age of 48, a potent force and a reliable draw.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn native Shannon Briggs was staging a comeback of his own. Once a promising prospect, Briggs had been upset by one Darroll “Doin’ Damage” Wilson on HBO in what was intended to be a showcase fight. Shannon blamed asthma for the unexpected defeat, but trainer Teddy Atlas disputed this, implying Shannon’s primary problem was that he was mentally weak. Either way, Shannon’s reputation took major damage and he was forced to rebuild, with, needless to say, a new trainer.
Four victories and twenty months later, Briggs suddenly found himself set to battle Foreman for the lineal title. While not exactly highly qualified for the opportunity, the fact Briggs was given this chance was a sign that, regardless of any physical advantages Shannon possessed, the old champion viewed him as beatable. Perhaps, with an eye on the Darroll Wilson fight, George believed he could wear Shannon down mentally.
It’s also possible that the natural physical advantages of the younger man were overstated. Despite a physique which didn’t look particularly athletic, Foreman was almost always in excellent condition. His second-career training routines had George chopping wood, running miles everyday, and even dragging Jeeps up hills. Further, Foreman’s greatest weapon in his second career wasn’t his strength, ramrod jab, oft-overlooked footwork or even his punching power. Instead, what allowed George to hang with men young enough to be his children was his ability to remain relaxed in the ring, which aided his stamina. He may have appeared plodding, but he didn’t gas out like he did in his first career, remaining dangerous right up to the final bell.
Shannon Briggs, on the other hand, was known for opening fights with aggression, throwing upwards of eighty punches in the first round, a number above even the welterweight average. But when Foreman vs Briggs got underway, the expected Briggs swarm was replaced with a cautious stick-and-move strategy. Shannon bounced about the perimeter of the ring, occasionally firing jabs, while Foreman, looking surprisingly light on his toes, followed. But George was more assertive in the second and third, landing his absurdly heavy jab almost at will. Every time Shannon landed a consequential punch, George returned the favor.
Briggs connected with a flurry in the early part of round five, but Foreman responded with his jab and reasserted control. At one point, Shannon landed a nice right hand that snapped George’s head back, but Foreman replied with a jab that did the same to Shannon. The fifth was a better round for Briggs, though Foreman still forced the pace, kept Briggs backpedaling, and did more damage.
Briggs rebounded fairly well in the sixth, throwing more and moving enough to slow down Foreman’s output. He wasn’t deterring the older man, but he did marginally outwork him and George’s activity only dropped further in the seventh. He was still moving forward, forcing Briggs back, and his feints were making the younger man flinch and hesitate, but George was outworked for a second straight round.
Perhaps sensing the momentum shifting in Briggs’ favor, Foreman turned it up in the eighth, landing chopping shots behind his jab, even hurting Briggs at one point with a right. Shannon didn’t stop throwing back, but he appeared outgunned and outclassed. The ninth was more competitive, and Briggs landed some solid body shots in close, but Foreman still got home the more meaningful blows.
George seemed to be winning the tenth but, after taking a hurtful body shot, Briggs woke up and landed a few solid punches in the final ten seconds that prompted some to award him the round. The eleventh was fought at close quarters, both men landing well, though once again, Foreman connected with the harder shots.
They touched gloves to start the final frame, and then Foreman landed a clubbing right that set the tone for the rest of the round. George gave chase while Shannon backed away and ate punch after punch. Foreman gunned for the knockout, but Briggs demonstrated a toughness that many at the time thought he lacked in keeping his feet and even firing back, albeit while being beaten up throughout.
The final bell rang and George made his way to Shannon’s corner to offer words of encouragement and perhaps consolation. The HBO commentators spoke as though a Foreman decision victory was a foregone conclusion and HBO unofficial scorer Harold Lederman announced a 116-112 final tally for the lineal champion. And then Michael Buffer read the scorecards.
When he announced Steve Weisfeld’s 114-114 score, there was audible consternation from the crowd. What fight was he watching? Then Lawrence Layton and Calvin Claxton’s cards were read; 117-113, and 116-112, respectively. Those scores made more sense. Except Buffer wasn’t finished: “… for the winner by majority decision, and new linear heavyweight champion of the wooorrrrrld, Shannon Briggs!”
The HBO split screen showed Briggs jumping up and down with elation as George simply smiled. Enthusiastic booing rang out from the crowd and the normally verbose Jim Lampley could only utter, “Well, wow. One of those nights, huh?” Shortly after, a chant of Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit! rose from the audience.
During the post-fight interviews, Larry Merchant asked Foreman if he thought he won and George responded with a plug for his grill. Eventually, Larry coaxed something more substantial and George explained that complaining about the decision would set a bad example for his sons. The veteran champ and Hall of Famer was clearly at peace with the outcome as he told Merchant his career was likely over. Over the next few years he would strongly hint at coming back more than once, but aside from almost making a fight with Larry Holmes in 1999, he stayed away.
Shannon Briggs was able to leverage the Foreman win into a fight with WBC champ Lennox Lewis and a big payday. He fought harder and more aggressively in the first two rounds against Lewis than he had in all twelve against Foreman and he gave Lewis a scare or two. But then Lennox asserted himself and it became one-sided and Shannon was smashed in five. But bad decision aside, Shannon Briggs was the lineal heavyweight champion of the world for a few months, something that can never be taken from him. But he will also never be seen as a legend, the way George Foreman was, and still is.
— Hunter Breckenridge