Boxing, they say, is a young man’s game. An obvious fact, one would think, especially for a sport as rough and dangerous as pugilism. But on the other hand, rules, the old saying goes, are made to be broken. There are always exceptions. And one of them is George Foreman.
When Foreman, to everyone’s amazement, recaptured the heavyweight championship of the world on this day in 1994, you could unequivocally add him to the short list of athletes who accomplished remarkable feats well into their fifth decade. The catalog of such luminaries includes Jack Nicklaus, who was 46 when he won the Masters, and Nolan Ryan, who was 44 when he pitched his last no-hitter. But with all due respect to Nicklaus and Ryan, those exceptions to the rules weren’t getting punched in the face as they worked their miracles.
At the time of the now historic Foreman vs Moorer battle, comparisons were made to such legends as Jersey Joe Walcott, Archie Moore, Bob Fitzsimmons and Sugar Ray Robinson, champions who scored huge wins long after they were expected to hang ’em up, but even they couldn’t match what Foreman accomplished in 1994. It’s one thing to compete and win fights past 40, but no boxer had ever won a world championship at the age of 45.
What made Big George’s feat even more impressive was everything that had transpired since his previous reign as the heavyweight champion of the world. Foreman had first won the title in 1973 after obliterating Joe Frazier in less than six minutes in a major upset. But only two years after achieving that great triumph, he suffered a catastrophic fall when Muhammad Ali bucked the odds and knocked out the seemingly invincible champion in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.”
“I felt like I lost everything,” Foreman would later admit. “Not just a championship of the world … but I lost myself as a man.”
Suddenly the fighter who had been viewed as the most feared and powerful heavyweight since Sonny Liston became almost a laughing-stock. Two years later he suffered another embarrassing upset defeat, this time to the light-punching Jimmy Young. But even more surprising was what occurred after the match in Foreman’s locker room. Alone in the shower he had a profound spiritual awakening in which he felt himself near to death and heard the voice of a supreme being. This experience led George away from boxing and towards work as a pastor at a church in Houston, Texas.
A full decade passed during which the “born again” Foreman never seriously considered a comeback, but when he needed money to keep the doors from closing on his youth center, he decided the best way to raise the funds was to step through the ropes again. So, to everyone’s shock, he embarked on a full-fledged comeback in 1987 at the advanced age of 38, ten years after he had lost to Young. But this was a very different version of George Foreman, both physically and spiritually.
Gone was the chiseled physique that had intimidated so many of his previous opponents, it now replaced by a softer and rounder body. He was still Big George, just not the kind of big you would expect for a professional athlete. He also wasn’t the brooding and menacing angry man that the boxing world once knew. He was now unexpectedly affable and gracious and perfectly happy to poke fun at his big belly and his love for fast food. But despite his now charming persona and a string of knockouts over club fighters and fringe contenders, the experts didn’t give him any chance to reach the heights of his first career. But Foreman was determined to succeed, regardless of how delusional his comeback seemed to everyone else.
Foreman won 24 consecutive matches between 1987 and 1991. The only recognizable names in that streak were Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Bert Cooper, Adilson Rodrigues, and Gerry Cooney. After demolishing Cooney in the most lucrative match of the comeback thus far, George’s return was taken more seriously by the public. This led to both his long-desired chance to regain the world title and a huge $12.5 million dollar payday when he faced Evander Holyfield in April of 1991. Most thought George would get pulverized by the young, undefeated champion, but they were wrong; Foreman went the distance and put up a helluva fight in a losing effort. Now there was no doubt: the 42-year-old version of “Big George” was a truly legitimate heavyweight contender, not a sideshow.
Two years later Foreman got a second chance at a heavyweight title, but he lost another decision, this time to Tommy Morrison, following which George didn’t answer the bell for 17 months. By that point even Foreman’s die-hard fans were assuming the clock had finally struck 12 for George’s crazy comeback fairy tale but, amazingly, it was not the end. The simple fact was that despite the defeats to Holyfield and Morrison, the name “George Foreman” meant ticket sales and big pay-per-view numbers. And so he was gifted with yet another title shot, this time against the undefeated Michael Moorer.
Moorer had won the lineal title from Holyfield six months previous but his success at heavyweight was preceded by even more impressive results as a light heavyweight. He became a champion at 175 pounds after just 12 pro matches, defending his belt nine times before making the jump to heavyweight. In May of 1992, he TKO’d Smokin’ Bert Cooper in the fifth round of an absolute slugfest to claim a vacant title, proving to everyone that he had the power and resolve to succeed against the bigger men.
Interestingly, it was now Foreman who had the world on his side, 20 years after having been public enemy number one against Ali. People love an underdog story, always have and always will. And that’s exactly what Foreman was as he sought to become the oldest champion in the history of the sport. He was out to prove, as he put it, that “45 and 55 is not a death sentence.” Age and time could not deter him. As George put it, “There’s something within me that moves me to become heavyweight champion of the world. And I won’t stop until I satisfy this thirst within me.”
But as much as George wanted it, there was an inescapable gap in ability between the young champion and the much older challenger. From the opening bell, the 26-year-old Moorer used his superior athleticism to make Foreman look every day of his 45 years, stiff and slow by comparison. And although he landed punches at different points in the battle, he was firing them one at a time while Moorer countered with multiple shots.
Even so, at least one person was uncomfortable with Moorer’s performance, that being his trainer, Teddy Atlas. Despite the champion clearly having the upper hand, Atlas told his charge he was standing too close and too square to Foreman, who was intent on setting Moorer up for his potent right hand. And in fact Moorer continued to make mistakes, consistently circling to his left and in line with Foreman’s power hand, while staying in front of the harder puncher.
“Remember what I told you in camp about an old car?” said Atlas to the champion. “This is an old car. You’re letting him go slow … You make him go faster, it’s going to start to break down. Alright, let’s start making him go faster.”
Moorer outworked Foreman in the middle rounds, but despite absorbing many quality shots, Foreman never appeared discouraged, his chin proving sturdier than ever. And though Moorer was clearly winning, his overconfidence kept him at close quarters and in the danger zone. Foreman happily obliged and he landed some good right crosses and uppercuts, not to mention more than a few thudding body blows. It was clearly Moorer’s fight to lose, but as long as George was marching forward and throwing shots, there was always the chance of a Hail Mary strike.
And with a minute to go in the tenth round, that miracle strike came as Foreman unexpectedly seized the initiative and unloaded a series of bombs. Most of them missed, but after scoring with a solid one-two, Foreman immediately repeated the sequence, this time to devastating effect. His bulldozer right detonated on Moorer’s chin and the champion crumpled to the canvas and sprawled onto his back before being counted out.
“I never took religion into the ring, never pointed up to the sky,” Foreman recently told a reporter. “But I remember in my hotel room [before the Moorer fight], I prayed. I said, ‘God, I never bring this up but if I win this time I’m gonna get on my knees and say, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’’ And after it happened, I got down on my knees.”
With a single, shattering blow, boxing history had been made. Foreman, wearing the exact same red trunks he had worn in Zaire 20 years before, was heavyweight champion of the world again. It was a shocking outcome and one that wasn’t supposed to happen. After all, boxing is a young man’s game, right? And 45-year-old men simply do not score knockouts over champions in their athletic primes. But George Foreman reminded us that there are always exceptions to the rule, even in boxing. — Jamie Rebner