Heavyweight contender Ron Lyle, who died this past Saturday from complications arising from a stomach condition, deserves to be remembered as both one of the best heavyweights to never win a world title, as well as one of the most exciting fighters of the 1970s.
Lyle, convicted of murder in a gang fight, spent over seven years at the Colorado state penitentiary and took up the sport while serving his sentence. Upon his release from prison, he pursued boxing with a vengeance, turning pro at the rather advanced age of 30 and winning 19 fights in a row, 17 by knockout. With a devastating right hand and a huge, muscular upper body, Lyle struck an imposing figure in the ring. He adopted the style of a rough and tough slugger, relying on strength and power to win.
His career suffered a major setback with a decision loss to Jerry Quarry, but Lyle was undeterred. He went on to score big victories over Jimmy Ellis, Boone Kirkman, and Oscar Bonavena, leading to a 1975 title shot against champion Muhammad Ali. A huge underdog, Lyle gave Ali plenty of trouble and actually established a points lead before losing by an 11th round technical knockout, though many felt the referee had been a tad hasty in stopping the bout.
Lyle never received another title shot, but he kept fighting. His next two matches are among the most exciting battles in heavyweight history. He proved victorious against legendary power puncher Earnie Shavers in a slugfest that saw both men down. But as thrilling as that fight was, it was just an appetizer for the next one, regarded as among the greatest fights, in terms of action and excitement, in boxing history.
On January 24, 1976, Lyle and George Foreman engaged in a wild and unforgettable brawl featuring five knockdowns and ending with Lyle being counted out in the fifth round, though not before almost knocking out Big George on more than one occasion. Foreman has called it the toughest fight of his long career. — Robert Portis