If you listened closely around George Foreman's hotel in Kingston, Jamaica before last Monday night you would have sensed that something powerful and vaguely eerie was in the air, something other than the everyday tropical musk. It was a feeling that was spoken of by Foreman's more intimate associates, and the feeling had to do with something Foreman understood about how to fight Joe Frazier and how that knowledge was going to rearrange heavyweight boxing for the next few years. But only Foreman really believed he would win. Foreman and his inner circle, of course.
Dick Sadler, Sandy Saddler and Archie Moore, they all claimed to know the secret but they refused to speak further. "If our walls had ears, everybody would know." said Sandy, the former featherweight champion who works in Foreman's corner. Moore, the ex-light-heavyweight champion, smiled gently and said, "Indeed you will perceive a remarkable thing, but it is not for me to divulge." Foreman's manager, Dick Sadler, said the knowledge was strong and definite. Another in the entourage said Frazier would fall like a coconut within six rounds.
On the other side of a red board fence, at the hotel where the Frazier crowd, a large number of Muhammad Ali people and most of the Big Fight regulars were staying, it was being said that what was in the air next door was the smell of a loser closing out at 2 to 5. Bundini Brown, one of Ali's trainers, visited the Foreman lobby one afternoon and listened. "Do all you guys in this camp carry on like this?" Bundini asked. "Lord, maybe you need me to stay around and help you with the stretcher.
"George sure hits hard," Bundini admitted after watching Foreman slam punches into the heavy bag. "He could have a chance if he stick his tongue in the side of his mouth and act like a nut, if he howl and scream like a wild man and just hit Frazier all over, on the top of his head, on his ear, on his elbow, until real soon it get through."
That was not exactly the secret, but it was close enough to what happened. Except that Foreman did not need to act crazed.
In the week before the fight Foreman had become a favorite of the Kingston crowds, and they filled the outdoor stadium on a warm night to get a look at him against the man who beat Ali. They had to look fast. Only moments after the gloves were properly laced up and glares exchanged while Referee Arthur Mercante gave instructions, Frazier was in a most unaccustomed situation. He was out of range, unable to move in close to Foreman, who had a five-inch advantage in reach. But it was not because Foreman was slipping away. It was because Frazier was being handled as he has not been since he was a child.
With his long arms and exceptional strength, Foreman would reach out and push Frazier away, refusing to let him inside, keeping him relatively immobile. And then the punches really started coming, landing on Frazier's supposedly elusive head with hardly more opposition than one would expect from the big bag.
Foreman's left jab has been compared to that of Sonny Liston or Joe Louis. Not even Frazier supporters denied that Foreman could hit hard, but it was never widely appreciated just how hard until Frazier began to wobble. A left dumped Frazier in the middle of the first round, then a right put him down again. A right did it once more at the bell. Frazier's manager, Yank Durham, had to lift his man onto the stool.
In the second round Frazier went down three more times and the last punch, a tremendous right uppercut, sent him into the air and bouncing to the floor. Looking strangely small and un-menacing, Frazier was through, wrapped in the arms of Mercante. "I should have stayed down low and gone in close underneath, but I was too bullheaded," Frazier said. "I underestimated him altogether."
The Ali people would seem to have even more reason to be concerned about the result than the Frazier crowd. An organization will be set up around Foreman that will use the championship as the key to the bank vault, as Ali and Frazier used it before him. Although the Foreman-Frazier fight contract is on public file and does not call for a return match, Frazier probably will be in the ring with Foreman again before Ali's turn comes.
But first the Foreman-Frazier rematch must be pumped up into one of those enormous bonanzas such as the first Ali-Frazier fight was and the second would have been. Meanwhile Foreman will be picking up checks against the likes of Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena and possibly Ron Lyle. Then it would be Frazier again, and, finally, in a couple of years, Ali. By that time Ali will be 33 and will have lost the edge he once might have had over Foreman—his legs.
"You don't need experience to fight a guy like Frazier," Joe Louis said of the new champion's mere four years as a professional. "Frazier's right there in front of you all the time. But it can take experience to find a guy like Clay and lay a punch on him. I'm impressed with Foreman. He's young, He's big, he's powerful and he hits a lot harder than Clay does."
Some think it would be easier to sell a Foreman-Ali match as the next Fight of the Century than to peddle a Frazier return. Ali would assume the classic role of boxer to Foreman's puncher. And ending ah undefeated career by downing Ali would satisfy Foreman's immediate ambitions—to be champion, make a pile of money and quit the ring early. He turned 24 two weeks before the Frazier fight and wants to retire from boxing by the age of 27, when he says a man begins to look silly running down a road.
Other than Frazier and Ali, the toughest challenger at the moment may be Lyle, whom Frazier describes as being "poured out of concrete." Lyle is said to be the kind of fighter a champion would be wise to avoid. Foreman's handlers avoided Ellis, Quarry, Bonavena. Ali and others on the way to Jamaica. Among fighters of middling stature. Foreman fought only Gregorio Peralta and George Chuvalo.
Such minor opponents are what gave rise to the reservations about Foreman's record. The 34 knockouts in 37 fights were considered deceptive. "They all look the same to me. They wind up fiat on their backs," Foreman said.
What the Foreman inner circle had realized all along was that Frazier would be more than willing to punch with Foreman, and nobody can do that. "I told George just to think of Frazier as some old boy he beat in Mexico City," said Dick Sadler later. "Just pop him with two left jabs, a left hook and a short right, and keep it up. Frazier leads with his head." Frazier's head might not look the same again, but then neither will the heavyweight division. It has come vibrantly alive again.