George Foreman, Sergey Kovalev and the fight against boxing's dark demons

There has never been a sporting comeback to rival the redemption ride of Big George. He was lucky. Thousands slip away from the boxing business and never end the chat with the talker in their head

Steve Bunce
Monday 04 February 2019 15:38
George Foreman in training ahead of his life-defining fight against Muhammad Ali in 1974
George Foreman in training ahead of his life-defining fight against Muhammad Ali in 1974

Big George Foreman ran screaming and naked from the changing room one night in 1977 after a conversation with Jesus, a stand-off with other demons and a slow beating in the ring.

Foreman was just 28, a broken man, still tormented nightly by his loss of the heavyweight title to Muhammad Ali in 1974, and as he was restrained that night in San Juan, puking brown bile, wide-eyed, delirious, he heard voices telling him to preach and not fight; Foreman was on a street corner in Houston’s Fifth Ward a week later, wielding a leather bible instead of eight-ounce gloves. The problem in 1977 was not just the defeat to Jimmy Young, which was severe, but the loss in Zaire, the beating from Ali in a fight where the ringside experts and watching world feared a death in the ring, the death of Ali.

There was to be no crucifixion as Ali’s wizardry left both Foreman and the world shocked. The dismantling of his reputation, the reduction of his iron-will and brute strength, started as he was led away muttering about voodoo. His mind was mush from that moment and Young only added to the inevitable fall of the once unbeatable Foreman.

Gil Clancy, a one-time hat salesman from New York’s fabulous garment district, was Foreman’s trainer that night in San Juan and he shoulder tackled the ranting, desperate boxer, bringing him down before he was strapped to a gurney and taken off to hospital. “It was the heat - it sent him crazy,” Clancy said. “When we got there for the fight, he taped over all the vents in the room - he thought somebody was going to pump in poison gas. He never recovered.” It was clearly the darkest of places Foreman had descended to, the loss to Young that night, which included a twelfth-round knockdown, adding to the increased chaos in Foreman’s mind. The big lad, once considered such a physical ogre that there were fears he would rule unchallenged for a decade, never did recover from the Ali loss. Clancy was right. Old men like Gil in the fight business are rarely wrong.

Foreman was absent for a long time, a man converted by his losses, transformed by his belief in the scripture. But as he banged that bible down on lonely tours, he started to recover. It took a decade in the spiritual jungle for the preacher to see a new light. He finally came to terms with his terror, understanding the Ali loss, no longer looking to blame, and in 1987 he dusted off his old shorts and started punching again. It had taken a lot of years preaching on corners, searching for souls to save and he was certainly a long way from the mayhem of the heavyweight division during his exile.

George Foreman is down on count two after being knocked out by Muhammad Ali in 'The Rumble in the Jungle

In 1994 Foreman was world heavyweight champion again. There has never been a sporting comeback to rival the redemption ride of Big George. He was lucky. Thousands slip away from the boxing business and never end the chat with the talker in their head.

Many millions have flowed Foreman’s way since that blood-stained epiphany after the Young loss. In the debris of that hellish scene, as men wrestled with a howling, naked Foreman, it would have been fantasy to imagine the smooth creation of the other Foreman, the one wielding the burger spatula, smiling and handling the hot meat with style over one of his patented grills.

“It takes a long, long time to clear your head,” Foreman said. “I had to go away, do some thinking and forget about everything that had happened in the boxing ring.” Foreman reversed his orders from heaven, returned to punching and delivered a fresh decade of guilt-free beatings. Foreman was 70 last month, the only surviving giant from the heavyweight division’s greatest decade, the last magician standing.

Last Saturday on the outskirts of Dallas, a man called Sergey Kovalev performed a lesser boxing miracle to regain his WBO light-heavyweight title. Foreman would have been proud. For in August 2018, Kovalev was dropped three times, left broken on the outside and the inside by Elieder Alvarez. It was a shattering loss and Kovalev limped away. After the fight the voices started. “I was not right, there was something wrong with my head,” Kovalev admitted. Over forty years earlier, Foreman had tried the same words, never got a response and went off bible-bashing.

Sergey Kovalev and Eleider Alvarez in action last August

Kovalev’s problem was not just Alvarez, he had his own Zaire, his own rumbled in the jungle, his own Ali: Kovalev was stopped by Andre Ward back in 2017 and that was his burden. It was Ward haunting him last summer when Alvarez’s fists ruined him. Kovalev, you see, was a beast before Ward tamed him. After the loss, Kovalev suffered; there was a crashed car, an ugly arrest for assault, he dropped people close to him and finally he ran for the hills - he went on pilgrimage to Greece, to hide away on the Holy Mountain with the monks.

He clearly found some solace there and last Saturday a new Kovalev entered the ring to win all twelve rounds against a flat-footed, one-paced and bewildered Alvarez. He had his world title back, but the bauble is light baggage compared to the salvation of his boxing soul. Kovalev, like Foreman, can get on with his life now.

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