“I was sitting in the seat right behind Howard Cosell, who was doing the fight for Wide World of Sports,” recalled Caplan, 76, a boxing publicist for Golden Boy Promotions.
“That seat happened to be right next to where the cornerman, Gil Clancy, came down out of George’s corner between rounds. Sitting to my right were three of the greatest live entertainers in the history of entertainment, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor.”
Lyle was two bouts removed from an 11th-round knockout loss to Muhammad Ali in May of 1975, from which he had rebounded by stopping Earnie Shavers in the sixth after picking himself up from a second-round knockdown.
Foreman was attempting to come back from his eighth-round knockout loss to Ali 15 months earlier in the “Rumble In The Jungle.”
What Caplan saw that night became one of the most memorable heavyweight brawls in boxing history. Lyle dropped Foreman twice in the fourth round and was floored himself in between. The two men continued to trade brutal leather in the fifth until Lyle finally succumbed to a barrage of punches and collapsed, giving Foreman the KO victory. It was THE RING’s Fight of the Year.
“Lyle was a great puncher, and he had George Foreman literally on his knees with his face buried in the canvas,” said Caplan, who handled Foreman.
“But George was able to get up, walk through fire and knock out Ron Lyle. If you look at that fight on YouTube, you’re going to see one of the greatest heavyweight fights of all time.”
Ron Lyle died on Saturday in Denver from complications from a sudden stomach ailment, according to the Associated Press.
“It was a great time, being there for that fight,” said Caplan. “The only time that wasn’t fun was when everybody thought that George was going to get knocked out.”
At the time of the stoppage, Foreman trailed on two cards with the third having it even.
“I had excuses when Ali had me down. I can remember to this day the shot that dropped me. But with Ron Lyle, all I can remember is I was down. I kept getting up because the punch was so hard it didn’t hurt,” said Foreman.
“‘Why were my knees behaving so?’ I asked myself. I won the fight, but I had to fight for my life. A life that will hardly be the same after the hardest puncher I ever faced passed away, Ron Lyle.”
In 2002, Lyle was hired by a family friend, Ron McKinney, to start a boxing program for the Salvation Army in Denver. Lyle retired from the program last December but continued to work out at the gym every day.
The gym, called Red Shield Cox-Lyle Boxing, would show replays of Lyle’s fights every Friday night as inspiration for some of the program’s 100 students, McKinney said.
“I just saw him yesterday [Friday.] You looked at him and he looked like he was ready to step into the ring,” said McKinney to the AP. “Shake hands with him, and it’s like shaking a piece of steel.”
Lyle finished with a record of 43-7-1, with 31 knockouts, ending his career with four straight victories, all by stoppage.
Against Ali, Lyle was ahead, 49-46, and, 46-45, on two judges’ cards with the third having the fight even 46-46 at the time of the fight’s stoppage.
“Obviously the thing that stands out about his fight with Ali is the issue of whether or not it was stopped too soon. It was a very competitive fight, and then, Lyle was stunned by a flurry of punches and the referee stopped it,” said noted boxing historian, Thomas Hauser, author of the definitive Ali biography Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times.
“I remember Lyle’s trainer saying, ‘how could you do that? This is for the heavyweight championship of the world.’ It certanly was a quick stoppage. Now, Ali had him hurt and might have knocked him out anyway. But as we know from the Foreman fight, Lyle was capable of getting up when he was knocked down, so it would have been nice to have seeen that fight go to a more definitive conclusion.”
Recalling an amateur bout against Lyle, former heavyweight contender Duane Bobick gave this quote in Hauser’s book, Muhammad Ali & Company: Inside the World of Professional Boxing:
“Against Lyle, I threw a jab, and bringing it back, I told myself, ‘you’re making a mistake, your defense is too low.’ The next thing that I remember, I was standing alone outside of the arena in minus 25-degree weather. I didn’t know what had happened to me. Later, I talked with my trainer about it,” said Bobick.
“He told me that I had been unconcious in the ring for 10 minutes. Then, apparently, when I came to, they brought me back to the dressing room and I asked for the key to my locker, which would have been fine, except that it was a combination lock. Finally, I convinced everyone that I was alright, so they allowed me to shower, dress and leave on my own. It wasn’t until I had got outside, and the cold hit me, that I came to and told myself that I must have been knocked out.”
After his career in boxing, Lyle lived in Las Vegas where he trained young boxers and worked as a security guard. Lyle made a brief comeback in 1995 at the age of 54 and hoped to fight Foreman again in a fight jokingly billed as “Old and Older.”
“Leaving for the airport the night of our match, I ran in to Ron Lyle,” said Foreman of Lyle, who also toyed with the idea of fighting Mike Tyson, with neither fight ever materializing.
“He said ‘George, people liked our fight they will want to see it again.’ I said to myself, ‘not in this life.’ The Lyle legend lives on.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Lem Satterfield can be reached at email@example.com