Lee Groves

Someone’s ‘O’ has got to go: 10 notable fights between unbeaten boxers – part I

8. Jan. 22, 1973 – George Foreman (37-0) KO 2 Joe Frazier I (29-0), National Stadium, Kingston, Jamaica

Ever since unifying the heavyweight championship 22 months earlier, Frazier had been on cruise control. Ten months after scoring a landmark victory over Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Garden, Frazier disposed of 15-to-1 underdog Terry Daniels in four rounds and four months after that Frazier battered the rugged but badly outclassed Ron Stander in five bloody stanzas. The 20-to-1 underdog took 32 stitches following the fight, which was most famous for the pre-fight assessment delivered by Stander’s wife Darlene: “You don’t take a Volkswagen into the Indianapolis 500 unless you know a short-cut.” Needless to say, the stand-up Stander knew no short-cuts nor would he take them.

Another indicator of Frazier’s post-Ali throttle-down was his weight. He scaled a trim 205½ in beating Ali but against Daniels and Stander he weighed 215½ and a then career-high 217½. It would be another eight months before Frazier re-appeared inside the squared circle and while his opponent George Foreman sported a pristine record and a chiseled physique, his crudeness and inexperience at the elite level persuaded the bookmakers to deem Frazier a solid 3-to-1 choice to keep his crown.

Though their physiques differed greatly, Foreman and Frazier had several traits in common. Frazier won Olympic gold at heavyweight in 1964 while Foreman succeeded him in 1968. Both were punchers of the highest order, though Frazier’s weapon of choice was history’s greatest left hook while Foreman utilized hammering rights and spearing uppercuts. They also were deeply prideful men from the South who used boxing to overcome difficult upbringings.

Their contrasts also were striking. The stocky Frazier used a bustling bob-and-weave to work his way inside and his body attack was nothing short of legendary. The 6-4 Foreman, a stable mate of Sonny Liston’s during his early days as a pro, put the fear of God into opponents with his cold-blooded stare then used a powerful volume attack to set up his clubbing power shots.

Entering the Frazier bout Foreman had scored 34 knockouts in 37 wins, including 21 straight and 27 within two rounds. In fact, each of Foreman’s last five fights ended in the second round but Frazier was far and away the best opponent he had yet faced. The wise guys thought that if Gregorio Peralta could twice go 10 rounds with Foreman, then Frazier was more than equipped to take his measure.

According to a Jan. 22, 2013 article by ESPN.com’s Nigel Collins, the “Sunshine Showdown” landed in Kingston when the Jamaican government out-bid Madison Square Garden for site rights. Historian Christopher James Shelton said Alex Valdez, who had promoted a recent European tour for Frazier’s singing group “Smokin’ Joe Frazier and the Knockouts,” was given the rights to negotiate Frazier’s next fight. Valdez and Jamaican bookmaker Lucien Chen then persuaded Jamaican leaders, through local lawyer Paul FitzRitson, to bid for the fight.

Frazier was underwhelmed by Foreman, saying he didn’t see the challenger as anything special. “Big, strong, young and ambitious – yes, all of that,” Frazier wrote in his autobiography. “But beatable just the same.”

Foreman, on the other hand, uttered disrespectful rhetoric during the pre-fight buildup but inwardly he respected Frazier to the point of fear.

“I had this habit of staring guys down,” Foreman told Johnny Carson on a May 6, 1990 appearance on The Tonight Show. “I look them in the eye to psyche them out. If they dropped their head, I knew I had an advantage. But I was hoping Joe Frazier wouldn’t drop his head because my knees were shaking.”

The 24-year-old Foreman scaled a trim 217½ while Frazier was a softer 214 and the canvas’ mattress-like feel promised to enhance both men’s monstrous power. Referee Arthur Mercante Sr., considered the best third man in the world, and judges Phil Spano of Philadelphia and Jack Minott of Jamaica were slated to score the fight.

Following a stone-faced staredown, one in which Frazier did not drop his head, Frazier and Foreman got down to business – quickly.

Foreman began the fight by missing an awkwardly wide right that badly missed Frazier’s ribs while Frazier lunged in and landed a light hook to the challenger’s jaw. Foreman repeatedly grabbed Frazier’s shoulders and pivoted from one side to the other, a move that threw the champion off balance and forced him to reset. Another jolting hook found Foreman’s jaw and prompted a mild stir from the crowd and a jab snapped the bigger man’s head. It was a most encouraging start by the defending champion.

The fight began to turn toward Foreman when a heavy right to the body and a thunderous hook to the jaw drove Frazier back to the ropes. A second hook unsettlingly swiveled the champion’s head and Foreman’s snappy jabs regularly penetrated Frazier’s guard.

Then, without any warning, the roof caved in on Frazier. A glancing right uppercut struck the top of Frazier’s head and floored him like a shot.

“DOWN GOES FRAZIER! DOWN GOES FRAZIER! DOWN GOES FRAZIER!” Howard Cosell shouted from ringside. “The heavyweight champion is taking the mandatory eight count and Foreman is as poised as can be in a neutral corner.” The call was as operatic as Foreman’s punches were destructive, and unfortunately for Frazier more was coming – much more.

Foreman pinned Frazier to the ropes and unloaded a series of menacing hooks and uppercuts set up by pinpoint jabs. Frazier tried to weave under Foreman’s bombs and while he avoided some he was nailed by enough to keep him in a daze. A massive right uppercut floored Frazier a second time with 17 seconds remaining and Foreman let out a hoot before Mercante led him toward the neutral corner. The game Frazier pushed himself upright but tottered and spun about the ring in tiny circles before facing Mercante and his count. A combination that included a left uppercut decked Frazier for the third time an instant before the bell. Since there was no three-knockdown rule or saving by the bell, Mercante, who initially waved his arms to stop the fight, quickly corrected himself and tolled the count until Frazier arose at five.

Frazier bravely started round two by going straight at Foreman and firing his trademark hook, which glanced off the challenger’s jaw. Another hook connected more strongly but Foreman remained unmoved. Mercante then warned Foreman about pushing Frazier off, which caused an infuriated Dick Sadler to jump on the ring apron and issue a brief protest. Mercante could have disqualified Foreman for the infraction but chose to simply wave him down. Meanwhile, Foreman moved in, trapped Frazier on the corner pad in the challenger’s corner and belabored him with more power shots.

A right to the back of the ear sent Frazier stumbling across the ring before landing heavily on his behind, the fourth knockdown of the fight and the first of round two. A smashing left uppercut and a compact hook sent Frazier spinning to the floor seconds later and as Frazier again staggered to his feet Muhammad Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee began screaming for Mercante to stop the fight. A series of hooks followed by a final right launched Frazier into the air before coming down on his right knee, the sixth knockdown of the fight and the third in round two. Finally, after a few moments of indecisiveness, Mercante criss-crossed his arms and stopped the slaughter four minutes and 25 seconds after it began.

Foreman’s annihilation of Frazier was swift, decisive and intimidating. His hero Sonny Liston would have been proud of his protégé’s demolition skills and as such, much of the media deemed him a younger, stronger version of his mentor. Few other’s “0s” ever were erased more brutally than Frazier’s but his valor in the face of disaster was, in its own way, inspiring.

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