“To be a true champion, you have to believe in yourself when nobody else will.” Sugar Ray Robinson
When former heavyweight champion George Foreman announced that he was staging a boxing comeback in 1987, most boxing observers did not consider it worth of much notice. It seemed like yet another feeble attempt for a once great fighter to return to the ring.
After all, throughout boxing history, almost all of the sport’s top champions have at some point made one or more comebacks after announcing their initial retirement from the sport; and though a select few of these comebacks have been successful, most have been far from it.
Comebacking fighters are usually eager and sometimes desperate to make some quick money, but are seldom eager to train and prepare properly; not to mention the fact that inactivity combined with older age usually work against them as well.
And as for George’s situation, it seemed even more hopeless than the typical boxing comeback: he was 37 years old, had had been out of the ring for ten years, and looked very overweight and out of shape. This clearly was not the George Foreman boxing fans were used to seeing in the 1960s and 70s—a young, fit, trim fighter who looked like one of the finest specimens to have entered a professional boxing ring, and who terrorized the division with brutal fight style that matched his impressive physique.
George Foreman initially began his fighting career as an amateur fighter in the sixties. After winning the 1968 Olympic gold medal for heavyweight boxing, the Texas native turned pro at age twenty in 1969, and quickly compiled a solid win streak. Noted for his almost supernatural punching power, he won almost all of his fights by way of knockout.
On January 22, 1973, the undefeated 37-0 (34 KO) George got his opportunity to fight for the heavyweight title against undefeated champion Joe Frazier, a brutal swarming fighter who entered the ring as a 2-1 favorite over the 24-year-old challenger.
Most people expected a close fight, but it instead turned out to be a short affair: George obliterated Frazier, knocking him down six time en route to a devastating second round knockout win.
He followed his title winning effort with two dominating title defenses, including a two-round destruction of the highly regarded Ken Norton, which set up a highly anticipated showdown between George and Muhammad Ali on October 30, 1974 in Zaire, Africa, fight billed as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
Though George was a considerable favorite to win, Ali managed to pull off an upset and knock out the champ in the eighth round of their legendary battle.
After the loss, an angry and humiliated George went on a five fight knockout streak, and seemed headed for title shot against Ali before suffering an upset loss to contender Jimmy Young. George unceremoniously retired from boxing after that fight.
Throughout much of his career in the sixties and seventies, George was known as a constantly angry and bad-mooded person. He was not a well-like champion, and was often portrayed as a villain—a role that he had no problem with, and often encouraged. In fact, in the fight versus Ali, virtually all the local fans and most of the worldwide audience enjoyed booing the villainous George Foreman even more than they enjoyed rooting for the heroically portrayed Muhammad Ali.
After the loss to Jimmy Young in 1977, George said he had a religious awakening. He became preacher and ordained minister, established his own church, and started a youth and community center. Unlike his earlier days, the new George Foreman was now full of smiles and had a much different personality.
However, when he began his boxing comeback, it soon became very clear that he was still someone to be reckoned with.
Although almost nobody took him seriously when he began his comeback in 1987, George was on a mission to reach the top, and to raise much-needed money for his youth and community center. And although he started off fat and out of shape, he steadily improved his conditioning. Plus, his punching power remained at a world-class level.
George began his comeback with an incredible 24 fight winning streak over three years, with 23 wins by way of knockout. The world took notice of his incredible and unlikely comeback, and in 1991, the 42-year-old contender was given a title shot against champion Evander Holyfield—an ultra-tough undefeated 28-year-old warrior in the prime of his career, and a fighter who went on to become regarded as one of the greatest fighters to ever step foot in the ring.
George fought valiantly and managed to put up a good fight against the champion, getting the better of him on many exchanges, and lasting the full twelve-round distance. However, he took plenty of shots himself throughout the fight, and ended it with a bloody and swollen face, and a unanimous decision loss.
George’s comeback seemed to be over, and virtually everyone who saw the Holyfield fight encouraged him to quit the sport.
After the loss to Holyfield, George earned three more wins, and then a disputed decision loss to top rated contender Tommy Morrison. He then starred in a short-lived television series, and also worked as a boxing commentator for HBO, until he was once again offered an opportunity to fight for world heavyweight title—this time against champion Michael Moorer, who had defeated Evander Holyfield in April of 1994.
George Foreman, now at age 45 and coming off a loss and a one and a half year span of ring inactivity, was a sizeable underdog against the 26 year old champion, who many expected to be able to box circles around a challenger who was old enough to be his father.
And for the greater part of that fight, George did in fact take the beating that some people expected, while Moorer, on the other hand, was putting up a masterful performance, as he seemed to behaving an easy time outpointing his much older and seemingly overmatched challenger.
Although George had a few good moments, the fight was for the most part clearly going Moorer’s way—so much so that by the mid rounds, it was turning into a sustained beating that made many fight fans cringe at every hit Moorer landed.
But George hung in there and remained resolved to find an opportunity to turn things his way—and Moorer seemed to begin becoming content with standing in front of George rather than use more movement.
As the tenth round began, George began to turn the tides, landing some major shots that seemed to have an effect on Moorer. Then late in that round, George landed a pushing and distracting left followed by a thunderous right that suddenly sent his opponent to the floor. The champ was really nailed, and lay flat on his back as the referee started the count.
Moorer had hardly moved at all as he lay dazed on the canvas. It was all over! At age 45, George Foreman had persevered, and regained the heavyweight title an incredible 20 years after he had first lost the title to Muhammad Ali in Zaire. He became the oldest heavyweight champion in the sport’s long history, in this culmination of an extraordinary comeback that captivated the public’s interest.
After gaining the title, George fought infrequently against marginal contenders, and eventually lost his linear heavyweight title to Shannon Briggs in 1997, after coming up on the short end of a highly controversial split decision. The fight with Briggs was George’s last, as he hung up his gloves once again and exited the sport, this time at age 48.
Since then, George has worked as an HBO boxing commentator, authored two books, and endorsed products such as a famous line of grills that carry his name.
His unlikely comeback has made him an icon in American and world culture, and a true symbol of drive, grit, and persistence.