THE heavyweight division that George Foreman ruled over in 1973 was the strongest in history.

The only other bunch of giants who can compare – in terms of ability and stature – arrived 20 years later, and incredibly, a middle-aged Foreman was a leader in that wrecking crew too. George’s fearsome peak guaranteed his place in boxing history. Combine it with his astonishing comeback – that Bert Sugar labelled, “the greatest comeback in the history of sport” – and you have a man challenging for a place at the top.

A 1968 Olympic gold medal and violent victories over the likes of George Chuvalo should have been a warning to unbeaten world champion Joe Frazier before their January 1973 encounter in Kingston, Jamaica. It wasn’t just Frazier who underestimated 37-0 George, though. Very few gave the robotic slugger a prayer against the man who had bettered Muhammad Ali.

“I’m gonna sit you on the ground, George,” Frazier told the challenger after an intense stare-out. Five minutes later, it was Frazier who had been grounded six times in one of the most savagely one-sided heavyweight title fights in history.

“I hit him with a punch and there was a grin on his face as if he was saying, ‘Look man, you’re going to kill me,” Foreman said after his stunning second round win.

An inept Jose Roman was dispatched with ease in his first defence before Ken Norton stepped up to challenge the new king. Norton, who had famously beaten Ali and broken his jaw, could not cope with the power Foreman was effortlessly pouring out. Like a wasp emerging from a pint of beer on a sunny day, he drunkenly searched for cover. But there was no escape. George knocked him out in two to convince the world he was invincible.

Fans feared for Ali’s safety in 1974 when he was announced as Foreman’s next challenger but, in perhaps boxing’s most famous fight, the ageing underdog trumped the young lion. Ali stood up to the bombs that had blown the rest away, he counterpunched superbly, and he knocked out an exhausted Foreman in round eight.

FOREMAN: I’d make the same mistakes against Ali again

The following year, he split four knockdowns with Ron Lyle and scored a ludicrously entertaining fifth-round victory , but the rot had started to set. George’s insecure mind just wasn’t in it anymore. In 1977, he lost a wild decision to Jimmy Young, saw God in the changing room afterwards, and retired to become a preacher. The world forgot about George Foreman for a while.

10 years later George and his church were low on cash so he announced he was going to make a comeback. He was unrecognisable; his fuzzy black hair had gone and his midriff had swallowed his muscles. He was labelled a joke.

Foreman didn’t care a jot and by 1991 his comeback record read 24-0 (23). Despite only an ill-prepared Dwight Muhammad Qawi, a disinterested Bert Cooper, a semi-retired Gerry Cooney and an overrated Adilson Rodrigues being victims of any repute, the 42-year-old was matched with new heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield.

Foreman was a revelation as he took the best that Holyfield could throw, hurt him several times, and was still swinging at the final bell. The unanimous decision against him didn’t matter; America fell in love and it seemed like the perfect farewell.

He fought on, though, and American boxing magazine ‘Boxing 92’ printed a picture of the veteran, grotesquely bruised after edging a decision over Alex Stewart, with the cover line, “Foreman, Get out now!”

He lost to Tommy Morrison – widely outboxed in a disappointing WBO fight – in 1993 and the fairytale, at last, looked over. But George wasn’t ready to close the book.

“I was good, I knew how to box, I knew how to place my punches and how to not waste any motion,” George since said about that period. “I knew how to train without getting hurt. I was the best I ever could be in 1994.”

In a match widely derided, 45-year-old Foreman was matched with champion Michael Moorer and for nine rounds, the old man took a pasting. Then, in round 10, a short left-right combo landed and Moorer collapsed, barely conscious. Foreman had regained the title he’d lost 20 years before.

There would be no more miracles. He was gifted a decision over Axel Schulz, he laboured against unknown Crawford Grimsley, squeaked past Lou Savarese before Shannon Briggs controversially outpointed George in 1997. The real happy ending occurred in retirement, when Foreman endorsed a grill that earned him millions.

“Everybody knew George was too old, nobody gave him a chance,” remembered announcer Michael Buffer about the led-up to his fight with Moorer. “I gave him a great introduction because I thought for sure it would be the last time I was going to introduce him.”

When Foreman knocked out Moorer to regain the title, he was wearing the same trunks that he wore when Muhammad Ali beat him 20 years before.

On April 26 1975, George attempted to repair his tough guy image after losing to Ali by taking on five opponents in one farcical night of exhibitions. Alonzo Johnson, Jerry Judge, and Terry Daniels were all dispatched in two rounds while Charley Polite and Boone Kirkman managed to last the three-round distance. Ali watched on and taunted from ringside.

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