George Foreman remembers the glamour of New York City.
After winning gold at the 1968 Olympics, he was a regular at Madison Square Garden with eight fights early in his pro career. He knocked out Don Waldheim in his professional debut on June 23, 1969 on the undercard of Joe Frazier’s slugfest with Jerry Quarry and made $5,000.
“That was more money than I could ever dream of,” Foreman said.
There were more fights at the World’s Most Famous Arena. A knockout against Chuck Wepner. A rare decision over Roberto Davila. A knockout of Jack O’Halloran. Then a 10-round decision against Gregorio Peralta on the undercard of Frazier’s championship victory against Jimmy Ellis.
“Madison Square Garden was the home or every fighter,” Foreman said. “You couldn’t just fight there every month or every couple of months.”
He said his trainer, Dick Sadler, was happy with the paydays but concerned about tough fights.
“You weren’t going to go undefeated fighting in the Garden every two months,” Foreman said.
He said matchmaker Teddy Brenner was tough.
“Can you imagine me at that young age being matched with George Chuvalo?” Foreman said. “Guys who could take punches and come back with you.”
Foreman was also in the building when Frazier, the undefeated champion, beat Muhammad Ali, the undefeated former champion, on March 8, 1971 in the Fight of the Century.
“I don’t think it ever lived up to that moment again,” Foreman said. “Everybody who was someone was there.”
Foreman not only loved the Garden but the city. He could walk down Broadway and see a different movie every day, as opposed to Texas, where there was one theater that would play the same film for months.
He stayed at the Loews Midtown Motor Inn and would see owners bringing in their dogs for the Westminster Dog Show. There were also the glamorous women walking in the street though his friend had to give him a warning.
“‘Don’t look at them because those are women of the night,’” he said. “I had never seen that before.”
Heavy taxes on Ali and Frazier discouraged fighters from the Garden. When Foreman knocked out Frazier in January 1973, the fight was in Jamaica. Then his first defense came against Jose Roman in Japan. Then Ken Norton in Venezuela. And, most famous, $5 million to fight Ali in Zaire.
Ali pulled off the upset over the 40-0 Foreman with an eighth-round knockout. The phrase “Rope-a-Dope” entered the lexicon with Ali’s strategy of letting Foreman tire himself out. Foreman said the phrase came not from Ali but MSG boxing publicist John Condon.
“It was very New York,” Foreman said. “Very slick.”
Looking to regain his belt, Foreman fought Frazier again, this time at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Before the fight, Foreman’s trainer, Gil Clancy, told Foreman that Frazier shaved his head.
“I’m glad he prepared me for that sight,” Foreman said. He again knocked Frazier out.
Foreman retired after a loss to Jimmy Young in 1977, found God and then made an unlikely comeback in 1987 at 38 years old.
The fight scene had changed and most of his fights in the 1990s were in Nevada and New Jersey.
In 1994, 20 years and a week after he lost to Ali, Foreman regained his title with a 10th round knockout against Michael Moorer.
Foreman was a pop culture staple with his grill, remaking his image from surly fighter who could destroy opponents to lovable, smiling, self-deprecating teddy bear who could destroy opponents. He even had a sitcom on ABC and hosted Saturday Night Live.
There was talk of a rematch with Moorer happening at the Garden.
“It was talk, talk, talk and then nothing,” Foreman said.
The fight, originally slated for February 29, 1996, near the 25th anniversary of the Fight of the Century, didn’t happen. Foreman had beaten Moorer as he lulled him into a false sense of security and landed punches as Moorer stood in front of him instead of moving around. The same thing might not have happened in a rematch.
“When you know you’ve outsmarted someone you don’t think it’s going to happen again,” Foreman said, adding, “I didn’t beg for that fight. I knew he wasn’t going to fall for that again.”
Foreman did appear at the Garden in 1996, to announce the Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota fight for HBO. The night ended with a massive brawl after Golota was disqualified for a low blow.
“I couldn’t believe I saw people misbehaving like that,” Foreman said. “Women were fighting. People were jumping into the ring.”
Foreman even discouraged some more from going into the ring, as viewers at home could hear him telling someone
“Don’t do it. Don’t do it.”
Still, the memories of the Garden and city are positive for the two-time champion.
“There’s no place like New York City to this day,” Foreman said.
With Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. scheduled to fight in late November and Oscar De La Hoya planning a comeback, will fans see the 71-year-old Foreman in the ring again?
“Maybe to carry somebody’s water,” he said laughing.