George Foreman: Student of the Greats

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The stories of Muhammad Ali—then Cassius Clay—getting roughed up and caught with heavy punches in sparring in the beginnings of his professional career are recalled fairly often. They get trotted out for encouragement in the same way that old legend about Einstein not speaking until he was four years old does. Clay wanted to fight his way and he hadn't worked out the kinks yet. He was sent to Archie Moore to be made into a master boxer from the moment he turned professional but the two were at each other’s throats from day one. Clay ended up under the watchful eye of Angelo Dundee who nurtured the young boxer's ego when it got bruised and encouraged him in his experimentation. But while 'the Art of Ali' (as Sports Illustrated dubbed it) grew out of Ali's personality and Dundee's patience, the boxing of George Foreman was learned at the feet of some of the greatest ring technicians of all time.

When Cassius Clay first turned up in Archie Moore's camp, Moore expressed his desire to teach Clay to punch properly. Moore told Clay that dancing doesn't age well and forces a fighter to work too much. For ring longevity, defense and the punch were king. While he didn't want to hear it back then, when Ali was reaching the limits of his physical abilities in later years it was his punch and his clinch which saved him. And when George Foreman did the unthinkable (and what Ali could not) in reclaiming the world heavyweight title at forty-five years old, he did so with both Dundee and Moore in his corner, and looked astonishingly like Ageless Archie throughout.

The transformation of a boxer from one fighter into another through his career is always fascinating. Especially when success is maintained at the highest levels of the sport. But Archie Moore was far from the only hand to touch upon George Foreman's game. Foreman was the product of what Norman Mailer called 'a Gang of Champs' and there was plenty of his own in there too. Today we take a look at the two generations of Foreman.

Young Foreman

Foreman was always a gigantic man. While 'only' six-foot-three, Foreman looked as though he had been carved out of onyx. George Plimpton put it best in recalling that after a heavyweight had been knocked out by Foreman, he seemed to shrink to the size of a pygmy while Foreman grew even bigger. By the time of the Rumble in the Jungle, when Foreman had stopped the champion and his first two challengers in a total of five rounds, he seemed to be a colossus as his corner struggled to heave the sleeves of his robe down over his biceps. This intimidation was a big part of Foreman's success, and part of it was in how he acted, and part of it was in how he fought. The part of his size which wasn't imagined, Foreman put to good use, not only fighting behind a long, thudding jab, but also in his use of his presence to control the opponent.

From very early in Foreman's career you will notice his emphasis on controlling or smothering his opponent's lead hand. His right hand protrudes from his guard and is almost always being placed into the path of his opponent's jab rather than defending the target of his opponent's blows. Taking a look at Foreman in the Olympic finals you will see him begin to smother his opponent's lead hand and points, but also drop his right hand whenever he jabs. Essentially trading jab for jab with his man he comes off the better but this would not be the case once he turned professional. You will also notice Foreman swinging with such force that he will often turn his head away from his target. This was a very young, very reckless Foreman.

Flash forward to the 1970s, once Foreman was into double digits as a professional, and you begin to see a much more methodical, paced Foreman. Taking control of fights and denying his man opportunities behind that jab and the lead hand control. If you have time today, I would recommend watching Foreman's 1972 bout with Ted Gullick. In this bout Foreman stood right in front of his man and still denied him blows. The opponent's fastest punch, the jab, was denied by Foreman's active right hand, and any other punch Gullick moved to make would be beaten to the mark by Foreman's own thudding jab.

By reaching out the fighter does make himself more vulnerable to hooks behind his hands, but the purpose of this method is to occupy the centerline and force the opponent into slower swings around the outside. If the fighter's reactions are on point he can normally evade or raise his shoulders against such swings around his hands.

The handsy guard for which Muhammad Ali called George Foreman 'The Mummy' can be attributed to the work of the Saddler family. Dick Saddler was Foreman's head coach and while Dick had not been a tremendously successful boxer, his cousin Sandy Saddler also coached Foreman and had been one of the greatest boxers of all time. Saddler had used his smothering work with his hands to corner Willie Pep and batter him in three of their four contests. At the end of the Gullick fight above you can hear Dick Saddler discuss this method, referring to Jack Johnson and saying that the purpose is to take the power off of the opponent's punches before they even get going. Watching Sandy Saddler checking the lead hand and swinging in his left, digging in the hooks along the ropes, and physically pushing his man around whenever they wanted to come back at him, it is easy to see the younger version of Foreman.

But Sandy Saddler, despite being a tall featherweight, liked to get in close on opponents. He'd smother the hands and leap in with a left hook to the body, then grab his man and start fighting rough. Foreman's maintained smothering of his opponent's hands at a distance differentiated him from Saddler and he was able to do it through his spectacular jab. The jab had been recognized as the most important punch in boxing since the days of Jim Corbett but Foreman's jab is consistently called the best in the history of the ring. It could be a slapping jab into the eye, or it could be a knockout punch in its own right. But then if anything could teach a young fighter the value of the jab above all other punches, it would be acting as a sparring partner for Sonny Liston. Liston had perhaps the hardest jab in boxing, being a converted left hander. Watching the young Foreman with telephone pole jab and his surly attitude in interviews, one cannot help but think of the Big Bear.

And amid that hand fighting there was a good deal of that wrestling which made Archie Moore so clever in the ring. One of Moore's favorites when a fighter rushed in low or placed their head on his sternum was to throw them underneath his armpit which you will notice Foreman do repeatedly against Gullick. This is a technique you can readily see Floyd Mayweather use to set up right hands today.

Foreman never grew too old to recognize the use of a little argy bargy on the inside.

One of the fancier touches in Foreman's arsenal has always been his walking left hooks. As a man who many claimed had slow, cumbersome footwork it was always strange to see Foreman shift or walk with a hook, but he clearly loved to do so.

Foreman side steps to the left but rebounds with a left hook and looks to step to an angle to his right, but ends up in the clinch.

Here it works better and he lands some hard blows on Joe Frazier as the latter is turning.

Foreman using his favorite shifting lead uppercut to get on an angle.

Equally, Foreman's stepping right hook was a brilliant weapon against opponents who circled faster than he could get to them with the wide right. It was the punch which stunned and finished Ken Norton and you might recognize it as the punch that Anderson Silva used to catch a cautious Forrest Griffin.

Foreman's best power punch was his uppercut. The reaction of so many fighters under fire is to crouch, and this just left them as sitting ducks for Foreman. Against Joe Frazier, Archie Moore could be heard in Foreman's corner screaming “under, under” each time Foreman flicked out a jab. It was Foreman's uppercut which hurt Frazier, and had him standing far more upright than against Ali and so many others throughout the bout.

In fact, one of the best parts of Foreman's lengthy comeback was watching him play psychologist with inexperienced heavyweight prospects. Foreman could get a man to duck onto his uppercut like clockwork, and when they did he had an excellent chance of a knockout.

Another unique point of Foreman's game was his love of the wide right. A right hook to the body. When I said Foreman's best punch was the uppercut, I might have lied. While few went down from the wide right, it set opponents up for flurries like nothing else. The effects of this can be readily seen against Ken Norton. If a fighter circled away from Foreman, the wide right would land on his forearm and a left hook and a right uppercut would be coming through immediately after with the opponent covering up. If the right connected on the ribs or even worse, the kidney, it would quickly take the wind out of Foreman's man. Part of what made Foreman so effective at trapping opponents along the ropes in the latter stages of his first stint in boxing was that his left hook and right hook served to pin opponents in place as they circled into these punches.

One wide right lands on the guard and a combination follows, a second lands on the target and Norton is briefly winded.

Many would critique Foreman's ring cutting abilities, but in actuality these were far sharper than most heavyweights will ever achieve. Even in his worst performances, like that against Jimmy Young, it wasn't getting the fight to the corner which Foreman struggled with. It was his accuracy along the ropes and his tendency to get tied up. After a few rounds of physically pushing men off of him, Foreman would look like half the man of the first round. When he dropped a decision to Young, Foreman retired from the boxing game. Since losing the title he had looked like a man who had lost whatever had made him great, be it the fire in his belly or the desire for gold. Ten years later, Foreman made the same return to the ring that every fighter does and very few took him seriously.

But Foreman recognized that he wasn't in his twenties and that things had to change. He still hand fought, but he relied almost entirely on the tremendous jab with occasional body blows. His work with hooks was more accurate, there was less swinging wild in close. But most importantly he had added the cross guard to his game and it allowed him to re-take the world title.

Foreman's long serving mentor, Archie Moore had used the cross guard to tremendous effect against heavyweights despite being a natural light heavyweight himself. The guard even carried him to the light heavyweight title at a ripe old age. The secret was that in his cross guard—which could be readily turned into the classic 'philly shell' position with a rotation of the shoulders and hips—Moore was largely safe from damage and could place himself in position to counter. Clumsy heavyweights would wail away against his guard and somewhere down the line, Moore would come back with a left hook or a right straight that they didn't see coming. But when Moore did this he would go into a deep crouch in order to further evade blows. This meant that he struggled to actually close the distance if his man didn't wade in and close it while trying to punch him. Moore's last fight, against a young Cassius Clay who had ignored everything Moore had stressed about the need for punching power and for a solid defense, was a disaster. Clay darted in and out, punching down on Moore who was crouched and too slow to pursue him.

Foreman didn't have that problem. His height served to aid him if he stood upright. Punching at a taller opponent serves to reduce the range of effective punching. Foreman's height meant that his shorter opponents had to move in closer to swing up at him, and to do so they had to come close enough for him to hit. Foreman's projected elbows also deterred opponents from lunging in too enthusiastically. Against lesser opponents, this prevented them from sticking and moving as he walked them into corners and skewered them with his jab at range. But against the truly elite, this allowed Foreman to do what was necessary against younger, faster, well-trained fighters. It allowed him to take a beating and keep moving forwards.

With little head movement and slower reactions, having a truly effective method of covering up allowed Foreman to stay in the game into the later rounds while losing handily. Foreman always came into his later bouts in shape, and he rarely wasted energy wrestling opponents off of him to get that one extra shot in any more. He was a picture of serenity even when he was being lit up by Evander Holyfield in his first shot at reclaiming the title. Overwhelmingly it was on the counter that Holyfield did the damage, as Foreman struggled to get back to his guard in time.

Foreman's moment to take the title, however, came against Michael Moorer, the first southpaw to ever win the heavyweight title. He was also the first notable southpaw that Foreman had met. An old dog still learning new tricks, Foreman abandoned his cross guard for the most part and instead went back to hand fighting with Moorer. He took the licks but got in with his own surprisingly tight right straights. The punch which put Moorer on the deck was a right hand which travelled about as far as Rocky Marciano's famous 'Suzie Q'.

And that's what was so fun about Foreman's comeback. It wasn't that the division was dreadful enough that some old man could just walk through. It was an old dog who was still learning new tricks. Through those fights in Foreman's comeback, whether they were against cab drivers or world champions, he was trying new things. He'd switch to southpaw, he'd walk with his punches, he'd hand trap, he even began to utilize some hands low offence and the shoulder roll. Perhaps it was the ten-year hiatus that forced Foreman to recognize that he couldn't just fight the same as he always had and expect the same results. Many fighters would have kept fighting through that time and never made the realization. At any rate, he stands as one of the greatest studies in a fighter's change over time, and certainly as one of the savviest heavyweights to ever get into the ring.

We are all a product of our influences, and the fact that George Foreman came into contact with so many well known and technically brilliant boxers over the course of his two careers makes him one of the most entertaining studies in this. It is just a shame that because he was such a prolific knockout artist fans often forget just how much was going on as he tried to land the blows.


Check out these related stories:

The Rumble in the Jungle: Forty Years On

Slack's Greatest Rivalries: Willie Pep versus Sandy Saddler

George Foreman III’s Boxing Beginnings