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George Foreman vs Shannon Briggs – An unhappy ending

George Foreman
Shannon Briggs, the judges, and George Foreman's last fight. By Thomas Hauser

ON November 22, 1997, 48-year-old George Foreman fought 25-year-old Shannon Briggs at the Trump Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City for what was styled as the lineal heavyweight championship of the world.

Foreman, at age 45, had claimed the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation heavyweight titles on November 5, 1994, with a stunning tenth round knockout of Michael Moorer. Four months later, he was stripped of the WBA belt for refusing to make a mandatory defence against Tony Tucker. Then, after successfully defending his IBF crown against Axel Schultz, he was stripped of that too for not fighting a mandated rematch against Schulz.

That left Foreman without a major sanctioning body title. But he was still George Foreman. And by virtue of his victory over Moorer, he was still the lineal heavyweight king. Victories over Crawford Grimsley and Lou Savarese (both of whom were undefeated at the time) followed. That set the stage for Foreman vs. Shannon Briggs.

Foreman’s credentials were self-explanatory. Explaining Briggs was a bit more complicated.

Despite occasional outbursts of erratic behavior, Shannon was – and still is – personable, articulate, and smart. Part of his adolescence was spent in relative comfort. But there was a time when he was forced to deal with a drug-addicted mother and a stint of homelessness on the streets of New York.

Once, Briggs had been touted as a rising star. He was a United States Amateur National Champion and a top prospect for the 1992 United States Olympic boxing team until a hand injury took him out of the Olympic trials. His manager, Marc Roberts, had invested over a million dollars in his career as Shannon fought his way to a 29-1 professional record with 24 knockouts.

But the fact that Foreman was willing to fight Briggs underscored the doubts that existed regarding Shannon’s merits as a fighter. Most of the fighters Briggs had beaten were mediocre. And the one time he’d stepped up the level of competition (on an HBO telecast featuring “young heavyweight stars”), Shannon was knocked out in the third round by Darroll Wilson.

Briggs, HBO commentator Jim Lampley told a national audience, “folded like an accordion.”

Shannon said the loss to Wilson was due to an asthma attack that he suffered in the ring. Teddy Atlas (who trained Briggs for the fight) said that Shannon had quit.

“I think Shannon has talent,” Atlas said. “And I worked very hard to give him a foundation, so he’d have the boxing mechanics and mental strength necessary to face an opponent in the ring. But Shannon was always more interested in finding the easy way to do things. Physically, he worked hard, but mentally it was all a big con with him. He was great at shmoozing investors with Marc Roberts. You can con investors. But sooner or later in boxing, you meet an opponent who you can’t con in the ring, like Darroll Wilson. I never said Shannon didn’t have asthma. What I said was, Shannon didn’t have an asthma attack that night. But a weak mind and panic can bring on a lot of things. I tried to help Shannon become a real fighter. Not a phony, a real fighter. And the sad thing is, Shannon could have done all the stuff he wanted to do outside the ring and still become a fighter.”

After Atlas made those comments, Briggs responded, saying, “Teddy played an important role in my development as a boxer and as a person. I had a lot of love for Teddy and a lot of respect for Teddy, and some of the things he said hurt me a lot. You know what I’m talking about. That I quit against Darroll Wilson, that I lack character. If you look at the other side of things, I wasn’t always happy with Teddy. Teddy talks a lot about character and discipline, but he isn’t always as disciplined as he should be. If I did some of the things Teddy has done, if I’d gotten into some of the fights outside the ring that Teddy has gotten into, he would have been on me like a ton of bricks and I would have deserved it. There were lots of times when I thought Teddy was wrong about something. There were lots of times when I felt Teddy was much too into controlling other people and not enough into controlling himself. But whatever problems I had with Teddy, I didn’t go public with them. And he did. He said a lot of very negative things about me to the media, and I felt betrayed. It hurt a lot; and it hurt more because he walked out on me after a loss when I was down. Teddy is still part of my thinking. I got some very good things from him, and you don’t just break up with someone and forget about them completely. But I have to admit, I’m still bitter about some of the things Teddy said about me.”

The view of the ocean from the boardwalk in Atlantic City is spectacular. One can gaze out at the water and see Herman Melville’s “great shroud of the sea” as it rolled on thousands of years ago. But turn away from the ocean and a vastly different scene beckons. Large gaps of urban decay are visible between the hotel-casinos that mark the skyline. Tourists walking along the boardwalk are solicited by panhandlers. The Miss America Pageant (once Atlantic City’s showcase event) is gone. Seedy shops and 99-cent discount stores proliferate.

The Trump Taj Mahal, where Foreman-Briggs was contested, stood on the dividing line between those two worlds.

George Foreman

Foreman had been handpicked by Briggs because George felt he could break Shannon’s will. If a fighter quits in the ring, as it was alleged Briggs had done against Wilson, one of two things happens. Either quitting becomes part of his personality, like a circuit-breaker that trips whenever he’s in trouble; or he hates having quit so much that he vows never to quit again.

That led to two questions: (1) Were Briggs’s physical skills so superior to those of the now-48-year-old Foreman that Shannon’s will wouldn’t be tested? (2) If Foreman tested Briggs’s will, would Shannon quit?

In sum, while the promotion was largely about Foreman, the crucial questions regarding the outcome of the fight revolved around Briggs.

“I’m not looking for a knockout,” Shannon said, sitting in his hotel room shortly before leaving for the arena on fight night. “If it happens, fine, but my mind isn’t set on it. I envision using my jab, using my legs, fighting within my boundaries. If it turns into a test of brute strength, I’m in trouble, but that’s not what the fight will be about. People say that George handpicked me as his opponent. But what they lose sight of is, I picked George too.”

Then Briggs turned pensive.

“When George goes into the ring, he believes God is behind him and that gives him strength. I have a different view of religion. I don’t think God takes sides in sports contests. This is the biggest fight of my life, and I feel like it’s all on me.”

By virtue of his marketing power, Foreman had dictated the details of the promotion. That continued well into fight night. George wanted privacy. And he ran a tight ship. When Donald Trump went to Foreman’s dressing room to wish George well, he was barred from entering by the fighter’s personal security detail.

Briggs’s dressing room was a less exclusive venue. At 9:00pm, sixteen people were scattered about. An hour later, that number had dwindled to ten. By the time Shannon made his way to the ring, his following was down to three corner men. Then the bell rang and he was alone with Foreman.

Briggs had watched Foreman on television but had never seen him fight in person. After the press conference announcing their fight, he’d expressed surprise that George wasn’t as big as he’d thought he was. Now he was experiencing Foreman was up close and personal – a massive presence who’d had 32 professional fights before Shannon was born.

George Foreman

Against Briggs, Foreman moved inexorably forward for twelve rounds. Shannon retreated as George advanced whether Foreman was punching or not. That allowed George to rest when he wanted to.

Briggs’s jab was mostly a stay-away-from-me jab. He rarely threw his right hand with conviction. In round three, he was on the receiving end of some punishment, and it looked for a moment like he might go down. In round eight, Foreman landed a series of sledgehammer blows. But again, Shannon stayed on his feet.

It appeared to virtually every onlooker that Briggs didn’t come close to doing what he had to do to win the fight. Then came the decision.

Steve Weisfeld’s scorecard was announced first: 114-114.

There was amazement at ringside. What fight had Weisfeld been watching?

Then ring announcer Michael Buffer read the scores of judges Lawrence Layton and Calvin Claxton – 117-113 and 116-112 respectively. Sanity, it appeared, had been restored. Until Buffer intoned the words,” “For the NEW lineal champion of the world…”

Foreman had won the fight but Briggs got the decision.

“I was lucky,” Shannon told this writer in his dressing room after the bout. “The judges were nice to me.”

The decision was inexplicable by any honest measure. Foreman had dominated the fight. He outboxed Briggs. He outpunched Briggs. He landed 284 punches to Briggs’s 223, and his were the harder blows.

“We polled over a hundred media people, boxers, trainers, and managers who watched the fight,” Foreman’s co-promoter, Jeff Wald, said afterward. “Not one of them scored the fight for Briggs. This wasn’t even a controversial fight. A controversial fight is when you argue and disagree. Outside of two judges, there is no disagreement.”

Wald, of course, had an axe to grind. He was Foreman’s co-promoter, and his reference to a hundred-person survey might have been hyperbole. But as Tim Layden wrote in Sports Illustrated, “The stink lingered after the decision. So egregious was the verdict in Atlantic City that it left even the most jaded fight fans shaking their heads and gave rise to allegations of corrupt judging involving Briggs’s manager, Marc Roberts; Roberts’ promotional company, Worldwide Entertainment & Sports; and New Jersey boxing commissioner Larry Hazzard.”

Those looking for clues with regard to the scoring also took note of the fact that, subsequent to raising millions of dollars through a 1996 offering of Worldwide Entertainment & Sports stock, Roberts had been involved with two major fights in New Jersey. Foreman-Briggs was the second. The first was a December 14, 1996, bout between Tim Witherspoon and Ray Mercer (another WWES fighter). That bout resulted in an absurdly lopsided decision for Mercer, and the most lopsided scorecard was turned in by Calvin Claxton.

Foreman was gracious in defeat. “He’s a good kid,” George said of Shannon in the ring after the fight. He just lost his mother. He stayed in there with me. I wish him well.” Roy Foreman (George’s brother) was equally kind, adding, “Shannon Briggs is a nice young man. The decision wasn’t his fault. Shannon didn’t score the fight.”

Foreman never fought again. He retired from boxing the following year with a career record of 76 wins against 5 losses with 68 knockouts. Briggs fought for nineteen more years and, at age 48, is threatening to fight again. His record stands at 60-6-1 with 53 KOs.

Meanwhile, in his first fight after decisioning Foreman, Briggs relinquished the lineal crown when he was knocked out in the fifth round by Lennox Lewis. Eight years later, Shannon won the WBO heavyweight title with an eleventh round stoppage of Sergiy Liakhovich. But he lost it by decision in his next outing against Sultan Ibragimov.

“I feel like I’ve been successful in boxing,” Briggs said after his loss to Ibragimov. “I didn’t achieve the status of a Mike Tyson or a Lennox Lewis, but I’m happy with what I achieved. Coming from where I came from, homeless in Brooklyn, sleeping in shelters, everything I did was an accomplishment. How many kids come from where I did and break the cycle? People who’ve been comfortable all their life and were given everything when they were young think it’s easy to break away from a bad situation. They say stupid things like, ‘Just go out and work hard.’ But most people who come from where I came from wind up doing what their parents did and living like their parents lived. I don’t care what anyone else says. I made good. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. And I was the lineal heavyweight champion of the world whether people like it or not.”

Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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