THIRTY years ago, March 9, 1987, former heavyweight king George Foreman shocked the boxing world by launching a comeback that was mostly, if not exclusively inspired by a need for money.

“Big George,” was 38, he had been largely forgotten by the sports world and he had not boxed for a full decade. Worse still, Foreman – who had turned to religion and had become a full time preacher after experiencing a life-changing episode inside his dressing room in Puerto Rico after his losing fight with Jimmy Young – had ballooned to around 300-pounds.

It was a dangerous decision to attempt a ring return, even if George had managed to get his weight down to a considerably lighter, but still too heavy 267. Foreman returned in Sacramento, against journeyman Steve Zouski, and a fairly large crowd of onlookers, mostly curiosity seekers, was on hand to see what the overweight, shaven-headed former heavyweight king could do as he set out to earn enough cash to save his Youth and Community centre in Houston.

Zouski, aged 32 and sporting a decent 25-11 record, had been in with big names like Tony Tubbs, Marvis Frazier and a young, 18-0 Mike Tyson, so as a comeback foe for an ageing heavyweight who had not even put the gloves on for ten years, he was not a bad choice – even if, at barely six-feet tall, Zouski was dwarfed by the 6’4” Foreman.

Foreman, looking slow, flabby and cumbersome, pounded out a 4th-round stoppage win. Zouski was never off his feet, but the Foreman comeback train had left the station, on a journey to who knows where.

The critics had a field day, claiming Foreman would achieve nothing apart from getting himself hurt and embarrassed. But George, one of the most mentally and physically strong men ever to have graced the sport, was determined to go all the way back to the top. Foreman’s rallying cry for a shot at new ruler Mike Tyson was laughed at by everyone, but slowly his campaign caught on with the fans. Partly down to his enormous personality – George was now a jovial giant, not the brooding fighter he was back in the 1970s, and he was as quick with a self-deprecating joke as he was with a memorable line – Foreman became the people’s choice. The former champ also saw to it that his chances of success were boosted by enlisting the assistance of wise old veterans Archie Moore (himself no stranger to fighting at an advanced age) and Charlie Shipes.

Foreman would later say he was fighting to prove that the age of 40, even 50, “was not a death sentence.” With God on his side, along with fans young and old, George refused to let anything get in the way of him regaining the heavyweight crown. Fight two, in July of ’87, saw Foreman KO a 16-4 Charles Hostetter inside three-rounds in Oakland, California (Hostetter had boxed a 7-0 Gary Mason in London the year before). While in fight-three of his unlikely comeback, Foreman met “Fighting Hillbilly” Bobby Crabtree.

This fight, a 6th-round TKO win for “Big George,” took place in Springfield, Missouri, six months on from the Zouski fight. Crabtree, 30-15-1 at the time, had fought and lost to names like James Tillis, Tony Tucker, Renaldo Snipes and James Pritchard (being halted by all four) but he managed to take Foreman further than George’s previous two hand-picked foes had.

“I had about a week’s notice to fight Foreman, as was usual in my career,” Crabtree tells Boxing News when looking back all these years later.

“George has written a couple of books and he writes about out fight over four pages. He says I hurt him. But with Foreman, when you hit or hurt him, you just made him mad (laughs). He never knocked me out. I was stuck on the ropes, I guess taking too many punches, and they stopped it. But I was still throwing punches myself. At the time, I never, ever thought he would be able to win back the title. But he did it! He showed in the [Evander] Holyfield and Tommy Morrison fights that he could really take a punch.”

Now 3-0 in his quest, Foreman had yet to answer questions regarding how good his chin was. In time, Foreman would display a veritable rock for a head, as Crabtree says, but first there were more stops “in tank towns against unranked, undersized, untalented opposition,” as one US publication bluntly put it at the time.

Fight number-eight came in Las Vegas and was a step up of sorts. Foreman met former light-heavyweight and cruiserweight champ Dwight Muhammad Qawi in March of ’88 and he was given a pretty stiff test; even if the 5’7” Qawi came in at a fleshy, career-high weight of 222-pounds. Qawi, 28-5-1, managed to bounce some good lefts and rights off Foreman’s head, but he soon ran out of gas, eventually turning his back in the 7th-round, quitting.

“I took the Foreman fight on two-and-a-half week’s notice. I was originally supposed to fight Bert Cooper,” Qawi tells BN when looking back.

“Bob Arum called and he offered me Foreman instead. At the time, I didn’t even know Foreman had made a comeback. But I thought, ‘yeah, he’s old, I’ll knock him out.’ I thought I was gonna KO him fast. But he was in shape, the best shape of his comeback at 235-pounds (George’s lowest weight in the comeback, with him eventually settling in at a comfortable 250-255-pounds). I was overweight but I was winning the fight. I shook him a few times, but I got tired. George was smart, he’d improved as a fighter in his comeback. He wasn’t just going for the quick KO any more.”

Despite this relatively glowing review by Qawi, critics at the time were anything but impressed by Foreman’s performance. His lack of defence and his lack of speed did not bode at all well for Foreman’s chances against the murderous Tyson, said the experts.

Still, by now Foreman was pulling in big numbers on TV channels such as USA and ESPN, and the fans, who believed that, yes, he could smash Tyson the way he had Joe Frazier way back in 1973, continued to grow in numbers.

Fight-12 came in September of ’88 in Michigan. Foreman met a 14-2 Bobby Hitz and he scored a quick, one-round KO.

Today good friends with Foreman, Hitz is a promoter. Interestingly, Hitz says he was originally supposed to be Foreman’s first comeback opponent, not Zouski.

“I took the fight with George on four day’s notice,” Hitz tells BN.

“I was initially supposed to be his first comeback opponent, we were supposed to fight in the south of France. I was in tremendous shape and they ended up bringing Steve Zouski in. It just seemed they didn’t want to fight me when I was in top shape. When the fight finally came around, I sparred a 154-pound guy and then I got on a plane to fight Foreman! I was a fighter, I had balls. No way would I turn down any fight just because I didn’t have enough notice. Fighting is what I did.

“We both threw right hands, and that was it (laughs). But I did manage to have George worried in our fight – he thought he’d killed me! But I got back up and I was on my feet [when it was stopped], which is something Gerry Cooney and Michael Moorer couldn’t do, and they had months to train for Foreman. Still, it wasn’t enough for me to have fought a legend; back then I honestly thought I’d beat him.”

A common theme amongst these early comeback opponents of Foreman is the basic lack of anything bad they have to say about him. The same could be said of foe number-14, Dave Jaco; except Jaco, who was 20-15 at the time, says today that that Foreman adopted dirty tactics against him in Bakersfield, California in December of ’88. Foreman scored yet another 1st-round stoppage victory, but Jaco insists he was hit by an illegal punch.

“George Foreman hit me very hard, but he was a dirty fighter,” Jaco tells BN.

“He hit me in the middle of my back; it was just like being hit with a baseball bat! It was a cheap shot and when I got up, I lost the most important part of my body. You know what that is – it’s your head. I was so mad! I went and traded with him and he came back at me like a windmill. He knocked me down four times in all. That was my biggest payday – I got $10,000. Today I like George, but he was dirty. Even now I have lower back trouble.”

By the time he was 19-0 in the comeback, even George himself knew it was time for a genuine test, against a puncher, against someone his own size. Enter one Gerry Cooney, who launched a wholly unexpected ring return of his own when he signed to fight Foreman in January of 1990. Cooney, who had actually promoted a couple of Foreman’s previous comeback bouts, had not boxed since June of ’87, when Michael Spinks stopped him in five.

Cooney, who was battling drink and drugs problems at the time of the Spinks defeat, had cleaned himself up and, when he was approached with the Foreman fight, felt he could return with a bang. Bringing in Foreman’s one-time trainer Gil Clancy, Cooney, 28-2, says today he “wanted to see what I could do sober.”

The fight in Atlantic City, a $1 million payday for both men, was dubbed “The Preacher Vs. The Puncher” and Foreman surprised plenty of people, Clancy especially, with the neat and tidy combination punching he used to score an impressive 2nd-round KO.

“George was the hardest hitter I met in my career, but I met him right at the end of my career,” Cooney recalls for BN.

“He was just a powerful, powerful old man. He wasn’t too fast but his hands were so heavy, and he was extremely accurate with his combinations that night. I hurt him early on [in the opening round, with a left hook] and being a puncher, I went for the finish. Clancy wanted me to move around and box Foreman for five, six rounds, but I went for it after I hurt him. But my timing was off and I got caught myself. But I wasn’t a young kid at the time; I was 33.”

Foreman was by now aged 41, at the time a ludicrously advanced age for any fighter seeking a world title shot, but the brutally effective KO of Cooney earned him, for the first time in his comeback, some respect and credibility. M.C Michael Buffer, who introduced the Foreman-Cooney fight, announced to the crowd how Foreman, after his stoppage win, was now 20-0 in his “great comeback.”

The remaining cynics – of which there were plenty – would have to be won over by heroic displays against the likes of Evander Holyfield, Alex Stewart and, in 1994, Michael Moorer – when George finally made reality out of his seemingly impossible dream – before the word great was used. But after the crushing of Cooney, George was on his way.

Foreman, with the title-regaining KO over Moorer, single-handedly changed boxing history; becoming at the age of 45 the oldest heavyweight champion in all of boxing. But it wasn’t just the win he scored in Las Vegas on the night of November 5 that George knelt in a corner and offered a prayer of thanks for; no, Foreman’s grateful bow to the big man upstairs was also a way of saying thanks for being able to come through those 20 early – and heavily criticised – return bouts.