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When Jimmy Young made George Foreman froth at the mouth

Jimmy Young
Steve Bunce recounts when Jimmy Young was a great heavyweight on a day of bedlam in San Juan

THEY no longer make rounds like the seventh in fights like the one that took place in March of 1977 at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was Jimmy Young against George Foreman, endless promises, there was brutality, outrageous skill and confusion on too many faces. There was pure brilliance in that fight and a final-round knockdown. In the stormy close, one man believed he died and was reborn in a fitting epiphany to end a remarkable fight.

Young was meant to lose, Foreman was meant to win. Don King had spoken to both of them before the fight; he wanted to be sure that Young understood and he needed to make sure that Foreman made the massacre look acceptable. These are the raw facts before the fight.

Here are some others: Foreman had lost just the once, the beating in the Rumble to Muhammad Ali, in 46 fights, just 28 and looked untouchable once again. Young, well, he had fiddled through 15 ugly rounds with Ali the previous year and had lost five fights in total. He was smart, crafty and had to defend himself against harsh claims that he had no heart. “What do you know about my heart?” he asked reporters a few days before the fight. It was probably a loaded question and it is easy to imagine Foreman, King and Gil Clancy, Foreman’s corner man, smirking when Young was forced to defend his heart. Young was so unfashionably pure then that is hard recognise the man that followed. 

The drugs and chaos and moral abandonment would come later at a time when he was helpless and hopeless to prevent the unravelling of a great career. He made and lost two million dollars; it is not, trust me, the “usual story” and that is because Jimmy Young really was a little bit special.

It was easy to beat Foreman in the Seventies: You let him hit you for seven rounds in the liver, the head, the shoulder, the chest, the groin; you let him stick his elbow in your mouth, his head in your ear and you let him scare the life out of you. You took his uppercuts, you tasted your own blood and prayed to a god that you had lost a long time ago. If you got to round eight, the fight was yours. Easy, well, that’s the thinking.

Jimmy Young knew what he had to do, knew the sacrifices he would have to make, knew the pain he would go through. The only encouraging sign for Young from the start was that the crowd 12,000 was on his side. Poor Foreman, nobody loved the big dope.

Foreman is warned for hitting and holding, his elbow and pushing Young’s head down inside the first minute of the opening round. The crowd liked that, they liked the massive underdog. Foreman’s thumping jab is crashing home, his wild rights to the body, side and Young’s back are connecting often enough. Foreman is dismissive of Young, pushing, pulling and snarling. Foreman slaps Young at times.

However, Young is keeping it together, firing in jabs, leaning away, moving back, not taking any risks and nicking early rounds. Foreman never adjusts, never listens, he seems to never learn and his corner simply can’t reach him; Young is fiddling in the first five or six rounds, surviving. It’s not a classic at this point, too technical, but it is gripping. Also, if Foreman hits your body for six rounds, whacks away at your elbows and arms, it hurts – it really hurts.

In round seven, it looks over; Foreman lands with a cracking short left hook and it has his full power. Young should have toppled like a tree, but he staggers, hurt, he looks out the ring, panics for the first and only time in the fight. Foreman has about two minutes and 30 seconds to finish his man. The fight is over. The crowd stand – they never sit down from that point.

Young holds, ducks, dives and is thrown about by Foreman’s huge fists. The crowd chant “Jimmy Young, Jimmy Young” and then Jimmy Young starts to throw punches of his own, a single right, a left, another right and Foreman is caught. Foreman often wipes his face after Young connects, a slow act of belated cleansing as his fist strokes his own cheek. It’s a slugfest, make no mistake. Young survives the round.

The rounds continue, the crowd never sits, the noise never drops and the fall of Foreman is compulsive viewing. Young lands with jabs, moves to his right and away from a counter and then whips in fast rights of his own. Foreman is still capable of breaking a rock at this point, don’t imagine that Foreman is finished. Young is having to fight out of his skin in rounds nine, 10 and 11. Foreman is a weary man by the start of the 12th and last round – perhaps the voices are there in his head already, a lullaby to counter the hateful screams of the crowd. Foreman had turned on ringside abusers a few times. 

Young lands with a right, moves his feet, lands with another right, Foreman is wilting, struggling to stand and then Foreman tumbles down. Foreman’s right knee and right glove touch the canvas in the 12th round. There is bedlam in San Juan as the ghost of Foreman gets up. Foreman is walking on ruined legs, looking at Young through haunted eyes. Young is magnificent. What a final round.

The bell. A unanimous decision for Young. Foreman leaves the ring and the horror starts. The men in the Foreman business try to hold him down. He screams, he froths at the mouth. He speaks to Jesus, he argues with the devil. He sweats, he shakes. They take George Foreman to hospital. He is convinced that he has died. He takes 10 years out. He refuses millions to return to the ring. He joins a wild church, he starts to speak in tongues and he walks the streets penniless in Texas clutching a bible. The tigers, lions and Rollers are gone. He builds his own church. And then he returns in 1987 and the rest is history.

Young never got the second Ali fight, he never got the offer of millions. He fought too long in bad fights. He vanished and he also walked the streets penniless. He died lonely and forgotten in 2005. He was just 56.

Jimmy Young was a truly great heavyweight in San Juan that day.

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