They were young then and, oh, so proud. Three magnificent gladiators on a collision course with history, they fought fearlessly, battling each other on the biggest stages and in the oddest places.
Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The names roll off the tongue like they were made to be together.
They’ve been linked together now for nearly a half century, united by the special bond created when two men step into the ring. Enemies, rivals and sometimes friends, they fought in a golden era for heavyweights.
When Foreman woke up Saturday, it was with the unsettling knowledge that he was the only one left.
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“We were like one guy,” Foreman said. “But this morning I realized that the greatest piece of us all was Muhammad Ali.”
Ali, of course, was the greatest and the worst part of being muted by Parkinson’s in his later years had to be that he couldn’t keep telling his rivals that. Not that Foreman had to be told, because he was a convert ever since shortly after the night in Africa 42 years ago that changed everything.
Ali was supposed to be old, and he was supposed to be shot. It was going to be easy pickings for Foreman, a way to earn a big payday and get on with the business of fighting real fighters.
“I heard rumors Muhammad Ali was out of money and having a rough time,” Foreman said. “If I took the fight with him he could make $5 million. I said that’s good, I'll give him a chance to make a few bucks and kill him.”
Foreman could afford to be charitable. He had knocked Frazier down six times in two rounds the year before, and stopped Ali’s nemesis, Ken Norton, in the second round of his last fight.
Big and strong, he had never lost as a pro and was the most fearsome slugger around.
“I thought I could beat anybody,” he said from his Houston home. “I devastated Frazier and Norton. I thought this would be the easiest fight of my life. I’d run all over him.”
Ali had other plans in the early morning heat in Kinshasa, Zaire. He took Foreman’s biggest punches early, taunting him all the way.
“Is that all you got George?” Ali said after each punch landed.
“I knew I was in trouble,” Foreman recalled. “I knew this was something different. I put everything I had into the third round and he was still standing.”
Ali would famously employ his rope-a-dope strategy to wear Foreman out before suddenly unleashing a flurry of punches in the eighth round that floored him. Ali was the heavyweight champion once again, much to the delight of the crowd who spent much of the fight shouting “Ali booma-ya (Ali kill him).”
The fight didn’t just restore a title. It restored the faith of boxing fans in Ali, allowing him to fight for six more years.
Foreman would soon be out of boxing, content to be a preacher in his Texas church for the better part of a decade before making a remarkable comeback that would end with him knocking out Michael Moorer to become the oldest heavyweight champion ever.
He resented Ali at first, and had no plans to become his friend. But Ali began calling, trying to get him to come out of retirement and take care of Norton, who still had Ali’s number.
“He said, ‘George, I need you to do me a favor. You can beat Norton and I can’t. I'll let you use my training camp and everything,’ ” Foreman recalled. “I said I’m a preacher now and am not coming back and he said, ‘Remember what David did to Goliath? You can come back and fight for God.’ ”
Foreman would wait until Ali was retired to come back, but still their friendship grew.
“I loved the guy,” Foreman said. “There was something about him, you see his face and you have to smile. My heart would beat fast around him. It was like the most exciting human being I ever met in my life.”
Foreman watched in dismay as the years and the Parkinson’s took their toll on his friend. Before, they had talked on the phone and Ali would come down to Houston to visit.
In his later years, though, Foreman had to be content with memories of a better time. Frazier died in 2011, Ali didn’t travel nearly as much, and he could no longer talk on the phone.
He’s proud to be one of the three. He’s also sad his friend is gone and he’s only one left.
“He was the greatest man I ever knew,” Foreman said. “People say he was the greatest heavyweight, but I say that’s a putdown. He was simply the greatest man, period.”