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YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT
George Plimpton
February 05, 1973
So said Joe Frazier, predicting the defeat of George Foreman. But Joe was no visionary on this Jamaican night. His fortunes went down—and down and down—as Foreman showed he was the one you better believe. A journal of the happenings in Kingston follows
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February 05, 1973

You Better Believe It

So said Joe Frazier, predicting the defeat of George Foreman. But Joe was no visionary on this Jamaican night. His fortunes went down—and down and down—as Foreman showed he was the one you better believe. A journal of the happenings in Kingston follows

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Bundini was scornful. "What good is that? He's hitting something that don't move. They should let the bag swing free. Frazier's not going to stand still for him. They're depending on his power alone. It's like a kid using a gun without a sight. He don't know what to hit. He'll hit the ropes, the referee." He shook his head. "But my goodness I can see why they bandage up those hands. That man can punch."

The weigh-in took place in the huge gym where Foreman earlier had been lambasting the heavy bag. In the distance old women in green smocks mopped the floor, heads down, as if the odd ritual was something beyond understanding. It is odd. Traditionally, the weigh-in exists for bouts in which there are certain weight specifications. For heavyweights, of course, that distinction does not exist. Still, the suspense was there. Foreman weighed 217�, Frazier 214, almost nine pounds over what he weighed for the Ali fight. Each fighter's weight was greeted with a predictable spatter of applause, although it is difficult to say why. Maybe a fighter should be applauded for making the weight in a certain class, and one could understand a reaction from the crowd if the announcer said, "Well, we have a little surprise here; Two-Ton Tony Galento is coming in at 130 pounds."

The staring at the weigh-in, which caused all the subsequent speculation, began when Frazier elbowed Foreman away from the scales, feeling the challenger was too close to him, and Foreman responded with a long even gaze, his jaw moving slightly on gum as he tried to catch the champion's eye. He finally did so, when he himself was on the scale and the champion was standing below him. A considerable height differential was involved, and it seemed that Foreman had won himself an enormous psychological advantage. He towered over Frazier to such an extent, being up on the scale, and taller anyway, that he seemed to be looking over a windowsill at the other man. They remained stock-still, locked in the tension of two chameleons staring at each other, with the writers gibbering with excitement, staring at them. Frazier turned away first. He had backed down.

Half an hour before fight time Howard Cosell came by, pink-faced from too much exposure to the Jamaican sun. Indicating the huge crowd back in the darkness (an estimated 40,000), he commented, "Boyle's Thirty Acres. Jack Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier. 1921. But you know that. You were there." A cackle of laughter and he disappeared around the corner of the ring.

Back here in the hotel I have spent some time trying to decipher the notes scribbled during the four-odd minutes it took George Foreman to dismantle Joe Frazier. The first notations are relatively easy. Red Smith, the columnist for The New York Times , was sitting two tables ahead of me in the press section and, just before the fight started, a moth landed on the back of his seersucker jacket, on the right shoulder blade. I noted it, thinking if the fight were dull I could keep an eye on the moth to see how many rounds it stayed on Mr. Smith's coat. I did not think to look for it again. The allusion to the nightingale getting out of the ring is not as puzzling as one might suppose, it being a reference to the Jamaican ring announcer, Dwight (Nightingale) Whylie. He had never seen a major boxing event, much less announced one, and at the moment the two fighters were waved together by the referee to begin the bout Whylie was standing inside the ring, leaning on the top rope and seemingly about to raise his arm to wave to someone he had recognized in the $75 seats. Perhaps the tremor of the ring under those first quick steps of the fighters alerted him. I don't know, but the smile froze on his face and, without daring to look around, he ducked through the ropes.

The next note is "huge right hand," which I set down because Foreman led with it, one of his first punches, which presumably would have opened him up for a counter by Frazier's most fearsome weapon, his left hook. Schoolboys are taught not to lead with the right hand. "F. down" refers to a Frazier knockdown, and "Keeps his mouth shut...Mandarin" was to remind me of Foreman's composure at that time—aloof, cool, in such contrast to his opponent, who was stumbling, the glazed smooth white of his mouthpiece showing.

The next block of scribbling describes the second round. "F. down" is, of course, a reference to another Frazier knockdown. What one can decipher of the next sentence alludes to the terrible something-or-other "we heard in the gym"—that Frazier was being subjected to the same awesome blows Foreman delivered to the big punching bag. The question marks that follow "left" and "F's left" probably refer to the inability of Frazier to do anything with his famous left hook. I remember watching it in that second round, and seeing it flail a few times, but it was in the throes of his dilemma, like a dying animal's tail flopping over, and after the fight Foreman was reported to have said of the punch, "You mean that thing was his hook?"

The next fragment, " Sadler gestures uppercut," recalls a vivid picture—the little manager on the steps in his corner, his face contorted, his arm pumping up, and then Foreman, looking directly at him, following orders and producing the uppercut that sent Frazier down for the last time. It was at this stage that Foreman looked into the Frazier corner and began shouting, emphasizing what he was saying with a little shake of his head. He was shouting at Yank Durham, unheard in all that tumult, but his lips could be read: "I'm not going to kill him! I'm not going to kill him!" Apparently I read Foreman's lips wrong. Afterward, he declared he said, "Stop it; or I'm going to kill him."

The fight was stopped. The new champion was enveloped, and Archie Moore, in his blue wool ski cap, kissed his pupil on the cheek.

"Melancholy" is the final word on the pad, used not because of dashed support for the beaten man, but because what we had seen was so quick and devastating, so one-sided, that it had none of the esthetic niceties of, say, the psychodrama of the Ali-Frazier fight, which could be studied like a good piece of theater. The crowd stood there a long time, not sure how to accept it, looking up unbelievingly at the ring, so crowded with humanity that it bulged at the ropes. We had been witnesses not to a fight but to an execution.

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