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What crystal ball would have foreseen that 1973 would be the year brilliant Muhammad Ali suffered a broken jaw and a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ken Norton, who up to the time of the bout was a household word in few houses besides his own? Or that Ron Lyle, one of the most highly regarded young contenders, would be decisioned by Jerry Quarry and then draw with Gregorio Peralta?
To fight promoters, '73 was a year of bitter financial frustration. Foreman got to be champion too fast, wiping out a whole series of suspenseful and profitable tests of his right to light for the title: Foreman vs. Bugner, Foreman vs. Quarry, Foreman vs. anybody in the top 15. For all his fine record, Foreman had met few of the heavyweight division's brightest lights. In Brenner's words, " Frazier fighting Foreman was the worst thing that's happened to boxing for a long time." A lot of glamour was knocked off Frazier and Ali and Lyle. All told, the year's two biggest upsets probably cost the boxing industry about $20 million in gate receipts and closed-circuit TV rights.
To ring historians, it was a year of fascinating question marks. How good, really, is Foreman? Did Frazier lose to Foreman by a fluke—or is the ex-champion in eclipse after holding the title for three full years? How far back has Ali gone? Who if anybody is coming along to challenge the men at the top? And then there is always the eternal debate, never so timely as now, as to how today's fighters compare in general with yesterday's.
Foreman is hard to figure. He certainly has all the equipment to be one of the best fighters who ever lived, if not the best. Despite his immense size, his hands are quick, a fact that makes all that muscle an asset rather than a handicap, as it was for some big fighters of the past such as Willard and Camera. He is awesomely powerful and now has shown that he can punch from either side; many think that his left hand—which at one time he was not supposed to have—has developed to a point where it may be even more lethal than the lefts with which Joe Louis and Sonny Liston rocked so many of their opponents.
If there is a knock against Foreman it is his boxing style, which his more charitable critics call awkward, and harsher ones claim is downright illegal. Foreman has always had a tendency to shove his opponents off balance. In a 1970 bout he rushed out of his corner and pushed Boone Kirkman right down on the seat of his pants, before a single punch had been thrown. The round, rightfully, was taken away from him by the referee—though this hardly had an effect on the outcome of the fight. Foreman knocked Kirkman out in the very next round.
Foreman was warned for shoving when he beat Frazier and did some more shoving in his brief bout against Roman, not to mention hitting the poor fellow a glancing blow when he was seated against the ropes. Shoving is illegal in boxing—and, though referees are inclined to be lenient about it in important bouts, it offends many of the purists.
Foreman denies that he does any shoving except in self-defense. "I'll never push a man when he's fighting. But I'm not about to let anybody get in on me and start butting, because it's butting with the head where 90% of a fighter's cuts come from. When they come in at me I know what they want—that's a good way to cause damage without throwing any punches. And in that fight where I won the title I kept saying, 'Get off of me, Joe Frazier." He was the one that started it."
Assuming that Foreman really intends to fight a lot in 1974—and can manage to do so despite his legal entanglements—the world should soon know how to rate him. At the moment, only one of four experienced observers asked by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to draw up a list of the alltime best heavyweights (see boxes) ranks him among the top 10. He is tentatively rated ninth by Brenner, who says, "I'm sure he's a very good fighter, but he hasn't yet proved he's a great fighter."
Frazier is another question mark left in the wake of the events of 1973. Though not particularly big, he is extremely solid and is another one of the fast, powerful heavyweights of the new school. His victory over Ali, in that grueling bout of 1971, is enough in itself to make many rank him among the alltime finest. He has never been beaten since turning professional except in the upset by Foreman. Was that defeat a fluke or is Frazier, who is clearing 30, over the hill?
For the Foreman fight, Frazier was obviously not in top shape. He weighed 8� pounds more than he had weighed for Ali; when he bounced up and down in his corner there was a contrapuntal jiggle of the rolls of fat on his chest and belly. Moreover, he admitted afterward, "I fought a dumb fight." Instead of working to wear his man down, which is his usual style, he seemed to come out trying for a quick one-punch knockout—and to continue to try for one even after he had been hurt and should have retreated. It was almost as though he could not—or would not—believe what was happening to him.