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In Joseph Conrad's novel Victory, the old man advises his son Heyst, "Look! Do not pounce." Jimmy Young must have heard that line somewhere, for it is the sum of what he is about as a fighter. He is the sharpest-eyed looker in the ring in decades; if he were a foot soldier, he would live forever. But even a watch-and-wait fighter like Young has to pounce, has to become offensive at some point, and that he finally did last week in the sapping mugginess of Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, pulling off an astonishing upset against George Foreman and sending a shock wave through boxing and, indeed, the whole world of sports.
Without doubt, Young's unanimous 12-round decision over Foreman is a cannon shot right into the belly of the heavyweight division, leaving money and backroom politics and well-made plans oozing out all over the place. The decision shuffles Foreman back into the comeback thicket, which he had been merrily hacking his way through, and leaves him $5 million poorer, that being the estimated swag he was demanding for his rematch with Muhammad Ali. It also puts peaceable and disarming Jimmy Young on the verge of becoming a million-dollar fighter. The underdogs of the world are ecstatic.
The surprise of Young's form reversal, his sudden presence, has left much of boxing numb. The wise men stare at each other, as if they have peeked behind the psychic curtain and have been given answers to questions like: Is it possible to see the future? Can we contact the dead? Do dreams come true? To that last question, Young must now qualify as an authority. "For weeks," he said, "I would be sleeping and dreaming and scheming how to beat George Foreman. Combinations. Combinations. Combinations. That's all I kept saying in my sleep. And then I'd wake up cold and sweating. Dreams do become alive. It ain't no dream anymore, is it? It's a fact."
In the hospital bed to which he was taken after the fight, where he rested the next day like one of those lions he so admires and alludes to, Foreman preferred that Young's "fact" would quietly go away, along with another harsh reality: his own abysmal dearth of stamina and craft. In Za�re, Ali had exposed Foreman for what Ali said he was—a magnificent patsy. The hope was that he had learned, that the several parts of that awesome body would finally click into a unified machine. His victories over Joe Frazier misled so many, especially his last one. Look how he's shortened up his punches, his admirers went on. Sure, but how else are you going to hit a guy who's trying to pull out your wisdom teeth? Frazier aside, the sad truth was that Foreman never did learn how to punch when he had to pursue somebody.
Pursuit takes time, patience, instinct and a sure sense of one's own body. Foreman is aware of none of this and that, along with his quirky, traitorous metabolism, did him in—with much help from Jimmy Young. To his undeniable credit, Young explored the great hulk of Foreman like a cartographer, his glass up to his eye, going over an old and valuable map. This is Young's forte; he discerns, he probes, he seldom pounces. What else does he have to offer? Can he counter-punch with cruelty? If he can, then Floyd Patterson had an iron jaw. Are his combinations wicked and discouraging? Forget it. Does he have the hand speed of a Patterson, or even a Jerry Quarry at his best? Never. To get to the heart of the matter, would you pay $150 or $100 for a ringside ticket to see him work? Yes...with somebody else's money.
By any standards, Young does not qualify as a first-rate heavyweight. So how did he beat Foreman, that most fearsome of heavyweights? Young was 16 pounds lighter, an inch shorter, a fighter who had not improved much from year to year. "What I see in Jimmy," said Foreman before the fight, "is a guy trying to imitate a lot of other people. It means he has no growth [ George should have looked in a mirror]. Jimmy Young two years ago is Jimmy Young today. No better." Where was Young's edge, then? His trump was his style.
"The key to any victory is to outthink the other man," Young had warned. "Whether it's in combat, shooting craps or playing chess. And there's no heavyweight alive I can't outthink. No matter how strong a man is—and a lot are stronger than me—well, I always say there isn't a horse that can't be broken or a man who can't be thrown." He paused to let the thought sink in, then his clean, unmarked face wrinkled in glee at the thought of Foreman being thrown.
Before a crowd of 8,000 and a TV audience that produced a whopping 36 rating, Young set out to do the obvious. Knowing that Foreman had never gone more than 10 rounds in his career (and only twice since 1970 had gone as many as 10), and having seen Big George exhausted and arm weary so often after three, four, five rounds, Young began to use him up, making those big, heavy arms work against empty space. For the first six rounds Young walked from side to side, bent down, lounged on the ropes and held, as Foreman clumsily stomped after him, trying to put his feet and hands together. Young was like a man taking a stroll.
When Foreman did get close to Young, he tried to manhandle him. He pushed, laced, elbowed, hit on the break and once, in a clinch, almost broke Young's left arm. From the start, Young, it seemed, was going to make points for himself from George's bad habits. He was the little man in against a beast; psychologically that should mean something with the crowd and officials. It did. The crowd began to chant, "Jeemy Young! Jeemy Young! Jeemy Young!" and kept it up throughout the fight.
Until the seventh round it had been a horrendously dull fight. Then Foreman pawed Young high on the head with a ponderous left hook, sending Jimmy reeling and running for his life with well over two minutes left in the round. For a moment, he appeared to be looking for a place to lie down. Foreman furiously pursued Young, who was trying to clear his head on the ropes.