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
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.