Rise and Fall of Big George
By Raul Groom
Muhammad Ali's very best performances, there was always one
moment when his opponent did something to make it seem as
if he had a chance to knock off The Greatest. Whether it was
Cleveland Williams landing a lucky right hand in the middle
of the first round in 1966 or Smokin' Joe Frazier connecting
on a wild left hook at the end of the 13th in their third
and final fight, Ali's opponents always seemed to provide
their own fans with one last glimmer of hope before succumbing
to inevitable defeat. There is one such moment, though, that
stands out as one of history's great turning points, not just
in boxing or in sports but in the great comic tragedy that
The year was 1974. Popular resistance to the war in Indochina,
a resistance for which Ali had become a prominent figurehead
when he refused induction into the Army in 1967, had finally
succeeded in shaming the U.S. government into pulling military
forces out of Vietnam, Laos, and eventually Cambodia. The
previous year, the mood among the war's opponents had been
upbeat, but as the depth and breadth of the U.S.-sponsored
destruction of the region became clear, the eventual success
of the antiwar movement had begun to look like something of
a hollow victory.
Meanwhile, Ali's own sun appeared to be setting. After the
Supreme Court overturned Ali's draft-evasion conviction and
granted him readmittance to the world of boxing in 1970, the
Champ was unable to defend his linear title against Joe Frazier,
the man who had been awarded the belt during Ali's three-year
hiatus from the sport. Joe knocked Ali down in the 15th and
took a close but clear victory over the Champ. Frazier then
lost the title in spectacular fashion to Big George Foreman,
who made Smokin' Joe look like a third-rate club fighter as
he battered the only man ever to defeat Muhammad Ali around
the ring with ease, hardly breaking a sweat in knocking Frazier
down six times in two rounds.
By the time Muhammad got a shot at Foreman's title in 1974,
Ali's skills were starting to look tarnished. In 1973, he
had lost another fight, to little-known ex-Marine Ken Norton,
and Norton, too, went on to be summarily destroyed by the
enormous, devastatingly powerful Foreman.
The night of the Rumble in the Jungle, many of Ali's closest
friends discussed their misgivings about the matchup. They
knew, as Ali certainly did, that Ali's caricature of Foreman
as "the Zombie" – a huge, lumbering oaf groaning around the
ring in search of one big punch – was off the mark. In addition
to being probably the hardest puncher in the history of boxing,
Big George was extremely graceful and quick on his feet for
such a huge man. It seemed unlikely that, at 32 years of age,
Ali would be able to stay out of reach of the 26-year-old
Foreman for an entire 15-round fight.
Indeed, as the fight began, Ali was having to work extremely
hard to stay away from Foreman. He danced and bounced and
weaved, but the ring's unusually small size and the softness
of the canvas made it obvious that the strategy could not
work for long. And so in Round 2, adopting a technique that
has since become the most famous "Plan B" in the history of
sports, Ali settled in on the ropes and invited Big George
to come inside and whale away.
The pro-Ali spectators at ringside were aghast, but Foreman
and his corner were elated. With Ali sitting on the ropes
and offering only the occasional straight right hand in response
to Foreman's monstrous onslaught, it seemed only a matter
of time before Ali wore down. Through the third and fourth
rounds, Foreman swung wildly, missing most of his punches
to Ali's head but landing a high percentage of punches to
In the fifth round, Foreman set his feet and began seriously
to attack. Finally, Ali's elbows strayed imperceptibly from
his midsection and Big George sprang into action. He unleashed
one of his famous right hands to the body, and the punch found
its home just below Ali's ribcage, one of the most sensitive
areas on a fighter's body.
As the punch landed, Foreman felt the force of the punch
reverberate all the way up to his shoulder, the sign of a
truly devastating and effective scoring blow. It seemed clear
to him at that moment that this would be the turning point
in the fight, and that he would finally be able to finish
off Muhammad Ali and cement his own place in the pantheon
of great heavyweight fighters.
The follow-through of the withering punch brought Foreman
in close to Ali, and Muhammad pulled George in closer still,
tying him up to prevent further damage. Then, as their heads
leaned in next to one another, Foreman heard Ali say something
very, very strange.
"Is that all you got, George? My momma hits harder than
After the fight was over, Foreman probably realized that
this was gamesmanship on Ali's part, and that the punch had
indeed seriously hurt Ali. At the time, though, Big George
was disheartened by the taunt. It seemed to him that after
being hit with a shot like that, Ali shouldn't be able to
talk at all, much less make jokes in the clinches. At that
moment, Foreman realized something ominous – he was getting
For the rest of the fight, Foreman seemed a shadow of his
former self. He continued to swing big, but the long, looping
punches that had just minutes before looked like deadly and
unstoppable weapons began to seem wild, desperate, almost
pathetic. It would surely have been better for Foreman to
hang back, take a few rounds off, and force Ali to change
But Big George was built only for attack, and attack he
did, even to the bitter end. Near the end of the 8th round,
with Ali continuing to lean back on the ropes and taunt his
huge attacker, Foreman missed wildly, and Ali connected with
what the British TV commentator at ringside aptly called a
"sneaky right hand." The punch stung Foreman, and stopped
him long enough for Ali to open up with another right, this
one more powerful than the one before.
Suddenly it was Foreman on the ropes, reaching out to tie
Ali's hands – but it was too late. Foreman went down in a
hail of punches as Ali towered over him, still laughing and
heckling him as he lay prostrate in disgrace and humiliation.
Once again Ali had triumphed against all odds, and with his
victory came hope for Ali's kindred spirits who, despite success
in ending the Vietnam War, were being bludgeoned by the increasingly
reactionary and paranoid U.S. Government and watching their
own civil society being devastated by stagnant wages and dishonest,
ineffective economic policies.
Forgive me for going on and on. There's a saying I heard
once that when a commentator can't think of much to say, he
writes about sports, and when he can't think of anything
to say, he writes about Muhammad Ali. That quip – whose author
my research team has not yet been able to identify - may have
been intended as a criticism; I read it as sage advice. But
in this case it's not Ali I'm thinking of, exactly – it's
Big George and the strange set of circumstances that changed
what looked to be a spectacular boxing career into a sad,
slow Song of the Doomed.
There's another George who just might gain some perspective
from Foreman's tale of glory gone awry. Our current President
has been assured for years that he's immensely popular, that
his policies are working, and that all he needs to do to win
the 2004 election is stage attractive photo-ops and allow
his gold-plated political attack machine to viciously slime
his Democratic challengers until they are reduced to a quivering
pile of putty and Bush is easily reelected President on a
groundswell of popular support and goodwill.
Something tells me Little George could benefit from a "Plan
B." With the serious campaign season beginning, the news cycle
has been dealing the Bush team a lot of sneaky right hands.
Bush's former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has gone on
the record to the tune of several serious, possibly criminal
allegations against the Bush regime that forced him out after
O'Neill balked at Cheney's second round of huge tax breaks
for the wealthy.
Among O'Neill's main beefs with Bush and Cheney are that
they wouldn't listen to him, despite the fact that, as the
President's chief economic adviser, he was supposed to be
the top mind in the executive branch when it came to matters
of fiscal policy. Inexplicably, the White House's chief defense
against O'Neill's complaint that he wasn't listened to is
that "We didn't listen to him when he was here, so why would
we listen to him now?" Huh?
Not one to take such sanctimonious snubs lying down, O'Neill
takes the White House to task on a number of issues, most
explosively the planning for the Iraq war. History, especially
in the television age, tends to get muddied a bit as time
wears on, so it's worth revisiting the two main lines of argument
that prevailed in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In one camp, you had the hawks, who maintained that after
September 11th, the Bush Administration had started to pay
closer attention to which world leaders were sponsoring terrorism
and developing weapons of mass destruction. They had concluded,
after poring over reams of meticulously gathered intelligence,
that of all the people in the world, Saddam Hussein posed
the gravest threat to the United States because of his huge
arsenal of chemical and biological agents and his rapidly
accelerating nuclear weapons program, coupled to his long-standing
and close ties with terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda.
It would be irresponsible, these folks told the rest of us,
to allow Saddam Hussein to remain in power for even another
year, because he was on the brink of destroying life as we
know it with his maniacal and dastardly powers of badness.
There was another camp, the doves, whose position was more
along the lines of "What a bunch of crap."
Well, ladies and gentlemen, guess what? It was a bunch of
crap. We doves aren't supposed to say so. It makes us seem
"smug," particularly to people who believed the crap like
it came out of the mouth of Mother Teresa instead of the ass
of the most deceitful U.S. administration since the invention
of television. But it's the truth, and it is now impossible
for anyone to deny.
So says Paul O'Neill, a conservative Republican whose revelations
about the Bush administration have probably destroyed any
chance he had of reintegrating himself into the power structure
of the Republican Party. At significant professional risk,
O'Neill tells us in a new book that the decision to invade
Iraq was made even before the Bush administration formally
took office. It was a plan concocted months or even years
before September 11th, and the terrorist attacks on New York
and Washington were viewed by administration insiders not
as a wake-up call as they claimed publicly, but as a fantastic
opportunity to implement their strategy of installing oil
companies close to the administration in key locations in
the Middle East.
So says Paul Wolfowitz, a frothing right-wing zealot who
long ago abandoned the conceit that the Bush administration
seriously thought that Saddam's weapons were a credible reason
to invade Iraq, and who publicly admits that the WMD argument
was dreamed up as a public relations strategy.
So says Joseph Wilson, the ambassador who was integral in
gathering intelligence on Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons
of mass destruction, and who became the target of an illegal
and treasonous campaign by as-yet-unidentified Bush officials
to destroy his and his wife's career after he came forward
with public misgivings about the White House's illegal war
and its bogus justification.
The cynics among us suggest that no matter how obvious the
corruption and dishonesty of the Bush administration, no matter
how low they stoop to undermine our democracy and destroy
our standing in the world community, no matter how many conservatives
come out of the closet to denounce the Bush machine's excesses,
the script of our Washington press corps will remain the same
– Bush is Unbeatable, the Democrats are Unelectable. I'm not
sure the discourse is that far gone, but let's assume for
a moment that the cynics are right.
There is a wild card in all of this, more analogous to Muhammad
Ali in Zaire than any of the Democratic presidential candidates.
If Bush is defeated, it is likely not Howard Dean or Wesley
Clark who will land the decisive right cross, but a man by
the name of Patrick Fitzgerald.
When the news first hit that John Ashcroft had recused himself
from the investigation into the Plame leak, I saw the story
immediately. It's not that I religiously monitor the AP wire
– really I don't – but at the time another story was breaking.
Steve Spurrier had resigned his position as head coach of
Washington's pro football team, but apparently no one had
told him. It was a weird and humorous situation, and it was
receiving a lot of attention in the nation's capital.
At the time the biggest question was who exactly Skins owner
Dan Snyder would tap to replace Spurrier. Another questionable
hiring would probably mean that Snyder was running a Vanity
Ball outfit, designed more to attract attention to Snyder
himself than to win football games. Snyder would eventually
put an end to such speculation by signing the greatest coach
in Washington sports history, Joe Gibbs.
Ashcroft's abrupt recusal raised a similar question, though
personally I thought the answer was pretty obvious. The Bush
Administration has a long history of appointing horrible candidates
to fill jobs Bush's handlers want done badly – the appointment
of Paul O'Neill, a lifelong industry exec with no experience
in macroeconomic policy, is an excellent case in point. If
you want someone who will run the federal treausury into the
ground, you hire Paul O'Neill (or O'Neill's disgusting, spineless
replacement, current Secretary of the Treasury John Snow.)
It seemed clear that with Ashcroft off the case, the administration
would appoint a Bush family toady to head up the investigation
and make sure no shit splattered on the dynasty when they
tossed their scapegoat into the hog pit.
Thus you can imagine my shock when it was announced that
the man heading up the inquiry would be none other than Patrick
Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for Illinois and bane of racketeers,
fixers and bag men all over the state. Fitzgerald is no bleeding-heart
liberal, to be sure – he has had a career-long love affair
with the death penalty and is a staunch Republican appointed
to his post by George W. Bush. It was this fact that led Howard
Dean and others to mistakenly criticize the move as evidence
of a whitewash.
As we all scrambled to evaluate Fitzgerald in a little more
depth, a different picture started to emerge. First of all,
the White House seemed genuinely blindsided by the recusal.
Officials speaking on the matter repeated over and over that
it was correct and proper that Justice hadn't informed them
of the matter until the day of the move – almost as if they
were as surprised as anyone else that Ashcroft had done things
by the book.
Second, and more importantly, it seems clear that if you
were in a position to appoint someone to investigate your
own office, Patrick Fitzgerald would be pretty far down on
your list of candidates. Like, maybe last. One gets the feeling
from looking at Fitzgerald's resume that he won't be satisfied
until every American citizen – except possibly Fitzgerald
himself – is in jail. His investigation into corruption charges
against the Illinois Governor's office uncovered a system
of bribes, kickbacks, and quid pro quos that would
have shamed John Gotti (whom Fitzgerald also put behind bars,
by the way) and left Fitzgerald in the uncomfortable position
of investigating a system so broken that it would be difficult
to decide who, exactly, should take the blame for it all.
Fitzgerald came up with a commendable and refreshing solution
to this age-old problem – he just threw everybody in jail.
To date, 33 members of Ryan's administration have been convicted
of crimes, and the Governor himself is most likely next. Now
the architect of the downfall of the Ryan machine has trained
his sights on Rove's Mayberry Machiavellis, and despite assurances
to the contrary from the entire spectrum of the corporate
media, the outlook for Bush and his cronies has never been
So why do the talking heads remain so convinced that Bush
can't be beaten? Your guess is as good as mine. But just as
most of the sports reporters at ringside in Zaire in 1974
thought that Foreman was winning the fight right up until
the moment that he landed on his keister, our intrepid Fourth
Estate interprets every one of Bush's wild, desperate haymakers
as if it were a picture-perfect left hook.
The trouble is, a punch isn't effective when it only makes
the air whistle. As Big George wore himself down that hot
Africa night, it didn't matter that no one believed he could
lose. Facts, as they say, are stubborn things. And Bush's
real opponent – the common people of this country, toiling
away to lift the world into a new generation of hope and light
even as Dubya and his nihilistic fraternity cavalierly rip
apart the gains of our forebears – can feel the real effect
of George's pitiful attempts at a counterattack.
The national press thinks George W. Bush's trip to Iraq
was a master stroke. The public, by and large, saw it as vaguely
lame, and it did little or nothing for Junior's popularity.
The talk shows routinely feature entire panels who agree that
the Iraq war was clearly the right thing to do; meanwhile
voters' unease grows daily as the U.S. resumes its bombing
campaign while refusing to admit that the dropping of 2000-lb.
explosives on cities full of civilians constitutes a resumption
of "major combat."
Bush's latest plan, which Scottie McClellan revealingly
felt the need to insist was "totally the President's idea,"
is that in face of spiraling deficits, mounting worldwide
anger at American arrogance and hypocrisy, and the complete
organizational breakdown of many of the most important functions
of the executive branch, the top priority for the government
of the United States should be to put a man back on the moon.
Let me speak for the entire world when I say "Is that all
you got, George?"
Visit Raul Groom's blog at raulgroom.blogspot.com.