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The Rise and Fall of Big George
January 13, 2004
By Raul Groom

In 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 is humankind.

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 his body.

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 that."

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 tired.

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 his approach.

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 bleaker.

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

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