Monday, May 25, 2009

George Foreman at the Armory, 5/23/69

On May 23, 1969, Muhammed Ali announced that he would retire from boxing forever because the sport ran counter to his religious convictions. The previous evening in Tampa, one phase of another boxer's life concluded for real: the amateur career of boxer George Foreman.

After a three month absence, boxing returned to the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory with the Olympic heavyweight champion highlighting the card. The event would mark the 20-year-old Foreman's last bout as an amateur.

Long before any rumbles in the jungle or best-selling fat-grilling machines, the Houston native scaled the heights of his sport just nine months earlier in Mexico City.

In October 1968, George Foreman defeated Ionas Chepulis of the Soviet Union with a TKO to capture the Olympic gold medal. Foreman endeared himself to those watching at home by waving a tiny American flag in the ring following his match -- quite the contrast to the black-fisted salutes on the medal stand by Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Foreman also appeared to be the ideal contrast to Ali. Unlike Ali, who had his heavyweight championship stripped following his draft dodging conviction, Foreman brandished his patriotism openly.

"I got a military obligation, and I'm going to honor it," Foreman said at the time. "When it's my time to go, I'll go. I plan to make a lot of money in this country and spend a lot here, too. This is my country. I'll do right by it."

Manager Dick Sadler, who also handled the career of Sonny Liston, knew Foreman could eventually climb the ranks of professional boxing.

"He's a diamond in the rough," Sadler said of Foreman. "He's an untapped oil well. He can hit with either hand. He can think and coordinate his fists with his brain. That's important. He has the power in both hands that others don't."

The crowd of just over 1,000 fans at the Armory knew they weren't going to get a 12-round slugfest so much as the chance to see an Olympic hero. Foreman didn't really come to Tampa to box his opponent George Savage, either, so much as to put on a show.

"We're not here to try and hurt each other," he said.

In fact, Foreman mostly toyed with the outgunned Savage in a no-decision three round fight. Sporting a "USA" t-shirt, Foreman dodged and ducked Savage, who landed only two clean shots to the face of the gold medalist.

The crowd still enjoyed the bout and showered the boxers with plenty of applause. These would be the last moments Foreman would spend in the ring as an amateur fighter.

The next day in Houston, Foreman signed his first pro contract with Sadler, who indicated on their way out of Tampa that Foreman would one day return for a big-time bout.

It took Foreman a little over three years and 37 wins without a loss to become the world's heavyweight champion. On January 22, 1973, down went Joe Frazier.

Foreman would never again box in Tampa, although he made several appearances in Orlando during his comeback in the late 1980s. On that one night, however, fans at the Armory could say that Tampa sent George Foreman on his way in style.

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