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Classic Fight: Evander Holyfield tops George Foreman in ‘The Battle of the Ages’

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The undisputed heavyweight championship of the world was on the line in 1991.

Everyone knows that George Foreman became the oldest heavyweight champion in history when he upset Michael Moorer to win the WBA and IBF heavyweight titles in 1994, but somewhat less remembered now is that Foreman had gone for the gold twice in his second career comeback, the first time a huge fight in 1991 against undisputed champion Evander Holyfield.

Holyfield was 28 at the time, a former cruiserweight champion who had moved up to heavyweight in 1988, winning his first six fights before challenging James “Buster” Douglas for the three recognized titles (WBC, WBA, and IBF), eight months after Douglas had shocked Mike Tyson in Tokyo.

Holyfield demolished Douglas, winning the titles via third round knockout, and become a new star in the heavyweight division. There was obvious interest in Holyfield facing Tyson; Mike’s aura of invincibility may have been shattered, but he was still a plenty dangerous fighter and a mainstream celebrity.

Instead, Holyfield had agreed to face a 42-year-old George Foreman if he beat Douglas. Foreman had retired from boxing after a 1977 loss to Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico, and didn’t fight again for 10 years, returning at the age of 38 in 1987.

Foreman’s comeback was moderately paced. He was careful early on, facing largely club fighters and journeymen, as well as a terribly undersized Dwight Muhammad Qawi, a former Holyfield rival who was even small at cruiserweight, standing just 5’7”.

In fact, by the time he got to facing Holyfield in 1991, Foreman really hadn’t taken any big risks — Bert Cooper, a washed Gerry Cooney, etc. — but he was a star, a marketable name, and now a beloved figure, a roly-poly father figure with a constant smile, a love of cheeseburgers, and a lot of gumption, far removed from the fearsome figure of his prime years.

Foreman was slow and old, there was no getting around that, but he still could take a shot, and he had legitimate power in his heavy hands.

The fight was a big deal at the time, and briefly was the highest-grossing bout ever, bringing in $55 million from 1.45 million pay-per-view buys, plus an $8 million gate in Atlantic City.

Once the fight itself went down, Foreman (69-2, 65 KO coming in) was able to stay competitive and hang around, but he wasn’t able to keep tempo with the younger Holyfield (25-0, 21 KO coming in), who wound up winning a clear-cut decision over 12 rounds.

But pay attention in particular to round seven, which was named The Ring’s Round of the Year. It almost happened, three years before It Happened.

Most expected this would be Foreman’s last shot at championship glory, but it wasn’t. He’d come up short challenging Tommy Morrison for the more lightly-regarded (at the time) WBO title in 1993, but then pulled off the miracle in 1994 at age 45, knocking out Michael Moorer.

As for Holyfield, he was really just starting to build his legend. He’d beat an also-old Larry Holmes in 1992, then go into wars with Riddick Bowe, Michael Moorer, Mike Tyson, and others. By the late 90s, he appeared done — he deserved to lose to Lennox Lewis when the first met, which ended in a draw, and then did lose the rematch. But Holyfield would fight on through 2011. After a clean loss to WBO titleholder Sultan Ibragimov in 2007, Holyfield got a last crack at a world title (sort of) in 2008 when he challenged seven-foot Russian Nikolay Valuev for the WBA’s secondary “world” title in Switzerland. Holyfield, frankly, deserved to win, but the judges gave it to the giant.