Firefight: The Night Lyle Took Foreman To Hell

Denver heavyweight Ron Lyle, right, grazes Heavyweight Champion George Foreman with a straight right in the fourth round of their title fight at Las Vegas, Nev., Saturday night, Jan. 26, 1976. Foreman won the world heavyweight boxing championship in the fifth round. (AP Photo)
Ron Lyle attacks George Foreman in the fourth round of their fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on January 26, 1976. (AP Photo)

The following is an excerpt, from pages 148- 152 of chapter 6, “The Big Three,” from Off The Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story, by Candace Toft. Copyright © 2010 Candace Toft.

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The Ring magazine’s 1976 “Fight of the Year” took place at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on January 24, 1976, between Ron Lyle and George Foreman.

Three months after Ron devastated Earnie Shavers, and only one month out of the contract with Daniels, Gerash helped Bill Lyle land the former heavyweight champion, who finally agreed to the matchup, believing that if he could beat Ron decisively, he would have a shot at winning back the heavyweight title. The Lyle camp was ecstatic, knowing a win over Foreman would give Ron his own best opportunity for a rematch with Ali.

Immediately after the fight was announced, Ron again focused his attention on the ring, his training regimen more brutal than ever—with daily running, push-ups, shadowboxing, heavy and speed bags, and sparring under the direction, once again, of Bobby Lewis.

He cut down on his visits to youth centers during this period; hoping to avoid the mistakes he had made with Nadine, he spent the little spare time he had with Patty and his new baby girl. But his primary focus was on George Foreman.

The Foreman fight, more than any other, represents what Ron faced every time he climbed into the ring. All boxers go into fights knowing they will either hurt or be hurt, or maybe both, but Ron was more powerful than most heavyweights, more likely to inflict serious damage. He never wanted to be responsible for causing another boxer permanent injury or, God forbid, death in the ring. But while he monitored the strength of his own punches, he had to be ever aware of the damage that could be inflicted on him, and he believed no one could dole out as much pain in the ring as Foreman. Ron knew he had to do it all in this fight—hurt and be hurt.

Howard Cosell was again calling the network-televised fight, with Ken Norton by his side doing commentary. Cheers greeted Ron’s entry into the ring, and boos followed Foreman, still stinging from his loss in Zaire to Ali one year earlier. During the prefight instructions at the center of the ring, the fighters’ noses practically touched as they each gave the other man a stare calculated to terrify.

In round one, Ron came out at the bell and swung a wild right that Foreman dodged. Both fighters jabbed, with Foreman taking a shot to the body. Ron landed a right to Foreman’s ear, but Foreman came back with two good jabs. With twenty seconds left, Ron landed a cracking right hand to the side of Foreman’s head, which rocked and drove him back into the ropes. Cosell yelled, “You see George in trouble . . . he’s wobbling, really, back toward his corner.” Later he commented, “[There’s] no fear in Ron Lyle at all. Good punching power in both hands.”

Ron opened up, seemingly looking for the one big punch that could bring an early end to this night. Foreman survived the remainder of the round without getting caught by anything significant, but he looked hurt as he went to his corner. First round to Lyle.

Ron came out swinging wildly in round two, but George was more aggressive in this round, throwing his left jab and pushing his opponent away with both hands as Ron continually came forward. Midway through the round, Foreman stunned Ron with a three-punch combination, driving his man back into the ropes, and Cosell hollered, “Now Lyle is hurt!”

Ron spent the remainder of the round with his back to the ropes and then in a neutral corner. An odd quirk in the fight was that this round only lasted two minutes due to an error by the timekeeper—probably a good thing for Ron, as George was unloading straight rights and left hooks as the bell sounded. To his credit, though, Ron was throwing back valiantly. Round to Foreman.

At the beginning of round three, Cosell informed the television audience that the fighters were using eight-ounce gloves, which had “less padding,” resulting in “greater damage from the blows, more punishment, more knockdowns likely.” Ron immediately landed a right to Foreman’s face, then kept pressing forward. He hit Foreman with a left hook and a right, but Foreman came back with a nice right hand, and Ron found himself on the ropes again with Foreman pressing in, landing good body shots that Ron countered effectively off the ropes. The round could have been scored for either man, as Foreman was clearly the aggressor, but Ron did some effective work with his back against the ropes.

The fourth round would prove to be, unequivocally, the most exciting in heavyweight boxing history. First Ron came out and connected with a good straight right. No more than twenty seconds later, a right followed by an uppercut wobbled and dropped Foreman hard to the mat as Cosell shouted, “Foreman is down. It started with a right, then a left.”

Reminiscent of the Ali fight, the roar of the Denver fans drowned out all other sound in the Las Vegas arena. Foreman rose, his senses apparently intact, and took the mandatory eight-count. Ron put on pressure, trying to end it, but was held by Foreman. The fighters exchanged huge hooks in the center of the ring, and it was difficult to determine who was getting the better of the exchange until Foreman landed a crisp right that dropped Ron to his knees. Cosell shouted, “Now George struck back . . . now . . . now . . . George fought back with a magnificent right!”

Ron rose to his feet and Foreman, looking to end the show, backed him against the ropes, Ron slugged valiantly off the ropes, hitting George flush with a few counter lefts. Near the end of the round, an uppercut stunned Foreman, who returned fire, but then a huge right hand from Ron connected squarely with Foreman’s chin, and Big George was down for the second time in the round.

Boxing Illustrated described the scene: “Foreman dropped with his posterior in the air and the left side of his face glued to the canvas, looking like a man resting his head on a railroad track listening for an oncoming train—and not quite realizing the train had already run over him. At the bell, he staggered up and reeled instinctively to his corner.” Round to Lyle.

Round five began with Ron swinging two big lefts, stunning Foreman who almost fell forward into the ropes. Ron landed another big left followed by a right as Foreman tried to push away from him. Cosell: “Foreman is in bad trouble now.” Then Foreman landed two good shots of his own to slow Ron down for a moment. Ron sneaked in a right that appeared to hurt Foreman badly. Norton opined, “Howard, from here on in, it’s gonna be a match of power, and a match of stamina. Lyle has the mental edge right here.” Then Ron landed a big left, and Foreman tried to stick the jab. They exchanged rights in what seemed all-out war to rival any ever seen before in the ring. An uppercut from Ron and Foreman was badly staggered. Cosell said, “Foreman is in bad trouble again.”

Foreman struck back and landed a vicious four-punch combination, pushing Ron into the corner and unleashing twenty unanswered punches. Ron finally dropped both hands to his knees, then began to slump over as Foreman continued to fire rights and lefts. Ron’s knees hit the canvas and he fell flat on his face, as the crowd rose to its collective feet. Ron tried to rise at the nine-count but fell over onto his back and was counted out.

In the immediate post-fight interview, Foreman said, “All credit should be given to Ron Lyle. He’s a tremendous individual. He took some hard punches and gave some.”

Many have written about the Foreman–Lyle fight, but none of the articles or essays can begin to reflect the sights and sounds preserved on video, the amount of punishment doled out by each fighter, and the amount of punishment each absorbed.

Admiration and analysis of the fight continues to this day, even by the combatants themselves. Foreman still tells sportswriters that it took his greatest act of will to get up after being flattened by Lyle. He remembers lying on the canvas in that epic fourth round, vowing to himself that this time, If I get counted out, I’m going to have to be dead.

And Ron says, “When George Foreman hit, it felt like the house fell on me.” As late as 1995, Ron still wanted another crack at George. He told a reporter, “I want George Foreman. If I could fight him again, I’d fight exactly the same way.” Whatever boxing fans think of either fighter, no one doubts that both gave their all that day in January 1976.

Ian Haas, contributing writer for PrizeFightNews.com , wrote recently, “Foreman–Lyle. The mere mention of this legendary slugfest elicits nods of approval from true boxing fans the world over.”

Peter Boyles said that in the Foreman fight, Ron Lyle had shown he had “a heart like a lion.”

Jess Trail wrote: “I can still hear the crack of the first hard right hand [Ron Lyle] landed on George Foreman in round one of the Super Brawl in Vegas in 1976. . . . The brawl with Foreman was a classic for the ages. It pitted two of the biggest, strongest men ever to lace on a boxing glove teeing off on each other with no regard for defense. It was a brutal war of attrition. Although Lyle lost, he probably gained more fans in defeat than in all of his previous victories.”

But maybe Boxing Hall of Fame sportswriter and historian Bert Sugar, who ranked the fourth round as one of the three best rounds of all time, said it best in a 2006 piece for ESPN. Sugar described the fight as falling “somewhere in between the manly art of self-destruction and a down-and-out bar fight, tempered in part by a hint of something right out of an old Laurel and Hardy film clip. . . . It was, in short, a marvelous mélange of mayhem, with Foreman and Lyle playing it to the hilt, turning it from a comedic sketch into a war, a war in which neither side was seeking survivors.”

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Related:

Ron Lyle: One Bad Motherf*cker

Ron Lyle: A Superstar in Today’s Heavyweight Division