Ron Lyle: A Superstar in Today’s Heavyweight Division

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)

Former 1970s heavyweight contender Ron Lyle, 43-7-1 (31), is remembered most for dropping former heavyweight champ George Foreman twice in a legendary fight in late January of 1976. Foreman, an all-time great and veteran of eighty-one pro bouts, was never more hurt in any bout—including his knockout loss to Ali in late 1974.

During Lyle’s time as a contender from 1972 to 1977, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman formed a trinity of top heavyweights with Jerry Quarry, Ken Norton, Jimmy Young, Earnie Shavers, and Lyle rounding out the lot.

Think about that era. Ali is regarded by many as the overall greatest heavyweight, Frazier is arguably the greatest heavyweight swarmer-attacker, and Foreman is the strongest and most powerful heavyweight in history. Of the other 1970s heavyweights vying for their perch, Quarry was one of the best gatekeepers ever; Norton would’ve been a top-ten contender in any era; Young had the style to give fits to anyone outside of some all-time greats; and some regard Shavers as one of the biggest single-shot punchers ever. And this leaves Lyle, who was one of the more complete boxer-punchers in heavyweight history, bridging Sonny Liston and Lennox Lewis.

Because he was serving a prison sentence, Lyle got a late start and didn’t turn pro until two months before his thirtieth birthday. That’s extremely late for any fighter, including a heavyweight. And he only fought in the amateurs for a little over a year but still managed to become the 1970 National AAU heavyweight champion (notably knocking out Duane Bobick in the quarterfinals, who was the favorite, and who eventually represented the United States at the 1972 Olympic Games).

Ron Lyle could fight, box and punch, and he also had a terrific chin. During the era in which Lyle was at his best as a pro, the heavyweight division was a war zone. Today’s boxing scene is littered with a lot of gimmicks: the “check-hook,” manufactured undefeated records, fighters not meeting because they can’t agree on who’s the A-side, and fighters not meeting because they fight on different broadcast entities for rival promoters. In Lyle’s era you had to fight the baddest and the best just to get a title-elimination bout with Jerry Quarry or Jimmy Young—and if you lost but made a good showing, you weren’t totally discarded.

Like many other boxers, Ron Lyle was a victim of the era he came up in. He was a sound boxer who showed good technique and form with every punch. He could fight on the inside and on the outside too. His subtle pressure often forced his opponent into making mistakes and, when that occurred, he was a terrific finisher. Lyle also had fight-altering power in his left hook and right hand—and, as noted by Jimmy Young, who defeated him twice by decision, Lyle was the best and hardest puncher he ever faced outside of Foreman and Shavers. Speaking of Foreman and Shavers, Lyle got off the canvas to drop and stop Shavers in devastating fashion in September of 1975. And in his next fight, Lyle dropped Foreman twice and nearly stopped him.

In the NFL many games the winner is decided by a play or two and legacies are either made or shattered. And in boxing that often applies too. When Lyle fought Foreman—who was coming back after his loss to Ali—in January of 1976, Foreman was twenty-six and Lyle was a month shy of thirty-five. Before the bout, Lyle lost a decision to the more-experienced Jerry Quarry, got outboxed by the cagey Jimmy Young, and was stopped late by Muhammad Ali in his only title shot. When Lyle fought Foreman both of their careers were at a crossroads. If either fighter wanted a rematch with Ali, they had to win. And on that Saturday afternoon on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Lyle hurt and beat up Foreman more than any fighter ever did during his prime. Yes, Foreman lost to Ali and Young in the seventies, but neither came close to beating him up. They got by Foreman by waiting him out and only came on after he tired fighting outside in a warm climate.

Lyle fought Foreman indoors, and after dropping him in the fourth round—and then getting dropped himself by Foreman—Lyle got up and put Foreman down again. Foreman looked like a thoroughly beaten fighter going back to his corner, and it seemed likely Lyle would end the bout in the next round. Had Lyle moved and boxed starting the fifth round, who knows how the fight would’ve ended? Foreman, however, and as noted earlier, is most likely the strongest and most powerful champ in heavyweight history and showed an unbreakable will that afternoon. And to be fair, he did shake Lyle early in the round and made it nearly impossible for him to avoid trading and getting hit—therefore he was outgunned by the beast coming out of Foreman. Had Lyle beaten Foreman his legacy would be unassailable. Most forget that fight was seconds away from being over with Lyle coming out on top.

All that said, had Lyle been around today, he would be vulnerable to being outboxed by and have a fifty-fifty shot against the fighter who has to be considered the best in the division, Tyson Fury. As for Deontay Wilder, Lyle would probably be the favorite. He was too tough and well-rounded for a sloppy guy like Wilder. And if it took Foreman countless punches to get Lyle out—with Foreman being a bigger puncher than Wilder with both hands—there’s no way Lyle would be put away by one of Wilder’s rights. If an out-of-shape and rusty Fury got up from his Sunday right-hand-left-hook combo, Lyle would be OK (as evidenced by him getting up after being dropped by both Foreman and Shavers). It is also doubtful that Wilder gets up from the punches Lyle laid on Foreman.

Ron Lyle was an outstanding heavyweight who got a late start and never realized his true potential. If he were fighting today—with his big power in both hands, overall toughness, and legitimately dangerous persona—he’d be a superstar and making more money than he ever could have dreamed of. In 2019 fighters don’t have to be great or be an authentic badass to be groomed into being the next big thing. Fans long to attach themselves to the next would-be killer, and love rooting for or against the next unbeatable monster. Lyle wasn’t the least bit awed touching gloves with Ali, Foreman, or Shavers; and Foreman and Shavers have said on the record that Lyle was one of the scariest opponents they ever fought and that hit them harder than any other opponent.

But what made Lyle dangerous was not only that could he punch but that, when set, he could really put punches together in succession. That can’t be said about many heavyweights with power over the last twenty-five years. Lyle was the ideal killer that the heavyweight division is always looking for, especially today. He just came up in what most consider the greatest generation of heavyweights. Aside from his era, he would’ve been at worst the second- or third-best heavyweight in the world. Imagine a heavyweight division so deep that a Ron Lyle would be—at best—the fifth or sixth best fighter in it.

 

About Frank Lotierzo 17 Articles
Frank Lotierzo is also a staff writer for NY Fights. Over the years, his work has appeared in The Sweet Science, Boxing Illustrated, Fight Game, and Boxing Scene. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was an amateur boxer based out of Philadelphia and trained by George Benton. He is a member of the International Boxing research Organization and an ex-member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at glovedfist@gmail.com.