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George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle: A Watershed Fight in the Annals of Modern Boxing

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  • George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle: A Watershed Fight in the Annals of Modern Boxing

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    By Arne K. Lang

    The Oct. 3 bout at the MGM Grand “Bubble” between Jose Zepeda and Ivan Baranchyk was a rip-snorter, a runaway choice for the 2020 Fight of The Year. Fights this jaw-dropping inspire a search for a clone, a fight from yesteryear that was something of a mirror image.

    Promoter Bob Arum, who has a long memory, befitting a man of his vintage, was transported back to the 1976 fight between George Foreman and Ron Lyle, a match-up staged at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The 44th anniversary of that epic rumble comes later this month, on the 24th.

    The particulars of that donnybrook -- the wild momentum shifts – have been hashed-over at length. Less well-known is that the bout had historical importance beyond what transpired inside the ropes. First let’s set the scene.

    Caesars Palace opened in 1966 with 700 hotel rooms (a number that has swelled to 3,960). During the 1970s and 1980s, the property -- which adopted the motto “Home of Champions” -- came to be identified with boxing. But before there was boxing there was tennis.

    One of the hotel’s first amenities was a so-called tennis pavilion, the courts of which were outdoors. Pancho Gonzales, whose storied career was winding down, was hired as the head tennis instructor. His clients were mostly the wives (or paramours) of wealthy hotel guests.

    The outdoor pavilion was the site of the first installments of the Alan King Tennis Classic, a major tournament that had a 13-year run at Caesars Palace beginning in 1972. King, who died in 2004, was an A-list nightclub comedian who often appeared in Caesars’ main showroom.

    As attendance at King’s tournament grew, the honchos at Caesars Palace thought it wise to build an indoor facility to house it so that larger crowds could be accommodated. Because they chose to erect the facility at the very back of the property behind the outdoor courts, there was no felt need to make the building architecturally compatible with the rest of the property. The new pavilion, hidden from the street, was as plain as if it had been built by the military, inviting comparisons to a Quonset hut, but there wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

    The first event at the new pavilion was a Sunday afternoon tennis match between Jimmy Connors and Rod Laver. Billed as a $100,000 winner-take-all competition, the match was held on Feb. 2, 1975, and televised on CBS. (In case you’re curious, Connors won in four sets. Laver reportedly received upwards of $50,000 as his consolation prize.)

    Almost a full year would elapse before the tennis pavilion (which morphed organically into the sports pavilion) was deployed for a boxing match. The ice-breaker pitted George Foreman (40-1, 37 KOs) against Ron Lyle (31-3-1, 22 KOs). A 5/2 favorite, Foreman was returning to the ring after 15-month absence. This was his first fight since his cloak of invincibility was ripped away by Muhammad Ali in Zaire.

    The penultimate round, the fourth round, was a round for the ages. Foreman was down twice and Lyle was down once. At one point, Howard Cosell, who handled the mic for the ABC broadcast, blurted “he’s finished.” Cosell was referencing Foreman.

    But, of course, Foreman wasn’t finished at all. He ended the fight in the next round, putting Lyle down for the count.

    This was the first boxing match held on the property, but it was inevitable that Caesars Palace would embrace boxing when they had a suitable venue. By and large, the hotel’s major investors (many of whom had shady backgrounds) were big boxing fans. Joe Louis was on the payroll here as a so-called greeter, a position that obligated him to hobnob with high rollers, the hobnobbing frequently taking place on a golf course. Top rated heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry held public workouts in a Caesars casino lounge for his 1968 bout in Oakland with Thad Spencer. Muhammad Ali and Joe Bugner held public workouts here for their bout at the Las Vegas Convention Center, a match that preceded Foreman-Lyle by only two weeks. Caesars Palace was the co-sponsor of that event and the preferred hotel for hordes of fun-loving fight fans who came from across the pond to root on the British-Hungarian Bugner.

    Having said that, Foreman vs. Lyle was yet something of an experiment. The fight in the intimate arena attracted a sell-out crowd of 4,800 that included a number of celebrities, the list of which included Sammy Davis Jr, Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Gabriel Kaplan, and Tom Waits. But Caesars Palace didn’t rate the value of a sporting event merely by gate receipts. Of greater importance was the spillover in the casino pit, measured by the “drop.”

    Figures are lacking (they are proprietary) but, by all accounts, the casino was jammed after the fight with the action exceeding the most optimistic expectations.

    In previous writings, this reporter called the Foreman-Lyle fight the first big bang in the Casino Era of Boxing. In hindsight, that may be overstating it just a bit. There was a lull before the sports pavilion housed a steady diet of internationally important fights, the preludes to the outdoor extravaganzas, the most extravagant of which was Larry Holmes’ June 11, 1982 heavyweight title defense against Gerry Cooney in a makeshift stadium erected on the asphalt of a Caesars Palace parking lot, an event that attracted 32,000 (29,214 paid) which still stands as the largest crowd to ever attend a boxing match in the Silver State. Moreover, an era assumes a beginning and an end and there’s no end in sight to the casino “era” of boxing.

    Foreman vs. Lyle, however, was the first internationally important boxing match on the actual grounds of a modern-day United States gambling resort. It was significant beyond what happened inside the ropes.

    After the fight, the victorious Foreman said, “I know I’ll get another title shot sooner or later.” It would come later. Very later.

    Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

  • #2
    The 2020 war between Jose Zepeda and Ivan Baranchyk in the Bubble at the MGM in Las Vegas (eight knockdowns in five rounds!) joins Norkus-Nardico, Moore Durelle, Foreman-Lyle, Cooper-Moorer, and Ahmad-Muriqi as an all-time Pier Six brawl.

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    • #3
      I watched Foreman-Moorer again last night.

      Moorer took a lot of hard flush punches before falling.

      And everyone could see that he was being set up.

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