May 14, 2021

One morning with George Foreman in Tokyo

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IT was a morning of true glory in Tokyo when the George Foreman roadshow started at 9am with Tommy Morrison in denial, Mark Gastineau in tears and the most ferocious women’s fight I have ever seen.

The Bay NK Hall, near Tokyo’s Disneyland, had been home to sedate affairs, bonsai tree festivals, Wham, giant gatherings of stamp collectors, but on a Sunday morning in November 1996, Foreman and his carnival arrived. It was bedlam, I loved it.

Morrison was banished from boxing after testing positive for HIV, Gastineau was famous for being the fighter at the centre of Fat Rick Parker’s brutal slaying and somewhere down the bill, the fallen heavyweight, Alex Stewart was on offer as a body. The women, Valerie Wien, a former weather-girl from RTL, and Mary Ann Almager shared a broken jaw, a pint of blood, three closed eyes and the mild applause of a bemused crowd.

Before it had started and closer to dawn than midnight, there was a stand-off in the Hall’s car park. Jon Robinson, who was bigger than any of the other people called ‘Big’ in our game, was sitting across two seats at the front of a coach, his arms crossed and his face grim. “Might not be a fight, Stevie boy,” he told me. There was a problem, something petty, and Jon was not letting his purple army – the WBU officials always wore purple – off the bus to judge and referee the Foreman world title defence. They all sat there in silence; it was resolved, honour was saved.

Foreman was fighting for the 79th time and defending his WBU title for the first time. He had won it when he got a real gift decision over Axel Schulz the previous year. George had also been defending is IBF title that night; sensibly, Foreman refused a rematch, was stripped of the IBF belt and was just an act for hire that morning in Tokyo. His timing and movement were not great, but it was still George Foreman at noon, fighting a man in a boxing ring. George Foreman from the Rumble, George the destroyer. Who cares about his stiff legs? “I never had timing, I never had footwork even when I could move,” he insisted.

Crawford Grimsley is a successful and legal marijuana dealer now in Florida, but in Tokyo he was a blonde Adonis, unbeaten in 20 fights, with 18 ending quick; he was a big, slow lump and he looked great until he moved. George chased him all night. “I never hit a man on the back of the head – what was he doing running?” said Foreman. “My guy did all the fighting,” said Angelo Dundee, who was working Foreman’s corner.

Grimsley did have a decent reply: “Hey, Big George, you’re wearing sunglasses too, so I wasn’t running all the time.” They never shook hands, George never offered and we forget that side of the smiling King of Grills.

Dundee was not a fan of sightseeing and spent all day holding court in the hotel coffee shop. He told stories of Ali in Tokyo and Glyn Leach, the editor at Boxing Monthly, and I just kept buying him Club sandwiches. When George joined us, I asked about the Seventies one time and he just laughed that Big George laugh: “I barely remember the Seventies. If I try and look back it is like an old man looking back at his childhood. I don’t even have posters on the wall. Man, beating Joe Frazier (1973) was so long ago.” Foreman was 47 in Tokyo.

A few days before the fight Foreman picked up and dusted off his faded bible and performed a marriage ceremony for a friend of his. Glyn and I were guests. Tommy Morrison was there.

Now, Morrison, to me, always had a sadness about him. His HIV test ruined a fight with Mike Tyson and left him a pariah; his first opponent in Tokyo was stopped and arrested at the airport in Oklahoma and held as the prime suspect in the rape of a child. The replacement, Marcus Rhode, had knocked out all 15 of the men he had beaten. He accepted the fight on Wednesday and arrived in Tokyo less than 24-hours before the first bell. There was no danger of Morrison bleeding and Rhode just kept collapsing from taps before it was stopped after 98-seconds of round one. “There was no blood,” Rhode said when asked if he would have a HIV test. He pocketed 25,000 dollars – more than he had made in his entire career. Rhode finally quit in 2015 after 90 fights. Morrison died in 2013, he was just 44.

Gastineau (New York Jets) and Alonzo Highsmith (Houston Oilers) had both won fifteen fights before Tokyo; in round two, 19-stone Gastineau, who was also six-feet-six, turned away. Highsmith finished his career with one loss in 30 and Gastineau never fought again. Big Mark had been Parker’s package to fame, but that was in doubt when another of Parker’s boys, Tim Anderson, beat Gastineau in 1992; Parker was shot and killed by Anderson in 1995. Anderson is still in prison.

Stewart was stopped in eight by New Zealand-born Craig Peterson, who lost once to Herbie Hide in Antwerp. Five months later Petersen was dead.

Big Jon Robinson is also dead and his WBU, which started life upstairs at his flower shop in Hackney Road, is split and one of the sport’s modern joke belts. Big Jon was a boxing face, a presence, a fixer. At any ringside for the amateur championships in the Eighties, when Jon wrote for the Hackney Gazette, he was always banging on about the importance of a NUJ card. He made me get mine, under threat of eviction from ringside. He was not joking. I know he would have kept his men on that coach at dawn in Tokyo.

Glyn died in 2014, far too bloody early.

It was a great way to spend a Sunday morning in Tokyo, it really was.

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