Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and the Rumble in the Jungle 40 years on

Fight time … Muhammad Ali and George Foreman during the Rumble in the Jungle Fight time … Muhammad Ali and George Foreman during the Rumble in the Jungle

Muhammad Ali with adoring fans in Zaire before the fight.

Fight time … Muhammad Ali and George Foreman during the Rumble in the Jungle

Fight time … Muhammad Ali and George Foreman during the Rumble in the Jungle

Back in the day, it was everything you ever wanted in a sporting event: the power and the passion, the agony and the ecstasy, the staggering saga with the twist in the tale and the staggering denouement.

See, it was 40 years ago today, that the boxing world reached its pinnacle of world interest, when the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” took place in Kinshasa, Zaire, in the early hours of the morning, perfectly suited for American prime time television, carried by new-fangled satellites to 100 countries around the world.

In the blue corner, the most beloved if controversial man on the planet, the one-time heavyweight champeen champion of all the world, famous and infamous alike – Muhammad Ali – who had become a Muslim, changed his name, and refused the Vietnam draft, only to be stripped of his titles and be sentenced to jail, then saved on appeal.

In the red corner, the incumbent World Champion, George Foreman, pretty much the hardest hitter that ever lived – legendary for his “anything punch,” because “anything I hits wit’ it, I breaks.” Joe Frazier could have told you about it, but after being knocked down a staggering six times in two rounds before the ref stopped the fight to make Foreman champion, he probably wouldn’t remember.

But Ali is not intimidated.

“George Foreman is nothing but a big mummy” he told the press before the fight. “I’ve officially named him ‘The Mummy.’ He moves like a slow mummy, and there ain’t no mummy gonna whup the great Muhammad Ali.”

Few experts give Muhammad a chance for all that, but the Zairean crowd is with him from the first, as the man who “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee,” dances around the ring in the steamy night.

“Ali bomaye!” they roar again and again. “Ali, kill him!”

But from the second round on, it looks like it’s Muhammad that’s getting killed. For as the crowd groans, Ali leans back on the ropes, his forearms covering his head and much of his torso, as Foreman unleashes punch after punch . . . not realising that it is those very ropes that are taking much of the force. For in a deliberate tactic, as brilliant as it is innovative, Ali is doing “rope-a-dope,” inviting to Foreman to expend all his energy. To encourage him to keep going, Ali keeps taunting his opponent: “Didn’t hurt, George.” “Try again, George, I barely felt that one.” “Hit harder! Show me something, George,” and “That don’t hurt. I thought you were supposed to be bad.”

After seven rounds, both fighters are exhausted and retreat to their corners, but in a moment of inspiration, Ali jumps up and away from trainer Angelo Dundee, to stand on his stool and lead the crowd in the chant!

“Ali . . . bomaye! Ali . . . bomaye!”

Foreman looks up, and groans. Where is this man getting the energy from?

At the beginning of the 8th round, Ali comes out, and after the first few exhausted punches from Foreman, leans in close and says, “is that all you got, George? Is THAT all you got? You done now?”

“Yup,” Foreman told me he replied to Ali, “that’s pretty much it.”

And so it is. Ali unleashes.  After a flurry of blows right on Foreman’s noggin, finally, the denouement, as so evocatively described by the great American writer, Norman Mailer, in his book, The Fight. Tell ’em what happened then, Norm.

“Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best punch of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of plane, and in this doubled-over position he tried to wander out the centre of the ring. All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world, would see him on his dying days. Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position, eyes on Muhammad Ali all the way, he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down. His mind was held with magnets high as his championship and his body was seeking the ground.”

Foreman fell, and Ali won, a greater legend than ever before.

Forty years on, however, the true twist in the tail.

While Foreman, amazingly, seems all but untroubled by his long years in the ring, and remains as a preacher and flogger of barbecue grills, still one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever interviewed, Ali is the most tragic figure in world sport – a man the rest of us loved to near-death, as we so loved seeing him box, he kept going to the point of being a shambling wreck.

And yet no-one is a bigger fan than Foreman himself.

“Ali transcends boxing,” Foreman said last month. “Muhammad Ali has always been bigger than boxing. I say Ali was the greatest man because there has never been a man so young and so good at what he did, give up so much. I say boxing is too small for Muhammad Ali. He changes the very world. No other boxer could do that.”

True enough. One of the strangest and saddest sagas in sport.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz


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