October 30 1974, Kinshasa, Zaire
WHAT can we say about this contest that hasn’t already been said? The fight when Muhammad Ali, apparently past his best at 32, stunned the world, knocked out the seemingly invincible George Foreman in eight rounds, and regained the world heavyweight title. Ali allowed Foreman to punch himself out, introduce his outrageous Rope-A-Dope technique, and in turn, reinvent himself from fading dancer to cunning assassin. All this happened in Zaire, a faraway place few people knew. It was, and forever will be, The Rumble in the Jungle.
But the passing years have attempted to hack away at some of truth. Many now claim Ali stood and took a beating from Foreman before the knockout. He certainly took some horrible blows but, in reality, the old master was in control from the start, as the judges’ tallies testify.
And although the young champion – with demolitions of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton already banked – was widely expected to win, the upset did not cause the kind of universal shock that, say, Buster Douglas’ victory over Mike Tyson would 16 years later. Several experts – including future Boxing News editor Harry Mullan – were picking Ali to win.
What should not be doubted, though, is the colossal significance of this event. It is arguably the most famous fight in the sport’s history, and added layers to the Ali legend. And let’s not forget about the loser, whose defeat made his return to the top – 20 years later – a sporting achievement unlikely to be matched.
FOREMAN was a terrifying and unbeaten specimen. Two men had beaten Ali, the aforementioned Norton and Frazier, and though he had gained revenge over both, they taken him hell to back along the way. But neither could last beyond the second round with Foreman. It was the most bombastic start to a world heavyweight reign in history.
Don King was in his infancy as a promoter, and he staged the showdown in Zaire. It was an obscure setting, but added to the intrigue. Ali was a hero over there. Foreman very much the villain.
And Ali’s trainer knew that his fighter was going to win. Angelo Dundee and Ali had studied the slugger carefully, and decided his strengths – the wide booming hooks – could also be his undoing.
“He punches like he’s a lumberjack trying to cut down trees,” said Ali.
“I knew he would win that fight with Foreman,” Dundee said in 2010. “George was a home run hitter and he would use up all his strength. He was made for him.”
“I’m going to dance,” Ali predicted. “I’m going to dance for 15 rounds if I have to. After eight rounds it will be obvious that he’s dead tired.”
But there would be no dancing in The Jungle. Ali realised early in the bout that a fleet-footed approach would not work. The ring, a prisoner to the extreme African elements, was heavy underfoot.
Ali began brightly, firing off counters, tying up the marauding brute when he got close. He banged in audacious right leads, and retreated to the ropes. He repeated his tactic in the second round.
“Get away from the ropes,” Ali’s corner yelled. Angelo Dundee later said, “When he went to the ropes, I felt sick.” Before the third, Dundee begged his fighter to stay away from the boundaries. Ali waved him away and said, “I know what I’m doing.”
Ali absorbed some frightful punches over the next few rounds. But he was dishing out more, and plotting one of the greatest performances boxing had seen.
By round eight, Foreman, behind on points but unable to change his seek-and-destroy formula, was absolutely exhausted. As the round approached its conclusion, Ali was locked in a corner with Foreman on top of him, raggedly chopping away. The older man saw his chance. He ripped in a stunning volley that twisted Foreman. The champion tried to retain his balance but punches cannoned off his tired skull.
Suddenly he fell forward, like King Kong tumbling from the Empire State Building, and landed in a heap on the canvas. It was an incredible sight. Mission impossible was all but complete. Referee Zack Clayton counted to 10 as the groggy beast tried to regain verticality.
“I didn’t really plan what happened that night,” Ali said. “But when a fighter gets in the ring, he has to adjust according to the conditions he faces. Against George, the ring was slow. Dancing all night, my legs would have got tired. And George was following me too close, cutting off the ring. In the first round, I used more energy staying away from him than he used chasing me. So between rounds, I decided to do what I did in training when I got tired.”
The reinvention would suspend his incredible career for seven more years.
In the immediate aftermath, Foreman screamed foul play. He claimed he had been poisoned. In fact, he said all sorts of things to deflect the agony of defeat. Twenty years later, wearing the same shorts he wore in Zaire, he regained the title at the age of 45, knocking out Michael Moorer. It was, perhaps, the greatest comeback in the history of sport and finally vanquished the ghosts of the jungle.
“I had this complex after losing to Muhammad, and I truly didn’t understand why I lost that match,” Foreman explained in 2012. “And what bothered me more than anything was that it wasn’t supposed to happen. And to be honest with you, I was surprised I never got a rematch…
“And it ate me up for years, not that I didn’t get the shot, but it ate me up because I lost. I just couldn’t figure how I lost. I was in the right position and was doing all the right things and I didn’t get the win. I didn’t understand. Nobody had been able to stand up under those shots I had delivered beforehand, and it was odd. He really didn’t knock me out, I was almost knocked out myself from throwing all the shots. You know the rope a dope? I’m the dope. So that ate me up for a long time.
Then Allan Malamud from Los Angeles, a sports reporter, came down to my ranch. He was on his way to report on Muhammad Ali fighting Leon Spinks in the dome in New Orleans. And he stopped by and I was working in my garden, of all places, and he said ‘George, what really happened in Africa? I want to know the truth.’ And I looked him in the face and said ‘you know, I lost; that’s what happened.’ He said ‘what?’ ‘Yeah, I got knocked out and lost the title. I even have pictures to prove it.’ And we burst out laughing. And that was the only time I got a little freedom from that. I was done with it.”