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Muhammad Ali and the Rumble in the Jungle

His Defining Moment

Muhammad Ali had a career that was littered with career-defining moments. From beating Sonny Liston to claim his first ever title at the tender age of 22 to their controversial rematch that still has people asking if Liston took a dive. From being stripped of his belt and banned from boxing during his peak years to his legendary trilogy of bouts against Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali crammed a hell of a lot into his 21 active years inside the ring, and as a figurehead so much more outside of it.

There is no doubt in my mind that I will be covering nearly all of Muhammad Ali’s life and times from here on out, but today I’d like to start with what I consider his greatest moment, 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle.

Muhhamad Ali and George Foreman square off

The Build Up

In 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his World Heavyweight Title and his license to box after he refused to take the draft to go and fight in Vietnam. What most people seem to forget is that Ali had failed the aptitude test and had been classed as 1-Y, which for all intents and purposes meant that he would never be called up. But as the war rolled on and nobody seemed to want to pull America out of the clusterf*ck it found itself in, President Lyndon Johnson decided that more young men were needed to go and die in his pointless war, meaning that Muhammad Ali—along with hundreds of others—suddenly found their status bumped up to 1-A. Meaning that they were going to Vietnam, whether they liked it or not.

Refusing to take the draft on religious grounds, Muhammad Ali found himself a marked man and it did not take long for his entire livelihood to be taken away from him. Nearly four years would pass with him in the boxing wilderness before he was allowed to fight again. Four years that—as I said in the introduction—would’ve seen Muhammad Ali at the peak of his powers, so when he was finally allowed to step inside the ring again, he planned to make up for lost time.

He made quick work of his first opponent, stopping Jerry Quarry in the third round, but when he came up against Oscar Bonavena next, and it took Muhammad Ali until the 15th round to win by TKO, whispers started up that perhaps his time off had affected the man who used to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. These whispers would get louder when on March 8, 1971, he would lose a unanimous decision to Joe Frazier in the first of their trilogy of legendary matches. As I plan to go into those bouts at a later date, I won’t cover them too much here. Suffice to say, however, it was a war unlike any other at the time and would only be equalled by the two fights between them that would follow.

Having to go to the back of the line was something that Muhammad Ali was not accustomed to, but he did it, safe in the knowledge that he would work his way into a position where he and Frazer could go at it again for the World Heavyweight Championship. After all, if Muhammad Ali couldn’t stop Joe Frazier, nobody could stop Joe Frazier. Right?

Step forward, George Foreman. On January 22nd, 1973, Foreman would not only do what Muhammad Ali couldn’t in beating Joe Frazier, he would utterly destroy him. He knocked down the undefeated champion six times in the opening two rounds, forcing the ref to stop the bout in one of the most viciously dominant performances boxing had ever—and has ever—seen. Then, to prove a point, he would have his second title defence against Ken Norton—the only other man to beat Muhammad Ali—and do the same to Ken as he’d done to Smokin’ Joe. He completely murdered him.

This was when money started to get thrown around. Venues started to be talked about, as it seemed that the whole world wanted Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman and, with the help/interference of Don King, the bout was set for September 25th, 1974, in Zaire, but as with most things in life, it didn’t quite pan out that way.

During a sparring session, Foreman caught a stray elbow to the face and got cut pretty badly above the eye. This caused Muhammad Ali all sorts of problems. Though the public face was all laughs and jokes, internally Ali was convinced that Foreman would use this as the excuse he was looking for to get the hell out of the country. Foreman hated Zaire. He hated the weather, he hated the food, he hated the fact that the locals adored Ali and seemed to despise him. He was even heard to remark at times that he couldn’t understand why this was. As he was of a darker complexion than Ali, surely he should be their chosen hero.

The fact is that George didn’t help himself. He was a very intense and focused individual who came off as aloof, even though it was just part of his natural makeup and what made him such an amazing boxer. And let us not forget, George Foreman is one of the greatest to ever lace up a set of gloves. He was a monster who could seemingly destroy the undestroyable, and until he faced Ali at the Rumble in the Jungle, he had a 40-0 record, 24 of which had never gotten past round two. But he lost most of the support he could’ve garnered when he landed in Zaire with a German Shepard dog in tow, a dog that had been used by the Belgium Secret Police when they ran the country.

With the fight in jeopardy, Muhammad Ali did what Muhammad Ali did best and talked. He cracked wise about wanting the airports watched, cars checked, and lorries searched as he suspected Foreman would make for the borders as soon as he could, and though it may have been nothing more than the usual Muhammad Ali hyperbole in trying to continue to sell the match, perhaps it reached the ears of one President Mobutu Seko, as there have always been rumours he made sure that the Foreman camp knew there was no chance they’d be allowed to leave until the fight had been staged.

So, over a month later, at 4 am local time so the rest of the world could tune in, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman faced off as the bell rang.

The Fight

Right out of the gate, it seemed that Muhammad Ali would defy the odds. Rushing across the ring to meet Foreman, the two traded blows back and forth, with The Champion swinging in hard and heavy, while Ali danced in a way he hadn’t done since his comeback began. The opening round was a good solid affair, both boxers feeling each other out while trying to get the upper hand, both men with an eye on a quick knockout blow. Yet, when round two happened, so did something strange: Muhammad Ali went to the ropes.

There are reports that when this happened, members of the press box started yelling at each other that “the fix” was in, and though that is something that Ali would never have been a part of, it was very unusual for him to go anywhere near the ropes, and as for clinching, that was literally unheard of.

From rounds two to four, it looked as if the years had finally caught up with Muhammad Ali and the fact that he was facing a man who was seven years his junior had been a step too far. That is, until, it became obvious to everyone in attendance—as well as the millions watching worldwide—that Foreman was starting to fade.

Early in round four, you can see that George is sucking in air. This is due to the fact that Ali was allowing him to punch himself out and—in a move I still think is much more clever and so subtle it hardly gets mentioned—was repeatedly pulling George down, as well as walking him back to the centre of the ring. Ali weighed, at the time, 216 pounds—which is 15 stone in old money—and he would leverage all of that weight on Foreman whenever he got close to him, positioning him back where he started, and then force Foreman to chase him all over again. It worked like a dream.

By round six, Foreman was already spent and in all honesty, I think Ali could’ve taken him then. There is a point during those three minutes where Ali is peppering George with punches as if he was the same 22-year-old kid who had “shook up the world” when he beat Sonny Liston for the first time, but Ali was no fool and Foreman had hurt him already, so he wanted to be sure that when he struck, George was going down and staying down.

In fact; Foreman himself has said;

…A really heavy body shot (in the forth round) bent Ali over at the waist and it was obvious he was hurt. When the bell rang to end that particular round he gave me a look and I remember thinking to myself, this is the bravest man I’ve ever faced.”

Ali knew that even though George may have been tired, there was always the danger he’d still have one big punch left, and that was all it would’ve taken to switch the bout into the champion’s favour. Muhammad Ali was patient. Muhammad Ali waited, and in round eight, Muhammad Ali was presented with the opening he was looking for.

Foreman was, by now, hardly able to stand up under his own power and as soon as Ali saw this he went in for the kill. A barrage of hands saw George stumble and fall to the canvas and the ref started counting. I have watched this fight so many times I’ve lost count and this part still has me out of my seat. It is poetry in motion and it is so perfect that as he sees Foreman fall he refrains from hitting him on the way down, as if he doesn’t want to sully the moment with what could be perceived as a cheap shot to a beaten man. And that’s just what George Foreman was: a beaten man.

George did get up at the 10 count, but it didn’t matter. He was in no shape to carry on, he could barely find his way back to his corner, and Muhammad Ali had done the unthinkable. Hardly anyone had given him a chance in hell when this fight was first announced, with even the likes of his longtime friend Howard Cosell going on the record to state that he didn’t want to see Ali get hurt, and yet here he stood, the allegedly washed-up old boxer who had lost all the magic he once had, once again the king of the mountain at the age of nearly 33.

Even though he’d hold the titles for the best part of the next two years before losing to Leon Spinks in a fight he should never have taken, and even though he’d stick around for the money long after he should’ve retired, Muhammad Ali was, is, and always will be the Greatest of all Time. When he was a young man, he had speed and power unlike anything that had ever been seen within the Heavyweight Division, and after his forced exile, he came back stronger in body to make up for any loss in his natural skills, but whatever version of Muhammad Ali stepped through the ropes, above it all he had a brain for the sport that was second to none.

And at the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali proved that without question, when he not only “shook up the world” once again, but fooled us all along the way.

Written by Neil Gray

The Grandmaster of Asian Cinema.

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