October 30, 1974    The Rumble in the Jungle.

     Few images have left me as dumbfounded, awe-struck, and simply speechless as the image of a 25-year-old George Foreman going to work on a heavy bag in the Oscar-winning documentary WHEN WE WERE KINGS.

     Foreman was a monster, undefeated with a 40-0 record, and the undisputed heavyweight champion. He was seen as indestructible, unbeatable (like Liston ten years earlier), and he had manhandled in two rounds or less the only two fighters (Frazier and Norton) who had beaten Ali.

     Don King, the ex-con and con-man who promoted the fight, arranged to have it in Kinshasa, Zaire, because Mobutu Sese Seko, the Zairean strong man, was willing to rob his people with high taxes and pay each fighter $5 million - that was a lot of money back then - to get his name known the world over.

 

     This fight began long before the first punch was ever thrown.  Ali drew first blood by carefully and deliberately winning over the crowd - the first piece of a strategy that would intimidate his opponent.  Ali loved the fact that he could fight in an environment where blacks were ubiquitous, and he made himself at home with the locals.  In effect, he turned the locale into a home field advantage, starting the chant of "Ali, bomaye," meaning "Ali, kill him."

 
Zaire, 1974
 
 
   Ali: Zaire, 1974.

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     While Ali stayed visible, interacting with natives of Kinshasa and promoting himself, Foreman - the consummate professional - stayed in seclusion, and became a villain of sorts. The fight was to take place on September 25, 1974, but 8 days before the scheduled match Foreman was cut over the right eye while sparring. The fight was postponed, and Ali took advantage of the delay to ridicule his opponent and make the fans even more hostile to the champ.

     Finally, in 90-degree weather, the fight took place on October 30. First, the master of crowd manipulation had turned the 60,000 fans into a home field advantage; now, he had find a way to neutralize Foreman's superior strength. The original game plan was to dance around and attack Foreman from long range; with the people in the crowd screaming each time their hero threw a blow at Foreman, he kept the champ confused and off-balance.

   Thirty seconds into the second round, Ali unleashed a daring and unheard-of "rope-a-dope" strategy: for most of the next eight rounds, he let George Foreman try to kill him. Ali disdained his usual butterfly tactics, simply laying on the ropes instead and letting the unbeaten heavyweight champ flail away. He dodged, avoided or blocked most of the punches, and by the eighth round, the 25-year-old champion was running on empty. Ali took advantage to knock out his exhausted opponent with two seconds left in the round with a crisp left-right combination.

   Ali became the second man to regain the heavyweight title (Floyd Patterson was the first), reclaiming what was taken from him seven years earlier, when he was convicted of draft evasion (Ali took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States and was eventually vindicated with the unanimous overturn of the conviction).

   Ali returned to fighting in 1970, culminating in the "Fight of the Century," against Joe Frazier between the two then-undefeated champions. This was the first of three epic battles between these ring gladiators, with Ali taking two out of three bouts, including one of the greatest fights of all time, The "Thrilla in Manilla."  But it was the title bout against Foreman that really established Ali as the Greatest of All Time.