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."
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.