The Rumble in the Jungle
The iconic fights’ iconic fight. The Rumble in the Jungle. The night Muhammad Ali slew the ogres’ ogre when people expected him to be chewed up and spat out. His comeback after three years away had ended in conclusive defeat by Joe Frazier three years earlier (March 8), and this was his first world title fight since then. Facing him was the biggest baddest heavyweight on the planet. George Foreman was unbeaten in 34 pro fights. He’d won the world title by flattening Joe Frazier six times in less than two rounds, and his two defenses had lasted four minutes. In the second, he’d pulverized a visibly nervous Ken Norton, who’d broken Ali’s jaw in beating him the year before.
There were genuine fears for Ali’s safety. He was 32 by then and didn’t float like a butterfly any more. It was hard to see how he could stay away from Big George’s punches for long. Foreman looked one-dimensional in training, spending most of his time banging away at punchbags with both hands. But who needs two dimensions when your only one is as destructive as this: all but two of his fights had ended in knockouts, almost always very early knockouts.
The fight with Ali was staged in Kinshasa in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was ruled by Joseph-Désiré Mobuto, who wanted to show the world that his vicious and greedy dictatorship was a modern forward-looking state. So he wasn’t impressed when Ali announced to Foreman that ‘My African brothers is going to boil you in the pot.’ The spectators did chant ‘Ali booma ye’ (Ali kill him) – but it was all in fun, of course.
Well, Ali didn’t kill anyone – but, to some people’s surprise, nor did Foreman. Out of nowhere, quite unexpectedly, Ali unveiled his ‘rope a dope’ tactic of leaning way back on the ropes and allowing Foreman to hit him, the last thing anyone in boxing would have fancied. A blend of brilliant lateral thinking and great courage, it was intended to sap the strength from Foreman’s big arms. But Ali knew he’d have to bear some serious pain before it succeeded.
He admitted later he was never hit so hard in his career. But Foreman couldn’t keep hitting for long. After all those quick wins, he simply didn’t have the conditioning to go any distance. A lot of his stamina went into untangling himself from all the holding Ali was doing – and he was visibly knackered by the end of the eighth round, really only pawing at Ali in the corner.
Even so, the end was shockingly sudden. Ali decided it was time to vacate the ropes – and throw a few punches on the way. As Foreman struggled to defend himself, a left and right to the face sent him spinning towards the canvas. Ali had the chance to throw an extra punch but probably realised there was no need: Foreman was much more exhausted than hurt when he was counted out with only two seconds of the round to go.
He made one of the great unlikely comebacks, fighting for a world title 20 years later, by which time he was big smiley George who sold grill pans. Ali became the first heavyweight to win the world title three times, but only because he was careless enough to lose it to a cartoon character instead of an ogre (February 15 1978).