By James Blears
This was a fight like no other and it was the first time many including me, doubted if Muhammad Ali could win.
In the build up to the Rumble in the Jungle, the odds appeared to be dauntingly stacked against Muhammad Ali. George Foreman was the undefeated champion of the World. To win it, he`d demolished Joe Frazier, knocking him down six times. George had overwhelmed Kenny Norton in two tempestuous rounds. Ali had lost a unanimous decision to Joe in their first fight, and struggled during two awkward encounters with Ken Norton, suffering a broken jaw.
Ali`s record was 44-2, with 31 KO`s. But George…on the other hand, was 40-0 with 37 KO`s. Aged twenty five, George was a brooding, simmering and explosive force of nature. Ali was seven years older and didn`t possess the same clubbable power. If he was to win, he in his own words, he`d would have to harness lightning.
There are two mistakes contained in these premises. Black and white stats and on paper, don`t make a fight. Rather it`s styles which make fights, and unlike so many of us, Ali was totally convinced he had the key to rip up the fullscap logic, managing to tuck this up and put it to bed while simultaneously switching out the lights.
Absolutely formidable, seismic George back then, was none the less ponderously predictable as he wheeled in and whaled away. So Ali whiled away the whittling hours, studying that relatively crude left lead, followed by that dynamite bludgeoning right, which had to be avoided, deflected parried and neutralized.
Location favoured Ali. Kinshasa in Zaire, which is the now the Democratic Republic of Congo, was way and away from George`s comfort zone, but Muhammad embraced it and its people.
Along for the ride was famed Inkster Norman Mailer wrote the superb book THE FIGHT, about Ali`s build up plus triumph. An immodest achievement to rival the best of Paul Gallico. It was apt that Ali was well matched against George and on top of this, he was sharing the Continent of his forefathers with a spirited kindred ego.
As Woody Allen acidly observed about Norman: “He`s a great writer. He`s donated his ego to Harvard Medical School for study.”
Several years later, Dean Martin more than matched that at Muhammad Ali`s “Roast” quipping: “No one can deny he`s a great fighter and he`s got all the equipment. Great body, great legs, and he`s got a twenty one inch reach…that`s just his tongue!
The Gods granted Ali an unexpected and unconsidered stroke of luck. The fight was supposed to be on September 25th, but had to be put back until October 30th because George was accidently cut over the right eyebrow, by sparring partner Bill McMurray. Typically and prior to this accident, Ali had mercilessly teased George, warning that he`d convinced a witch doctor to put a curse on him!
Ali gleefully and gainfully used that window of time to accumulate more precious sparring rounds, further honing his reflexes and evolve even better fight shape. While George couldn`t spar, as that small but deep cut was knitting together and healing.
Ali orchestrated the crowd who were chanting: “Ali bomaye…Ali kill him,” on his way to the ring, where as is customary, he the challenger was kept waiting by the champion. Ali used the time to whip up the audience into a frenzy and work up a sweat by shadow boxing. This was certainly NOT the filmed finale of: “A tale of two cities!”
The most famous person in George`s corner was “Mongoose” ageless Archie Moore, who`d KO`d 141 opponents in a three decades career. It`s a record which still stands the test of time, and will forever stand unchallenged!
Ali`s guru was the wily, astute brilliant Angelo Dundee. Angelo had adjusted the ring ropes prior to the fight, insisting they were drooping, hanging and dangling. Fact is that they remained very elastic, allowing Ali to lean well back, as those massive incoming blows swept in.
Ali surprised George, us, the World and God, by sailing across the ring and planting a booming straight right, smack on George`s forehead in the opening moments of round one, trashing the theory that he`d skip, move and evade.
As Ali`s head was already proving an elusive target, George was clobbering his body. Ali, who`s enormous upper body strength has been underestimated, because he didn`t have cannonball muscle definition, was tangling up George. And Referee Zach Clayton was having his work cut out separating them.
George says he was convinced that he was going to take out Ali in two or three rounds. So why conserve energy in that blistering heat all wrapped up in a searing five pound note of humidity?
Ali quickly realized that it was impossible to keep up this two step pace to George`s one plod for very long, so he reverted to plan B, which was the Rope a Dope, evolved during long years of sparring.
Dangerous and highly risky as he seemed to be presenting a static target. But incredibly clever, because it severely restricted George`s punching range. George`s best punches came from mid, NOT short range.
Ali provided George with food for thought via unconventional, unexpected and undeserved right leads. The accuracy of these plus clusters of laser straight lefts, were focused on and directed to George`s beetling brows, which were swelling to puffy proportions.
By the fourth, George was already looking weary, deceiving all but the wary. Yet one round later he launched a typhoon sustained body attack on Ali. Every time I watch those momentous moments with mounting trepidation, my mouth goes dry and my eyes become moist! Any other boxer I`ve ever seen over the last half century, would have folded under that terrific and dramatic onslaught. But somehow, Ali with super human resolve, withstood it all, and artfully bided his time until the last thirty seconds, which up to that point, US Commentator “Colonel” Bob Sheridan had described as: “A coasting round.”
Then Ali spun off the ropes and in a Tasmanian Devil whirlwind, unleashing a barrage of power punches which snapped George`s head back and stung him with the force of a sorely provoked beehive.
I`m convinced that Ali was going all out to KO George then and there. But George still retained enough in the tank, to fight back, remaining sporadically but highly dangerous. With this sobering realization, Ali clinched, entangling George`s head at hip level, and as they were parted, menacingly facing up to one another, the bell rang.
The sixty thousand crowd was on its feet roaring, as Sheridan raged: “By far the best round of the fight!”
George had shot his bolt, but although rapidly tiring, he was still formidable force to behold and unfold. That was foretold!
British commentator Harry Carpenter famously described Ali as tiring towards the end of the eighth round and seemingly hardly able to lift up his arms. Big mistake…as Ali recoiled off the ropes and in with words of Sheridan, caught George with a sneaky right, another sneaky right and then a five punch clip culminating in a looping left hook which set him up for the chopping right cross, sending him spiralling downwards.
To his eternal credit, Muhammad Ali had his right hand ready to deliver another mighty levelling blow, if George should somehow stay on his feet. He followed George down all the way, ready to administer it, but never did, saving the stricken and defenceless George from the very real prospect of serious and permanent injury.
The roar of the crowd was primeval! Even thousands of miles away, I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, as Zach Clayton methodically counted George out with an emphatic wave of both arms…just before he regained his feet.
The image of a slim man in the midst of this pandemonium remains, his hands on his hips, with a look of forlorn and utter disbelief. Had he bet and lost a bundle?
As close as I`ve ever seen to a boxing miracle had transpired before my very eyes. The Eighth Wonder of the World in the eighth round!
Color commentator David Frost was screaming: “This is the most glorious event in the history of Boxing. Ali has won by a knockdown…a knockdown!”
Burly business manager and Ali friend Gene Kilroy, attired in a safari suit, looking just like a fully clothed Tarzan, had bounded up into the ring fending off hysterical fans. Deputy trainer and Ali poem author Drew Bundini Brown crying his eyes out in sheer belief and utter relief, as were we all. While Angelo Dundee was by the ropes defiantly waving his fist with a: “I told you so,” gesture. Don King, who`d created the concept of Rumble in the Jungle and stuck with it through thick and thin, was there smiling and then pensive, while chaos and Ali reigned supreme, just minutes ahead of the inevitable monsoon deluge, which scrubbed a hitherto leaden horizon clean.
In the dressing room, Ali who`d gestured he didn`t want to he picked up and held aloft in his moment of divine triumph, was hoarsely and caustically castigating Ring Magazine and all those who`d prematurely forecast his demise. He was inviting us to crawl!
As he`d promised and as he`d predicted: “I shall return!”