October 30th marks the 46th anniversary of the fight for the WBA and WBC belts between the legendary Muhammad Ali and the brutal puncher George Foreman, the defending champion, at the 20th of May stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire -today Democratic Republic of Congo- filled with 60 thousand expectant spectators of that fight which has surely been the most publicized by the media, which brought together nearly 300 million fans and viewers of all over the world in front of their TVs, the highest legion of followers of a sports event of any kind, then and now, only surpassed by the arrival of man to the moon in Apollo XI on July 20th, 1969, which was seen by some 600 million people.
The fight, considered the best in history (it can hardly be compared to the Ali-Joe Frazier of October 1st, 1975) ended in the 8th round with the surprising victory of Ali -who was trying to recover the crown he lost in court for refusing to join the army, citing, as a devotee of Islam, religious reasons which kept him inactive from March 22nd, 1967 until October 26th, 1970-. This fight is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most remembered in the secular history of boxing, besides being the greatest and most unexpected outcome of all times in the heavyweight division, an affirmation that includes the KO in the 10th round suffered by Mike Tyson against Buster Douglas in Tokyo on February 11th, 1990, and that of German Max Schmeling in 12 rounds over the previously unbeaten Joe Louis on June 19th, 1936, to name only two of the great matches in the top division.
In fairness, the Ali vs Foreman fight, which made the former a boxing legend, well deserves to be recognized as the true and indisputable Fight of the 20th Century, a label given to Jack Dempsey’s fighting against the Argentinean Luis Angel Firpo in 1923, among others, the two fights of Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Durán and Leonard vs Thomas Hearns and vs Marvin Hagler in the 70s and the 80s and, even, that of Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao in this century (May, 2005), all of them of lesser interest than that caused by the fight that we are commemorating, in Africa, the first Title fight held in that continent.
BACKGROUND AND END OF AMAZEMENT
Many different steps preceded the unforgettable encounter. In the end, the fight took place thanks to the cleverness, the advertising, and commercial vision of the then emerging and now famous promoter Don King, who used his mellow and seductive oratory power to persuade -with the bait of how important it was for the country’s image to host the fight- dictator Mobotu Sese Seko, who was later deposed in May 1997 and died of prostate cancer in September of the same year. Mobotu contributed $10 million to the fighters’ purse, to be shared equally: $5 million for the 25 year old champion, undefeated in 40 fights, with 37 KOs and 3 decisions, and the other $5 million for the 32 year old former champion, with 31 KOs, 13 decisions and defeats against Joe Frazier on March 8th, 1971 and the other one against former Marine Ken Norton, who broke his jaw on March 31st, 1973.
To attract potential attendees, several popular and artistic shows were put on stage, the most outstanding of which was a Woodstock-style mini-concert, the famous, turbulent and explosive music festival that brought together more than 450,000 “hippies” on a farm near New York City from August 15th to 18th, 1969. The Kinshasa concert was hosted by celebrities of the day such as BB King, James Brown, Bill Whiters and the Caribbean Fania All Stars, with Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe and Cheo Feliciano.
After a six-week postponement (a delay that favored Ali, who thus completed his physical preparation) due to a slight injury in one eye of the champion, the fighters entered the ring at 4:00 in the morning, a time set by TV so that it could be seen starting at 10:00 p.m. in the United States. King baptized the fight “Rumble in the Jungle”.
Encouraged by a crowd mostly in his favor, Ali, at 216.5 pounds, was the first to climb with a thunderous shout that shook the packed arena: Ali, bomaye! -Ali, bomaye! (Ali, Kill Him!), in Kikongo or Lingala, the Bantu language spoken by some 10 million people in Africa. About 10 minutes later, a gloomy, booed-up world king “Big” George Foreman, who weighed 220 pounds (99.8 kg), entered the ring.
When the bell rang for the first round that early morning in Kinshasa in the unbearable heat and humidity, Foreman began what would be an unrelenting right and left offensive, good for knocking down an elephant, while the challenger laid down on the ropes, covering himself with forearms and elbows, with his fists protecting his face and head, a singular style he called rope-a-dope.
The first 7 rounds were almost identical: Foreman in incessant attack and Ali with his back to the ropes, with sporadic combinations of right and left, always with the whiplash jab in front while allowing the opponent to take the initiative in order to exhaust him, while a nervous Angelo Dundee from the corner shouted him to get away, to not exchange punches, to go in and out.
At this point, we will allow Ali to tell the decisive eighth episode in his own words:
“Bell rings, round eight: George goes out in a hurry. He thinks of only one thing; me knocked out. But now his punches are slower, they take longer to reach me. I know he feels pain and fire burning inside his lungs and stomach and that every breath is a torment, as it is for me. I see him backing down… but I step aside, and George is standing on his face against the ropes… I know it’s time for the test. I see that George is ready to go on the attack, to regain his place in the ring. I throw a straight right to his jaw with all the strength I have left. I almost hit him fully on the tip of the chin, and he remains still… I prepare to finish off the attack with a series of combinations, but I see that George slowly collapses, with a glazed look… He is listening to the hum of the forks, the saxophones that the bats play, the whistles of the crocodiles, and he sees the flickering of the neon lights…”
“I watch every movement of the referee (Zachary Clayton) raising and lowering his arm. And I remember Frazier again. I would never lose my crown lying on the ground. There’s no referee who can count seconds on his lying body as long as Frazier has a drop of blood in his veins. –Six… seven… eight… On the floor, George slowly turns around. -Nine… Out
George is up, but the count is over. The referee raises my hand in the air, giving me the victory.
The stadium explodes. The crowd overtakes the paratroopers, climbs on the journalists’ table and invades the ring. Archie is hugging George and I yell at him;
…Archie, am I too old?” (*)
(By the minute 2’58”, judges Nourradine Adaila and James Taylor had on their cards 70.67 and 69.66, with 3-0-4 and 4-1-2 won rounds, draw rounds and lost rounds, both in favor of Ali, and referee Zachary Clayton 68-66 and 4-2-1, also for Ali).
The “Big Mouth” Ali, as he was nicknamed in his early days because of what he talked and bragged about, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, became a tireless fighter for the civil rights of his racial and religious siblings. He became ill with Parkinson’s in the 1980’s and died in 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona. Foreman, from Marshall, Texas, went into the meat business and today enjoys good fortune in Houston, at the age of 71
(*) The Greatest: My own story. Muhammad Ali, (Cassius Clay) and Richard Durham. The Living Document. Editorial Noguer, S.A. Fourth Edition, 1976 p.p.459-460-461.