by Chuck Mindenhall
At around 3 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, Oct. 30 1974 in Zaire, a dozen people in Muhammad Ali’s retinue sat in the cold silence of his dressing room, perhaps in a state of foreboding for what was to happen to the icon himself.
George Foreman, somewhere else in the bowels of the 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa, would come out to greet Ali long before the sun ever would. George Foreman, the soft-spoken colossus who had downed Ken Norton in two short menacing rounds while Ali was ringside in Venezuela just months earlier — who did the same thing to Joe Frazier in Jamaica in 1973. George Foreman who had dented the collective psyche with his 40-0 record — all but three that came by TKO or knockout — who could crack mountain faces with his fists.
The heavyweight champ George Foreman — the scariest fighter alive — who had come to Africa to lay a beating on Ali.
It was all a little too fresh in the memory. Even Ali’s closest friends, trainers and family who had gathered in Zaire couldn’t help but feel the palpable ticking of the clock as the hour drew near. All of Ali’s bravado over the last several weeks couldn’t shake the simple fact: At 4am, he would make the walk. The event of the 20th century. A five million dollar purse for both Ali and Foreman. Sixty thousand people there to see Ali outwit the ruthless titan of his ranks. Presidents, dictators, kings, magic. Ali, boma ye! Ali, boma ye! (Ali, kill him!). He had Zaire on his side — but that was of small comfort considering not one of them carried a punch like big George, the grim reality standing in his path.
The writer Norman Mailer, who was in Ali’s dressing room before the fight, said it was like a “corner in the hospital where relatives wait for word of the operation.” George Plimpton, who was also there, recalled that Archie Moore — one of Foreman’s corner, who had fought and lost to Ali years earlier — was praying for Ali’s life. Literally praying that his man would not make Ali the ultimate casualty. Such macabre thoughts were rampant.
That is, until Ali himself, now in his silk white trunks with the black stripe, rose up and began to break the tension in those concrete bowels. “Let’s get ready for the rumble in the jungle,” Ali said, impervious to the dread surrounding him. “Hey Bundini, are we gonna dance?” he asked his trainer Bundini Brown, now kicking around the dead molecules by shadow boxing. “Does anybody hear me? Are we gonna dance?” The subject of every troubling thought was rousing his faithful. Nobody was going to kill Ali. He didn’t suffer ordinary doubts. “We’re going to dance,” Ali roared. “We’re going to dance!”
Bundini came around. So did others. Ali whipped courage into the room, as he had for years. The magic of Ali was infectious. He told Foreman’s guy, Doc Broadus — visiting the dressing room to stand witness as Ali got his hands wrapped — that it was almost time to dance.
“Yes, we’re going to dance,” Ali said, now stirring everyone to life in the final moments before what would become the most hallowed fight in boxing’s storied history. “We’re going dance and dance!”
That was the first remarkable thing that happened that night in Zaire. Ali making those who believed in him most believe in him again at a critical moment when the cold fingers of doom where creeping in.
Then, right there in the heart of Africa, in the small hours of night, Ali heard his name called. He turned and went out to face George Foreman.
What a fight. What a night. What a setting.
Temperatures were close to 80 degrees at the soccer stadium, and it was humid. The 32-year old Ali, his eyes still wild with hysteria, and the 24-year old Foreman, the Texan who kept his hands in his overalls pockets the whole time he was in Zaire, as if to conceal his weapons. They were finally in the ring together. The world’s eyes followed them as they climbed through the ropes — ropes that would become nearly as famous as the fighters themselves.
The thinking was that Foreman would cut off the ring, corner Ali and chop him down for as long as it took for him to fall. If Ali had a chance, it was in his inch-and-a-half reach advantage and his quickness freelancing in range. Ali was a near 3-to-1 underdog, which prompted him to tell anybody within earshot in the lead-up that the Rumble in the Jungle would become known as “the greatest upset of all time.”
When the two met for instructions, Ali, never one to shrink in the moment, could be seen talking to Foreman. “You have heard of me since you were young,” Ali said. “You’ve been following me since you were a little boy. Now you must meet me, your master!”
And in the first round, Ali made it known he wasn’t there to dance at all. He socked Foreman with a big right hand that brought the Congolese to their feet. Boom, another right hand, and then another — lead rights, showing no fear of getting countered with Foreman’s left. An enraged Foreman put his head down and retaliated forward. When he did, Ali would grab his neck and tie him up. Ali wasn’t dancing, at least not perceptibly, not in the visual sphere. Nor was he shuffling. He was sending a message. He was going to fight Foreman.
It wasn’t until the second that Ali’s mind and the body began to mystify not only Foreman, but the millions who were living and dying with every critical blow. Refusing to circle, as Foreman thought he might, Ali merely backed himself into the corner voluntarily. As Foreman hacked away, Ali would recline on the ropes. Far back, with his eyes wide open as if he were memorizing the patterns. At intervals, as Foreman hammered away at Ali’s side with plodding shots, Ali stung him with one-twos from his sloped position.
Still, Ali was playing with fire. He was making himself vulnerable. Any minute he could go. His chin was open for business. Or was it? When Foreman swung heavy for the head, Ali’s reflexes were too much. Foreman was getting frustrated with so much available and unavailable to him at once. The head was a mirage. If he came inside with his blasting full-body shots, Ali was a thicket of forearms and elbows. The jungle was in Ali’s limbs, and Foreman hadn’t the tools to navigate. Foreman’s instinct was to keep plowing ahead.
And as he’d done with Frazier, Ali began to taunt George. “Can’t you fight harder?” Ali asked, right in the line of fire and controlling the battlefield. All the while his eyes were crazed, in the way his eyes always were.
The crowd was alive. Ali, boma ye! Ali, boma ye!
The rounds began to go by, with Ali stretched out at angles on the ropes. He was consciously taking what Foreman could dish. He was transferring the brunt of the blows through the ropes themselves, sending the shockwaves through his middle down through the ropes, down to the turnbuckles, and into the annals of history. Ali was a conductor. He was redirecting currents of force. When Foreman hesitated, Ali pounced with his graceful right, once, twice — fast enough to ratchet Foreman’s animal instinct to kill up another notch. Contrary to reason, all of Ali’s offense was within the space of a closet, yet one that had an infinite back, a vortex that Ali reclined into like it were an expanse of the sorcerer’s golden fields. Against it, Foreman lost his bearings.
Ali was authoring his greatest moment in a career full of great moments.
In the fifth, after it felt like the fight had settled into a rhythm — the famous dubbed “rope-a-dope” tactic — the fight suddenly burst out into another direction. Ali came off the ropes like a tyrant who’d been in wait, slamming rights home, reminding everyone that his game went fathoms deep. He unleashed a preview of the hell he had yet in store for George. They exchanged, and Ali landed big with the right hand. Again, and again. All the doubts about Ali now went into his wonder, as he landed another right. As the bell sounded, Ali, constantly aware of everything around him, winked at Jim Brown, the football great, who was ringside on the call with Frazier and David Frost. Ali seizing the moment. Ali at his most indomitable. Ali at his most poetic.
Ali, boma ye! Ali, boma ye! Fights like this simply do not exist. For Ali, the did.
In the seventh: Ropes…Ali’s body being pulverized…ropes…big George attacking, trying to find a crack in the mystifying fortress, believing it existed…ropes.
Ali, boma ye!
Then the eighth. It went down as a tidal moment in boxing’s history. Foreman, winding up early and trying to annihilate Ali with a left, nearly falls through the ropes as he comes up empty. The ropes, the ropes, those ropes! Ali on the ropes as Foreman charges in again, this time catching a right hand. Ali slowly peels off the ropes. Another right hand and Ali is now in the center. The moment has arrived. A right hand, then a left, then the right hand. Foreman’s legs no longer obedient to the champion’s will, begin to stagger. Then his frame begins to fall. And Ali, coiled for the coup de grâce, never lets it fly. Ali, aware of his historical aesthetic, registering the moment in slow motion, lets Foreman go down without a clumsy follow-up to interfere with the iconic image. Ali — he alone who knew he could beat George Foreman — never once danced. Yet he was once again the world’s heavyweight champion.
It was bedlam in Zaire as the ring flooded with people and jubilation. The great George Foreman had been vanquished. The fight lasted 23 minutes and 58 seconds, but it lives on as something timeless.
It lives on as the greatest boxing event to ever take place. And if the Rumble in the Jungle should be remembered for anything, it was for the fearless challenger who couldn’t conceive of any other outcome. The Rumble in the Jungle was the fight that Ali truly became known as the greatest of all time.