40 years ago today the world was witness to possibly the most bizarre, fantastic event in the long and colourful history of the sport of boxing. The event took place in a 19- foot ring, set up at the 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire, which was surrounded by a crowd of about 62,000.
At the center of it all was Muhammad Ali, who inside that 19-foot ring square that morning, at just the break of dawn, performed the most extravagant and outrageous feat of his career, by beating a man whom most had believed would not only defeat him, but destroy him. There had been those, in the run up to Ali’s challenge of George Foreman, who had feared for Ali’s health and his life, against the rampaging destroyer that was George Foreman.
This was the fight that Ali was supposed to lose. Many watching it that night, either in the audience or in one of the numerous closed circuit theatres that were broadcasting the fight all around America and Europe fully expected this to be the last fight of Muhammad Ali’s career. Most people believed he would give it his best show his great heart, and some flashes of his former brilliance. But, then he would tire and Foreman would catch him, or else Foreman might even catch him before he tired, either way, few saw the fight lasting the distance, and that meant only one thing; a punishing knockout or stoppage defeat for “The Greatest.”
Despite his amazing career up until that point, all expectations were that Ali was heading towards his doom in Zaire.
One of Foreman’s own trainers, Archie Moore, the former World light-heavyweight champion, who had been knocked out in 4 rounds by a young and skinny Ali (then Cassius Clay) in 1963, would later say that he had prayed for Ali’s well being before the contest, fearful that he could be killed. Foreman’s physical strength and punching power was such that he was known for wrecking punching bags in the gym, hitting them with such force that they would be torn savagely from their metal moorings.
Even Howard Cosell, the commentator with whom Ali had formed almost a double act with, and who had a genuine affection for The Greatest, gave Ali no chance against Foreman, saying on a pre-fight show that the match represented Ali’s ‘Last supper.’
Perhaps one of the biggest ironies of this contest was the similarity between Foreman and Sonny Liston, who a young Ali had won the world title from in 1964. Liston had actually been Foreman’s idol and the two had sparred together when Foreman was just starting out on his professional career. Like Liston, Foreman was a brooding character, who built up a fearsome image both inside and out side of the ring. He was a dark force of destruction, just like Liston had been before him, and the media was already calling him unbeatable and invincible.
Yet, the comparisons between Liston and Foreman were not seen as good news for Ali. It had been a decade before when Ali had beaten Liston, with his mercurial speed and skills, when he was a fresh and a hungry 22-year-old. Those ten years included 3 and a half years when he had been banned from the ring for refusing the draft call up for Vietnam. Three and a half years in which he had lost his peak, where time and idleness had rusted up his marvelous speed and skills.
On his return, Ali was still ’great,’ but he was no longer as great as before. Joe Frazier had beaten him in 1971, as Ali struggled to jab and dance for 15 rounds, as he had been able to in the past. The speed and reflexes never came totally back for Ali and at times, he seemed to be almost an imitation of his former fighting self.
The Greatest had racked up 13 victories in the three years since the Frazier defeat, but there was also the loss to Ken Norton. Although Ali had avenged it six months later, and followed this up with a revenge victory over Frazier, a broken jaw had accompanied the loss to Norton. The man who once had been so hard to hit was getting hit regularly now, and hard.
Ali’s victories over Norton and Frazier were almost workman-like when compared to Foreman’s own performances against the same two men. While Ali had gone 27 rounds with Joe Frazier and 24 rounds with Ken Norton, George Foreman had simply destroyed both men in 2 rounds each. When Foreman had won the world title from Frazier he had floored “Smoking Joe” six times in 2 rounds and he had knocked Norton clear of his senses also in the same time.
So how could even The Greatest prevail against such a fighter!
Originally scheduled for September 25, 1974, the fight was delayed for over a month when Foreman was cut beside the right eye by the elbow of sparring partner Bill McMurray. The delay just added to the anticipation and tension of the occasion. With people torn between hoping to see something truly special and historic from The Greatest, but fearing that they were about to watch his nadir.
The fight was postponed until October 30, and Foreman seemed to be getting meaner by the day in training, his habitual beating upon his sparring partners reaching new heights. While Ali was visibly loved and feted wherever he went in Zaire, the brooding champion, Foreman, was a man apart.
By the night of the fight the atmosphere had entered the surreal. The fighters entered the ring at around 4 am in the morning in order to facilitate American TV coverage. Both fighters would be receiving 5 million dollars, in a promotion that had been coerced and manipulated from start to finish by Don King, in what was his first major promotional venture. He had even managed to get Zaire’s murderous president Mombuto Secko on board. Seldom has a World heavyweight title fight had a darker host.
Almost from the start of the fight it became clear that Ali was supported by 90% of the crowd. The crowd that was made up of a large portion of native Congolese, and a selection of European and American members of the media, and celebrities who had come along for the ride.
Upon entering the ring, Muhammad Ali seemed to be the most relaxed person in the stadium that night, certainly more relaxed than his stone-faced corner and the blank- eyed world champion, whose unblinking stare spoke volumes for his intentions.
As the anthems were played before the start of the contest, Ali mocked and taunted Foreman, whose expression never changed. Those watching Ali’s antics wondered if his humour was that of someone with real confidence or the bravery of someone heading towards the gallows.
At the first bell, Ali sprang his first surprise of the night! Instead of running, instead of moving away around the ring, he went right at Foreman, firing a right hand that seemed to surprise the champion, and then spearing Foreman with a flow of lefts that seemed to find the champion’s face with surprising ease. Foreman came forward menacingly; landing to Ali’s body and driving him into the ropes momentarily, but Ali came off the ropes and retook the center of the ring. Instead of running, Ali was taking the fight to Foreman, while moving side-to-side to avoid the punches coming back his way. Between rounds Ali winked across the ring from where he sat in his corner, with the air of a man who was just beginning to enjoy himself. Just before the start of the second round the crowd began to chant ‘Ali Bomaye’ (Ali kill him.)
In the second round, Ali seemingly abandoned his plan of taking the center ring and allowed himself to be bulled onto the ropes by the champion, where he covered up and leaned back, as Foreman swung furiously with both arms, as if he were trying to chop down a tree. Now and then Ali would strike back with some sharp jabs and straight right hands that would land flush in Foreman’s face, and then he would go back onto the ropes, as his corner screamed for him to move. By the third round the fight had formed a pattern, despite the exhortations of his corner, Ali was seemingly content to go onto the ropes and cover up, while Foreman belabored him with punch after punch, swing after swing. Many punches were blocked by Ali’s arms or slipped, as he twisted and leaned back far on the ropes, but some were getting through, and when they landed, with audible thuds, those at ringside gave audible gasps.
Yet, just when things seemed to be getting totally one-sided, Ali would come back with punches of his own, sharp lefts, and heavy lead rights that were catching Foreman flush in the face.
This was the rope-a-dope, something that Ali would later say that he first developed in training when he was tired, laying on the ropes and daring his sparring partners to hit him as much as they could. It was an almost masochistic method of getting himself beat into shape.
The fourth followed the same pattern as the third, with Ali laying on the ropes and seemingly taking punches which no other man had ever stood up to before. All the while he was talking to Foreman, ‘Is that all you got! They told me you could punch George!’
When struck flush, Ali would hold momentarily and wrestle with Foreman, while shaking his head at the crowd to assure them (and himself) that he wasn’t hurt.
By the 5th round it was clear something strange was happening. Foreman’s face was starting to mark up from Ali’s punches, and more worryingly for the champion; he was starting to show visible signs of fatigue and frustration. No one had ever taken his punches like this before, instead of destroying Ali with his punches, it was almost as if with every punch he landed or tried to land on Ali, he was losing a little more of his strength. Now, when Ali landed his own little retaliatory flurries, Foreman was visibly wobbling under the punches. And the crowd continued to cry ‘Ali Bomaye, Ali Bomaye!’
In the sixth round, Ali stayed off the ropes for much of the round, instead circling the outside of the ring and jabbing. Foreman was still in pursuit and throwing punches whenever he was in range and even when he wasn’t, but now the punches were weary and becoming more and more uncoordinated. It was now Ali who was beginning to land the better more telling punches.
With hindsight the writing was on the wall for Foreman by the seventh round, but those watching the fight could still barely understand or believe what was unfolding before their eyes. The seventh saw Foreman reduced to pushing out his punches, as he stumbled after Ali like an exhausted drunk. Ali’s punches were cruel and calculated, as they crashed in increasing volume into Foreman’s swelling face and head.
Ali came out with a determination to finish things in the 8th round, with added purpose in his punches, and he was now the aggressor. Foreman was still coming forward, but his attacks had been reduced to a blind stumble, by exhaustion, and the steady battering from Ali’s punches. When Ali got caught on the ropes, the punches seemed to be bouncing harmlessly off of him, and it was his own counters that were having the most effect at this moment.
The finish came in the final moments of the 8th round. A left right combination sent Foreman down with a heavy flop onto the canvas, where he lay in an exhausted daze as the referee Zack Clayton toiled out the count. At ten, Foreman tried to rise, but his strength was gone; the butterfly had drained all the strength from the invincible giant.
Ali was the World heavyweight champion again, and he had regained his title by turning his style onto its head, from being the elusive target, to being a sitting target. Ali’s performance must rate as one of the greatest single performances by a boxer in ring history. His ability to adapt his style and find a way to win, even when physically out-gunned, and the ability to beat his opponents both mentally and spiritually in the latter part of his career, is as much part of Muhammad Ali’s greatness as his youthful speed and skills.
Later on, even Ali would push on for too long, beguiled by his own greatness into thinking he could outbox time and the laws of nature.
Six years after he beat Foreman in Zaire, Ali foolishly came out of a two year retirement and was battered and beaten to defeat by Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, in a fight of almost eerie sadness.
Yet, the realization in the dying years of his career that Ali was after all only human serves only to heighten the depth of his career achievements. Here is a man who dominated the most talented heavyweight division that has ever been seen, at a time when he himself was well past his own physical peak.
However, on one particular moonlit morning in Zaire, Muhammad Ali was indeed indestructible, superhuman, and magical.