IT was the greatest hour of the 20th century’s greatest sportsman, that ended with the slaying of possibly the most devastating and feared heavyweight in history and that proved the making of the most recognisable promoter the boxing world has seen.
Forty-one years ago, 60,000 gathered at the Stade du 20 Mai in the heart of the Kinshasa jungle, in the recently renamed dictatorship of Zaire, to witness The Rumble in the Jungle, a happening that – even by boxing’s high standards – proved as memorable as it did surreal.
It was said there was nothing the challenger Muhammad Ali could do to stop the champion George Foreman, whose punching power and air of invincibility intimidated as much as the small death he had inflicted on Joe Frazier when winning the WBC and WBA titles three fights earlier, ruthlessly punching through him in the same way he had 37 others (he was then 40-0), including Frazier and Ken Norton, previously.
Instead “The Greatest”, leaning on the ring’s loose ropes throughout and shunning the footwork for which he was partly famed, incredibly and fearlessly took the raging Foreman’s finest shots to both face and body – a tactic so daring some feared a fix – until an eighth-round opening was presented by the champion’s slackening, inelegant, yet still imposing figure.
Throwing a life-changing right hand, the challenger sent the champion crashing to the canvas where, overwhelmed with fatigue, he succumbed to defeat. Ten years after winning his title against Sonny Liston and seven after it was stripped, Ali was the world heavyweight champion once again.
“Almost at that precise moment, the skies opened above, and there was this amazing electric storm,” recalls The Independent on Sunday’s Alan Hubbard, who that night was ringside. “Flashes of lightning, thunder, and the rain cascaded down. It was so heavy that some of the ringside telephones were actually washed away in the storm.
“The river had just expanded and overflown into the roads. Everywhere you looked you saw these young kids dancing, and doing the Ali shuffle. [Boxing commentator] Reg Gutteridge was very anxious to get back [to Kinshasa] because he was doing a live television piece for ITV, but I thought we were all going to be drowned.
“I’ve covered many world title fights, World Cups, 12 Olympics, Winter Olympics, but one event is etched in the mind. I think about it frequently. That’s The Rumble in the Jungle. It was so bizarre, so ethereal, that you never forget it.
“To be sitting at four o’clock in the morning, in a jungle clearing, in an African country, in Zaire that was, with 60,000 Zairians [60,000 is the most common figure; accounts range between 50,000 and 80,000 but, emblematic of Zairian inefficiency, no official attendance was given] singing ‘Ali bomaye, Ali bomaye’ [‘Ali, kill him’], a big picture of Mobutu, the president of Zaire in the background, watching this incredible drama unfold… It is the most exhilarating experience I have ever had in sports journalism.
“There’d been nothing like it before, nothing like it since, and I doubt there ever will be again, and it was all because of one man. It was because of Ali, who literally transcended boxing.
“The fight itself was absorbing. Everybody with the exception of one or two expected Foreman to win. I thought Foreman would win. But Ali’s tactics were quite incredible.
“Although he totally denies it, the late Angelo Dundee [Ali’s trainer] did climb into the ring before the fight started and slackened the ropes. He says he didn’t and that he was just testing them, but we actually saw him, so the ‘rope-a-dope’ was already formed in Ali’s mind.
“Dundee had prophesised that Foreman would blow up like an old bull elephant around about the eighth round, and that’s precisely what happened.
“Ali threw everything at him, and he actually took everything from Foreman too. We could hear him saying to Foreman in the clinches: ‘Is that your best shot, George? Is that your best shot? You ain’t hurting, George, you ain’t hurting, is that all you’ve got?’
“And then came that wonderful moment – that corkscrewing right hand. It looked a glancing blow but it was expertly delivered, like a sword, and Foreman spun round in the ring. You could see that his head was all over the place.
“He didn’t get up, and the whole place absolutely erupted.”
The scenes captured on camera were of an unforgettable triumph, of the underdog and people’s champion conquering the colossal, previously-indestructible aggressor, but images elsewhere in the stadium carried an altogether more sinister tone – bloodstains on the arena floor as a reminder of that shed by anti-government protesters, 1,000 criminals imprisoned in chambers to prevent negative publicity from their potential crimes (it is alleged that between 40 and 100 of these were hanged in the square in Kinshasa), bullet holes in a wall deep in the stadium where others had been lined up and shot.
“That was the first time a sporting event had been held in an environment like that,” added Hubbard. “You never thought it could happen.”
It had all been made possible, of course, by Don King. The previously-little known promoter, who first appeared at Foreman’s side when the champion stopped Ken Norton in two rounds in Caracas, Venezuela, seven months earlier, seduced Mobutu Sese Seko – then the cruel and corrupt dictator of the country known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo – into paying each fighter $5million (£3.13m, and more than Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey earned in an entire career, though loose change if considering Mobutu stole in the region of £3.7bn in aid money to leave Zaire crippled with debt) for a prolific propaganda coup for his country, his presidency, and the most evocative fight in history.
Mobutu is said to have watched the fight from his palace through fear of assassination but, just as with his ruling, there was no escaping his influence or the racial overtones that were present throughout. The Rumble in the Jungle, which significantly was refereed by the black American Zach Clayton, came at the height of the black power movement of the seventies and was truly a raw, black celebration.
“The Foreman-Ali fight was one of the fantastic achievements that God blessed me with,” King, whose name featured nowhere on the fight’s contracts, told Boxing News. “It was a spiritual thing. It was through God and perseverance, dedication and commitment, to demonstrate that people of colour could rise to the occasion if given the opportunity.
“It was the two hottest athletes in the world at that particular time. The location chose me: it was the [US’s] segregation, racist mentality, and they did not want to see a black man pull off something of this sort.
“We had a search on, and we ended up in Kinshasa, Zaire. It weren’t because I wanted to go to Africa, it was because Africa was the only place that would accept us.
“I named the fight ‘From the Slave Ship to the Championship’ [this was later replaced when it offended Zairians] and so that’s what we rolled with. At that time we were still living in 1865.”
“That fight made King,” The Sun’s Colin Hart, another ringside and one of the few to correctly predict victory for Ali, explained. “He’s the best promoter there’s ever been, in my opinion. He got government money involved in three major fights.
“It was supposed to be the coming home of the black man to Africa, and the black Americans hated it, they loathed it. Ali didn’t like the look of the women, etcetera, and they couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
As Ali in the fight’s lengthy build-up had unintentionally insulted the Zairians when he told reporters “All you who think George Foreman is gonna whup me; when you get to Africa, Mobutu’s people are gonna put you in a pot, cook you, and eat you”, the then-charmless Foreman wrongly wore traditional African dress upon arrival in a country he found to be unexpectedly modern while unintentionally scaring locals with his dog, a large German shepherd.
“We didn’t know the difference between east, west, north Africa, we didn’t know anything, so when coming to Africa, we thought ‘Boy, this is really gonna get us recognition, why not put on African clothes and walk around with that image’,” Foreman told BN.
“The whole idea of me taking that fight was to bridge the gap with Americans, and those who had been born in Africa, and kind of make a bridge there. Putting on the clothes was a part of that.”
If it was an attempt to win the popularity contest, Foreman lost out as convincingly as he did the fight. Ali, who by now had joined the Nation of Islam and was influencing his times, was attempting to reclaim the WBA title stripped from him seven years earlier for his refusal, on religious grounds, to join the US army’s war effort in Vietnam and declared himself, to the delight of the locals, “going back home to fight among my brothers”, having called Africa his home, the home of the black man, and saying: “Damn America and what America thinks.”
The setback wasn’t Foreman’s last before he eventually entered the ring in the early hours, as demanded by US television, of October 30: Ali’s popularity continued to soar through his regular exposure to locals in Nsele while his rival remained isolated; Foreman feared his food was being poisoned; a witch-doctor was even said to have told Ali a ‘succubus’, or female demon – “a woman with trembling hands” – would get to the champion by fight night.
The two had originally been scheduled to meet on September 25, immediately after a concert performed by black acts including James Brown, Bill Withers and The Pointer Sisters but their fight was postponed when, five days prior, Bill McMurray accidentally and disastrously elbowed the champion during sparring and opened a significant cut over his right eye.
“Someone asked me the other day about the cut – ‘was that part of my decline?’” said Foreman. “But I was so confident, I could have suffered two cuts and still beat Muhammad Ali. I was just that confident – as a matter of fact, over-confident. I should have in hindsight left Africa, got myself healed real good, and come back for a later date, but I was just that over-confident.
“I’d never been cut in training and then you gotta stop working out, you can’t spar anymore. It disrupted my preparation but I don’t think it caused me to lose at all. Because once the bell rang, I was still the aggressor. I never stepped back once from Muhammad Ali.”
Leaving Africa may have been the sensible option but it was one Mobutu, through fears the fighters wouldn’t return – “If [Foreman] went home, I think he would have never came back,” said King – ruthlessly refused them. Tales persist of armed guards seizing the champion’s passport and of warnings to each fighter from Mobutu’s henchmen; even the media were kept in Zaire until a three-day argument, and Mobutu covering the cost of flying both the European and American contingents back, changed the dictator’s mind. He did, however, share another of their concerns.
“The press chief was a man called Chimpumpu wa Chimpumpu, whose brother was a government minister with Mobutu,” said Hart. “He always wore a fur hat, you never saw him without it.
“We sent our copy back by telex [teleprinters]. The bloody telex operators, when we used to hand our stuff in, there was hardly anybody there because they all used to bunk off and go to sleep [Alan Hubbard added that the operators had also been asking for bribes]. And we complained to Chimpumpu that the telex operators were never there when we needed them. It went up to Mobutu, and it came down from on high: ‘The next telex operator found asleep when he should be on duty will be shot’.”
Foreman remained the overwhelming favourite on fight night and, deep down, it’s probable even Ali understood why. The challenger avoided ever watching the champion hit the heavy bag, aware the impression it would leave on his psyche could go even deeper than Foreman’s fists did on the bag itself and, come the 30th, he wasn’t alone in needing reassurance.
His pre-fight changing room was one of intense fear and anxiety, his entourage no longer immune to widespread concerns that not only Ali’s status but his life was at risk, that at 32 the ability to evade Foreman was behind him while his pride – as suffocatingly intense as the stadium’s atmosphere – ensured he’d continue to take a beating until possibly his final breath.
Ali then energised his entourage like he memorably did so many others throughout his decorated career as he also energised and composed himself before making his way to the ring where he awaited the champion.
The ropes loose (Angelo Dundee denied ever causing this – the heat of the jungle causing them to stretch and Dundee attempting to tighten them was one explanation offered; Hart also believes suggestions Dundee loosened the ropes to be a myth), the challenger left the world aghast as, using the now-iconic rope-a-dope, he taunted Foreman and absorbed a remarkable beating until the champion punched himself out and allowed Ali to claim his finest victory.
“I didn’t dance,” Ali said immediately after the fight. “I didn’t dance for a reason. I wanted to make him lose all his power. I kept tell him he had no punch, he couldn’t hit, he swing like a sissy, he’s missing, let me see you box!”
“I was shocked,” Foreman told BN, “because I backed him into the corner, and got him some heavy shots, and anyone else would have crumbled. “I think about after the third round when I really gave it to him hard, the bell rang and he dropped his arms to uncover himself and said ‘I made it’. And he knew that he had weathered the biggest storm he had ever and would ever again. And even I remember thinking ‘He made it’. I don’t know how he did it, I just don’t know.
“I was discouraged about a lot of things back then, more than discouraged, but if I was going to beat him – really beat him fair and square – the ropes wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Forty-one years on, the Stade du 20 Mai is a crumbling, rusting relic housing some of DR Congo’s poorest; referee Zach Clayton, Foreman’s cornermen Archie Moore, Dick Sadler and Sandy Saddler, and those close to Ali – Angelo Dundee, Drew “Bundini” Brown and Walter Youngblood (later known as Wali Muhammad) – are no longer with us.
It is the memories of The Fight, of the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings, promoter Don King, Foreman’s publicist Bill Caplan, Ali’s business manager Gene Kilroy, the fighters themselves and, in this context more importantly, their collective legacies that remain.