The Rumble in the Jungle: Forty Years On

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Len Trievnor/Express/Getty Images

When Muhammad Ali and George Foreman returned to their dressing rooms, the scene was unrecognizable. Before the fight, Ali's dressing room had all the atmosphere of a morgue. Bundini Brown, Angelo Dundee, all the many hangers-on that Ali had accumulated over the years... they felt he was a man on his way to the gallows. In George Foreman's dressing room, Dick Saddler and boxing's elder statesman, Archie Moore were preparing their charge for a slaughter.

At the conclusion of the bout, the monsoon rains set in, and both men found their dressing rooms flooded with water. Ali entertained visitors early into the morning, where Foreman spiraled into depression.

The Challenger

With forty years worth of hindsight, it is easy to forget that Ali was not supposed to win the Rumble in the Jungle. In almost every aspect that governs the typical pugilistic contest, Foreman had Ali beat. Ali had been in a very obvious decline and his best days were far behind him.

By the middle of 1974, it was clear that Ali's legs had left him, or at least only worked intermittently. Joe Frazier had battered Ali over the distance in their first bout, and Kenny Norton had solved the Ali riddle completely. Each time Ali stepped in to jab, Norton would catch it and launch his own jab simultaneously. Each and every time Ali stepped in, his own jab shot into Norton's palm, and he ate a return for his troubles. 

Norton had Ali's timing down.

Ali was beating light heavyweights like Bob Foster and washed up ex-champions like Floyd Patterson, but he wasn't convincing anyone that he was the best thing going anymore. He took rematches with Norton and Frazier, but he scraped a controversial decision over the former, and only one against the latter because the referee allowed him to hold behind the neck instead of boxing for the entire bout. Ali's legs were shot, and his formerly blistering hand speed couldn't be maintained over the rounds as it used to. When he fought it was a round of jabbing and dancing, then perhaps two rounds of holding.

The Black Colossus

No, when Ali was struggling to squeak out wins over his old rivals, the heavyweight title picture was dominated by the figure of George Foreman. Foreman was a gigantic man for the heavyweight standard of the day, and perhaps the hardest puncher of all time. But more that that—he was the result of the work of a number of men, two of whom played pivotal roles in Ali's own life.

Foreman melting Kenny Norton.

Foreman had been a sparring partner of Sonny Liston, the Big Bear. The man whom Ali took the title from in one of the great heavyweight upsets. From Liston, Foreman learned a good deal, but more than anything he learned how to intimidate. Foreman hated interviews, and so he adopted Liston's tactical silences and glares. It all helped add to that aura of destruction that he continued to build through his many knockout wins. It was from Liston too, that Foreman stole his stare-down tactics. Standing perfectly still, a picture of sinister serenity, Foreman wouldn't move his gaze from his opponent's eyes as the referee gave the final instructions before a bout. If they looked away, Foreman knew that half the work was done. Once Liston died of a heroin overdose (suspicious because he was terrified of needles), Foreman stepped out from behind his training mate's shadow.

He also power dressed.

The second figure in Foreman and Ali's bizarrely parallel lives was The Old Mongoose, Archie Moore. At the age of forty-unknown (like any old timer, he lied through his teeth about his age), Moore had taken his final match against a young Cassius Clay. Clay, later to become Ali, had been placed in Moore's care early in his career. Clay's backers hoped that Moore would groom him into a master boxer. Not only was Clay uninterested in Moore's belief that a good boxer needs to learn to hit hard so that he can have career longevity, Clay despised Moore's insistence that he, the Olympic champion, should do the dishes and sweep the floors.

Moore's work with Foreman proved that he could craft a great champion out of good raw materials. At least, that's what the media latched onto... Norman Mailer recounted that Moore spent most of his time in Zaire challenging anyone who would talk to him to a table tennis match. What Moore did teach Foreman was to punch purely, to use his bodyweight better, and to hide behind that brilliant crossed arm guard to deflect damage.

A technical breakdown of Moore and his many tricks.

An older George Foreman demonstrating the cross armed guard. A pretty rare technique and one that Foreman learned from Moore.

The final two men who crafted this murderous champion were the cousins, Sandy and Dick Saddler. Dick Saddler was an unaccomplished boxer who spoke in curiously vague, philosophical tones in response to all questions asked of him. Sandy Saddler was the greatest featherweight to date, and Ring magazine has him as the third greatest puncher of all time.  Saddler had trapped the dancing master, Willie Pep in the corners of the ring and beaten him down three times in four meetings.

You will remember that Ali mocked Foreman's stance, nicknaming him The Mummy for his palms being well in front of his body. Ali knew as well as anyone that this worked worryingly well in shutting down a strong jab. Saddler and Foreman would both create a window in front of them, patting down any straight punches that came through, and moving constantly forward until they had their opponent on the ropes, where they could do their best work. Saddler taught Foreman to shut down the jab and to cut off the ring, and Foreman—as Ali knew—was getting worryingly good at it.

Foreman's hands were always checking his opponent's until he was comfortably in range to start swinging. Even Muhammad Ali couldn't punch through his opponents' palms.

“I named him The Mummy!”

Ali and Foreman shared two significant opponents. In fact, they were pretty much the only significant opponents on Foreman's record. These were Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Where Ali lost to both, then ground out a controversial and unimpressive decision over each, Foreman had destroyed them in two rounds each. Usually when a guy runs through nobodies, he meets a top contender and slows down, Foreman didn't. No-one had man-handled Norton and Frazier like Foreman had, and Ali had struggled to get by both... things looked grim for the man who was touting himself as “The Greatest."

Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!

The Con Man and the Tyrant

Don King and Mobutu Sese Seko.

The Rumble in the Jungle, as it quickly came to be called, was the work of two terrible human beings. The first was Don King, who before this fight had no legitimate reason to be famous, but a few to merit being infamous. The second was Mobuto Sese Seko, the president of Zaire. Mobutu had seized power of The Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1965. He renamed the country Zaire in 1971, because he at least had the decency to stop pretending there was anything democratic about it.

The story goes that Don King went to both Ali and Foreman when talk of the fight began and got them both to sign a piece of paper (in some versions a napkin) saying that if he could raise five million dollars for each of them, they would fight for him. Five million was a ridiculous figure for a boxer in those days, even for a heavyweight title, and they might well have simply been fobbing King off, hoping he'd go away. Rather than approach businessmen around the world, King found Mobutu who was more than happy to sacrifice ten million dollars to have his country's (new) name put on the map.

The accounts of the event are remarkable. King organized a music festival to coincide with the lead up to the fight—meaning that James Brown, B.B. King and plenty of other great musicians were in Zaire at the same time as the fighters' camps. But more than that, the press sent some of the top dogs to cover it. Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson. This was the golden age of fight journalism.

Because there was simply nothing else to do, and they were all staying in the same area, gossip about the fighters and the camps flew around constantly. Finally, just days out from the fight, one of Foreman's sparring partners (read: whipping boys) managed to lacerate Foreman's brow with an accidental elbow. The fight was in jeopardy of being called off, and the Zaire government “requested” that the fighters not leave the country until the bout, had been rescheduled.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the bout's build up was the racial tone it took on. Muhammad Ali was the most recognizable man in the world for his standing up to the U.S. draft board and being stripped of his title. But many Africans assumed that he would be fighting against a white man. They were surprised when they found out that Foreman, too, was black. But Ali always had a magic way of making race not actually about race. Floyd Patterson was a white man's champion, Joe Frazier—who had actually worked the fields and struggled for a living as a young man, where Ali had lived in relative ease—was somehow an Uncle Tom.

Foreman's PR gaffs were many, and the people of Zaire rapidly turned against him. Arriving in the early hours of the morning with no one around, where Ali had arrived in the evening and received an incredible welcome. His standoffish attitude to interviews was received poorly, and his German shepherd went down even worse as the Belgian's had used these as attack dogs when the Congo was a colony. In Foreman's defense, he seems to just love dogs, owning eighteen German shepherds today.

The country sided with Ali, and chants of “Ali bomaye” (“Ali, kill him!”) could be heard everywhere.

A Man in the Rigging

When Muhammad Ali and George Foreman came to the ring, the apparent size difference seemed as great as ever. Foreman's trainers actually struggled to get his robe off over his biceps. During the stare-down, Foreman gazed straight into Ali's eyes, and Ali began his usual talking. But it seemed nervous more than anything. As the bell went for round one, the two came out and things started quickly.

As soon as Ali came out, he threw a right hand lead that hit Foreman right on the snout. Much has been made of this right hand lead, and many suspect Ali went to it so often in the first round because it was a punch that Foreman wouldn't have trained to deal with. Norman Mailer insisted that none of Foreman's sparring partners would have thrown a right lead at him in years because it is a terrific insult to a world class boxer. The right lead—and any right handed punch—must come all the way across the body, rather than simply shoot straight out like a jab. It is for this reason that the left hand almost always sets up the right.

There may be some truth in it being unexpected, but this wasn't the flicking right lead which Roy Jones Jr. mastered to set up his left hook. Or that Ray Leonard developed to score points and weave out. This was a power punch. Ali came out looking to hurt Foreman because he wanted to test whether Foreman was an aggressive fighter or just a bully. Particularly among heavyweights, you will often see men who can really dish it out get to the highest levels, take a punch in return, and then mentally collapse.

But Foreman took it. And another. And half a dozen more through the round. He wasn't expecting it, and struggled to deal with it, but he wasn't going anywhere. For Ali, it must have seemed as bad as it could get. Foreman could cut off the ring better than Ali could dance, he could hit harder than Ali, he could parry Ali's jab all night, and Ali couldn't seem to stun him.

From round two onwards, Ali performed what was thought to be tactical suicide, and he went to the ropes. In so many of my other articles I have stressed the importance of the ropes and the value in pressing an opponent to them. His stance collapses, he cannot hit back with as much power, and one direction of movement is removed altogether. He can't get away from you, and he can't afford to trade with you. You get to hit him until he finally manages to get out.

Yet Ali went to the ropes and all of those things happened. But the more often it happened, the wilder Foreman got. Watching the fight, one quickly realized that every time the referee broke them, Ali was talking into Foreman's ear. Foreman got wilder as the rounds progressed, and Ali covered and swung back against the ropes with each bomb that hit him. The angrier Foreman got, the more his arms tensed up, the wider he swung, and the more tired he got.

In round six and seven, Ali started to punch back. With your feet underneath you, along the ropes, you cannot use your stance to create what is termed a “pure punch”, with your bodyweight moving in the direction of the punch. But it didn't seem to matter. The short, snapping arm punches were enough to turn Foreman's head around and fountains of sweat were visible each time Foreman got hit.

Finally, in the eighth round, Foreman threw a salvo, leaned into Ali to take a break, and Ali moved out to the side. As Foreman tried to stop himself falling onto the ropes, Ali nailed him with a right. As Foreman turned, a left hook set up another right. Foreman stumbled across the ring and pirouetted to the mat. As the crowd roared, and Ali danced, Foreman sat up and looked at his corner. He was waiting for their signal to get up. But he wasn't all there. Foreman was counted out and Ali had reclaimed the title.

Ghost of Zaire

When the two men returned to their flooded dressing rooms, Foreman looked for excuses. Why didn't his corner tell him when to get up? Come to think of it, he tasted something medicinal in his water bottle that night... And why were the ropes so loose?

Foreman spiraled into depression and rage. His next few fights were an embarrassing mix of sloppy brawls and occasional results, but he never regained the form of his massacre of Ken Norton. He attempted publicity stunts like taking five exhibition matches against five different men in one night. He struggled to knock out any, and it was made worse by Ali coaching the bums from ringside. “Get on the ropes!” Ali would cry, and Foreman would shout back at him while pounding away on the poor club fighter. “You can't fight on the ropes!” Foreman complained in the post fight interview.

The truth is that Foreman should have beaten Ali. His style was a nightmare for Ali—he checked Ali's jabs all fight and landed his own, he easily got Ali to the ropes and out maneuvered him in the open. But he let himself get angry and got sucked in. Ali is often called the Greatest of All Time, and this fight makes the best case for that. Ali didn't outbox Foreman, he flat out couldn't, but against impossible odds he found a way to beat Foreman in a fight.

Some years after the bout, Foreman found God and became a preacher, coming out of retirement in 1987 to raise some money by knocking out a load of nobodies. But then it turned into something more than that... In 1991 he got a shot at Evander Holyfield's belt and didn't do too badly. He was fighting smart, staying behind his jab, using the cross guard, and setting up his big punches. He had an ancient Archie Moore and Ali's mentor, Angelo Dundee in his corner, and the whole world behind him.

On the 5th November 1991, at age forty five, George Foreman fought Michael Moorer for heavyweight title. After ten rounds of out moving the big man, Moorer finally decided that he could put the old timer away. A moment later, Moorer was flat on his back and George Foreman had regained the heavyweight championship of the world as the oldest man to ever win it. Power truly is the last thing to leave a fighter.

And the most magical thing about it? Foreman did it all in the same shorts that he had thrown away his title in seventeen years before. He had exorcised his demons and laid The Rumble in the Jungle to rest.

For Muhammad Ali's part, his performance in Zaire was an incredible sacrifice. Ali now suffers from Parkinson's disease, as a result of the damage he has taken in the ring over his career. It is only when reviewing The Rumble in the Jungle that you realize how much Ali sacrificed in that one fight. He took a few dozen punches from the hardest puncher the world had ever seen, and that was his plan. Of course, his three fights with Joe Frazier certainly didn't help preserve Ali's body.

Ali traded his health for immortality, and rather than judge the logic of that, let us respect it as an incredible feat. Ali willed himself back to the world heavyweight title, and while he didn't know when to hang it up, we will always remember him coming off the ropes to stop Foreman in the eighth round, and we will easily forget his later defeats because, frankly they just don't matter as much.

Foreman helping Ali to the stage as they collect the Oscar for best documentary for When We Were Kings.

There will probably never be another fight like the Rumble in Jungle. It captured the world's attention and had the elite of journalism and music travel across the world to see it. It's probably for the best that there won't be another though—Mobutu paid at least ten million dollars for the fight while his people lived in poverty. But the bout might forever be remembered as the pinnacle of combat sports.

If you do nothing else to celebrate the anniversary of the Rumble in the Jungle, watch When We Were Kings on YouTube. It is, to my mind, the most riveting documentary ever made.

Pick up Jack Slack's ebooks at his blog Fights Gone By. Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.



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