Friday, October 30, 2009

Ali's 'Rumble in the Jungle' turns 35 today

"Beyond the stucco villa, the Congo River flowed swiftly," Dave Anderson wrote in The New York Times. "On the lawn several dozen Africans, men in their slacks and bright shirts and women in their long dresses had come for a glimpse of the famous man now that he was the world heavyweight champion again."

Anderson's words are of no recent vintage, but they remain as vivid and as lucid as the day he crafted them 35 years ago.

His words are remembered today because this is the anniversary of the title fight Anderson wrote about. Now as then, you can hardly forget it, not if you consider yourself a Muhammad Ali fan.

Even if you didn't watch the bout live or weren't born until after that autumn day in 1974, you have seen film of it or have read about Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle."

No fight defined the Ali character more poignantly than his bout with George Foreman, the reigning champ then.

Ali, of course, had had memorable fights before he stepped into the swelter in Kinshasa, Zaire, to meet Foreman. Epic bouts with Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston come to mind, and Ali's "Bum of the Month" club had pitted "the people's champ" against any fighter who merited a title shot.

Politics cost Ali. It punished him for refusing to enter the military.

"I was determined to be one nigger that the white man didn't get," Ali once said.

In a sense, the white man did get him; he stripped Ali of the title. Foreman had gone on to win the belt, dismantling the heavyweight rankings in the process with the kind of power not seen since Rocky Marciano lorded over boxing's glamour division.

Ali-Foreman was the fight that fans had longed for -- one that didn't seem possible, however, in the clashing world of boxing promoters.

Both Foreman and Ali wanted to be paid a king's ransom, and they would get it from Don King. He made the two fighters follow him to Zaire to collect it.

King didn't have the money to promote the bout himself, but he convinced the country's strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, one of the richest men in the world, to guarantee purses of $5 million apiece.

Neither Ali nor Foreman could reject those dollars.

But their fight proved less about the cash and more about the egos.

Ali, 32, never thought he was anything less than a world champion, his losses to Frazier and Ken Norton notwithstanding. He took on Foreman to prove it.

Foreman, 25, didn't need to prove much. He came into this fight in Mai 20 Stadium unbeaten with 37 knockouts in 40 bouts. Foreman had already dismantled Frazier, a fight as one-sided as any championship bout in history.

If people thought Mike Tyson was a fearsome force during his reign of terror, they don't know what "fearsome" means. Tyson was never the hulking menace Foreman proved to be.

Fear was never one of Ali's traveling companions, though. Ali showed no fear of Foreman, never believing the brutish slugger could handle his hand and foot speed. He would dazzle Foreman with both - or so the Ali faithful thought.

They could not have been more wrong.

Because on the early morning of Oct. 30, it wasn't Ali's hand speed or foot speed that did in Foreman. It was Ali's smarts.

The fight proved a test of brawn over brain, and brain got the better of it. Had the plodding Foreman wanted to devise a surefire plan for losing, he succeeded. He ignored the heat and humidity in the jungle rumble, and he came out of his corner in the first round trying for a knockout.

Round after round, Foreman threw wild punches, pinning Ali against the ropes but unable to penetrate his guard. Foreman's aggression won him rounds, but it sapped his strength as well.

By the eighth round, his energy was spent. He had allowed Ali's rope-a-dope to define the night. And once his energy had disappeared into the night, the fight belonged to Ali.

He knocked Foreman down with a hard combination in the center of the ring. Groggy from Ali's blows, sapped by the oppressive heat, Foreman struggled to beat referee Zack Clayton's count; he failed.

Against all logics, against all the doubters and critics -- men and women who had considered Foreman unbeatable -- Ali won, regaining a title the U.S. government stole from him.

It was a night frozen in sports history -- as vivid today to a generation of fight fans as when Anderson and others wrote about it 35 years ago.


Post a Comment