FORTY years ago — on October 30 1974, to be exact — one of the biggest sporting events ever took place in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), when Muhammad Ali challenged George Foreman for the world heavyweight title in what Ali dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle".
On paper, the loquacious, and therefore both idolised and despised, Ali had little chance of winning the title, for the third time, against the seemingly unbeatable Foreman.
After all, Ali had more than his hands full in three epic encounters with Joe Frazier, and two with Ken Norton, whereas Big George had knocked both of them out in the second round.
My father, boxing promoter Reg Haswell, knew Ali’s legendary trainer, Angelo Dundee, and had secured press tickets for both of us, but our visa applications were turned down and we had to content ourselves with daily phone calls to Dundee.
A week before the bout, Dundee told us that, as usual, "Muhammad was doing his own thing by training in the heat of the day", and whipping up support among the locals by shouting out "Ali bomaye" (Ali kill him). On another day, Dundee, in disguise, went to spy on Foreman training and told us: "He ain’t training — period", which proved to be a telling observation.
As was his custom, Ali was rhyming: "If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I whup Foreman’s behind".
Many couldn’t wait for Foreman to zip the lip, but Ali’s rapping was music to African ears, just as it was in the ghettos of America.
As was the case with Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Frazier and then Foreman, their inability to cap, or respond, to Ali’s rap meant that for many, Ali was the only black man in the ring.
It’s nigh impossible to compare boxers from different eras. But he was certainly the fastest and fittest, and tactically the most astute. He beat three formidable champions in Liston (ask Floyd Patterson), Frazier and Foreman (ask Frazier).
This is the ode Ali recited before the Foreman bout:
Ali comes out to meet Foreman, but Foreman starts to retreat.
If George goes back an inch further, he’d wind up in a ringside seat.
Ali swings with a left, Ali swings with a right, look at Ali carrying the fight.
George keeps backin’ but there’s not enough room,
It’s a matter of time ’fore Ali lowers the boom.
Now Ali lands with a right, what a beautiful swing,
And the punch lifts George clean out of the ring.
George is still rising but the referee wears a frown.
For he can’t start counting till George comes down.
Now George disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic,
But our radar stations have picked him up, he’s somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought when they came to the fight,
That they’d witness the launching of a coloured satellite.
No other heavyweight, either before or after him, has had Ali’s ability to stay out of harm’s way, while making his opponents tire themselves out by missing punches. As Bundini Brown, a member of Ali’s entourage, put it: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, the hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see".
Ali confounded everyone in the Foreman bout by adopting what he later called the "rope a dope" strategy. This entailed him leaning on the ropes and beckoning Foreman to come and get him, and Foreman duly obliged by flailing away, without landing any telling blows during the first six rounds. By the seventh, Foreman began to tire, and Ali took control, saying: "Okay George, now it’s my turn". Ali had Foreman at his mercy, in much the same way as he tired out Sonny Liston to take the mental upper hand. A powerful right cross put Foreman down for the full count in the eighth.
Yet there are still many who doubt Ali’s punching ability, preferring to believe Liston took a dive in the first round of their return bout.
If Ali’s record of 37 knockouts in 61 bouts doesn’t speak for itself, have another look at his knockout of Cleveland Williams, and just for good measure, place your right fist on the life-size photo of Ali’s right fist.
Was Ali the greatest heavyweight of all time?
It’s nigh impossible to compare boxers from different eras. But he was certainly the fastest and fittest, and tactically the most astute. He beat three formidable champions in Liston (ask Floyd Patterson), Frazier and Foreman (ask Frazier). But my abiding thought is that we never saw Ali in his prime years, and at his best. He was banned from boxing for almost four years — for resisting the draft during the Vietnam War — from 1967, when he was 25, to 1971, when he was 29.
Sadly, in an effort to make up for those lost years, Ali came out of retirement and took unnecessary punishment. It’s difficult not to attribute the onset of Parkinson’s disease to the pounding he took in his last two bouts.
Dundee went to spy on Foreman training and told us: ‘He ain’t training — period’, which proved a telling observation