The Rumble in the Jungle

Champion of the World

by Andrew Starkie

Ali told everyone he was going to dance.  Foreman trained for this.  In sparring, he practised cutting off the ring.  Closing in and cornering his opponents like prey to be devoured. You can’t dance without a dance floor.

Everyone was frightened for Ali – his people, Foreman’s people, sportswriters.  What if Ali was maimed, or worse?  Ali was 32, Foreman, 24.  Foreman was the Heavy Weight Champion of the World.  From behind, he looked like a surly grizzly bear.   He punched like an old train engine – big, heavy, dangerous.

Foreman had humiliated Joe Frazier.  Frazier was the Champ when Foremen lifted him off the canvas with a single punch.  Foreman was the puppeteer jerking Frazier’s strings.  Foreman showed no emotion; he just destroyed Frazier and took his title.

In his stark, white change rooms under the grandstands, Ali is the host of a dead party.  There are plenty of people present – corner men, supporters, hangers-on, and family – however, he is the only one talking.   ‘I’m gonna dance!  I’m gonna dance!’ He glides over the carpeted floor, trying to dodge the fear in case it catches him, seeps into his skin and kills his courage.

It’s time to rumble.  Ali and his corner walk quietly, timidly through the ringside seats.  It’s as if the fear has infected Ali.  His head is bowed and he offers a little, almost shy, wave to the crowd.  Foreman and his corner run to the ring like a football team.  The outdoor ring is in the middle of the arena.  It has a roof as protection against the expected monsoons.  Invited guests, dignitaries and journalists occupy the ringside seats.  The locals occupy the distant grandstands.  It’s early in the morning in Kinshasa, Zaire.

Inside the ring, Ali comes alive.  He must win the crowd.  He orchestrates the chant – ‘Ali! Ali!’ – while watching Foreman over his shoulder.  He is looking for a reaction knowing he needs any advantage.  Foreman doesn’t make eye contact; he is jogging around with his massive arms in the air.  At the instructions, Ali is trash talking.  The Champ stares at the canvas.  He looks like a silent murderer from a movie.

At the bell, Ali sprints to the centre of the ring and stops as if realising the trouble he has found.  The boxers circle and Ali throws a right lead.  A risky punch as it leaves his upper body undefended to retaliation.  This is arrogant and an insult to Foreman.  He’s the Champion of the World!  Ali throws more right leads.  Foreman is incensed.  No one does this to him.  He cuts off the ring, just like in training.  He lands a left and two rights.  They wrestle.  Foreman pushes Ali to the corner and heaves body punches into him.  Ali’s back is a beautiful inverted pyramid.

The first round is suddenly over – great sporting events pass quickly – and both fighters sit down.  Foreman listens passively to his trainer Dick Sadler while again looking at the canvas.  He is blowing lightly through his lips. Foreman could be there on his own, the ring his cocoon from the world.  This is the only place he feels safe, worthy, equal.

Ali is looking beyond Angelo Dundee at Foreman as he gives him instructions. Ali’s eyes are bright, dark and white.  He is aware of everyone and everything.  He craves attention like a child. He rises early and orchestrates the chant again.

Round two begins and Ali again rushes to the centre.  Foreman pushes him to the ropes.  Ali surrenders too easily.  Where’s the dancing?  Is the fight fixed?  Will Ali go down early?  Foreman swings at Ali’s body.  Big punches that shudder into ribs and kidneys.  Foreman lands a right on his jaw, however, the Champ’s punches aren’t having an impact.  Ali lies on the ropes and licks jabs at Foreman’s head.  His jab is a tongue: out and in, out and in.

Ali’s eyes aren’t blinking.  They stare at Foreman’s.  Ali is anticipating Foreman’s moves.  As the round ends, Ali shakes his head disappointedly at the crowd who think he has been hurt by a Foreman combination.  He cares too much about what people think of him to permit this.

Ali opens round three with a combination and retreats to the ropes.  Foreman advances and tries to pound his opponent, however, he can’t pierce Ali’s defensive skills.  Ali is talking: taunting, annoying, insulting.  Right and left jabs pick Foreman off.  He is confused now; searching, groping, frustrated.  Ali feints, Foreman flinches.  Ali must have counted the round down because he throws a left, right, left, right flurry to end.  Foreman is walking into the punches now.  Is he worried yet?

Ali looks fresher in the fourth.  He is controlling the tempo of the bout.  Foreman is seeing round four for the first time since 1972.  Ali retreats again and rocks Foreman with a right and left.  Foreman misses with a wild, longing right hook.  Ali lands with a right.  Foreman is pawing, his power draining.  Ali is swaying, dodging, predicting his opponent’s thoughts and movements.  Ali moves from rope to rope and the Champ follows as if in a spell.  Ali is the pied piper – watching, enticing, preying.  The challenger ends the round holding on to the Champ.  Ali is conserving himself.  Foreman wobbles on his way back to his corner.  He tries to hide his unsteadiness like a mourner at a wake who has climbed quickly off the couch and discovers he has had a few too many.

It’s difficult to read Foreman.  His eyes are so dark, his expression lifeless.  Is his pre-bout confidence waning?  Does he know a more cunning, skilful, intelligent boxer is stealing his title?  Is he looking into the blackness of failure?

Ali’s bright eyes, facial expressions, mannerisms are easy to interpret.  This makes him attractive, human, and vulnerable.

The crowd is in a maniacal frenzy.  They sense blood, defeat and victory.  This could be any time in human history, any coliseum.

Foreman must act.  In the fifth, he goes after Ali, chasing him to the corner, swinging massive body blows.  Foreman’s whole body is rotating with the punches; he is searching for the killer blow.  Both fighters land left hooks.  Foreman’s skills are diminishing with fatigue and desperation.  He isn’t hurting Ali, his punches are poking.  Ali is resting on the ropes; his long, thin legs are tiring.  Foreman attacks for most of this round. Ali waits again until that internal clock ticks over to half a minute remaining.

Ali presses off the ropes with right and left combinations that thud into Foreman’s head.  The Champ’s arms flail into the air, he is wide open and defenceless.  Ali senses victory; he’s in for the kill.  He winks at Jim Brown, the television commentator, while holding Foreman in an insulting headlock.  The bell saves the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

Between rounds five and six, Angelo Dundee fights off ring officials who are attempting to tighten the ring ropes.  Did Ali’s corner have them loosened before the bout to allow their man to lean away from his opponent?  The argument continues into the next round.

Round six passes quietly and quickly.  Both men are tiring.  Foreman is the drunk from the funeral trying to find his way through his darkened home to the bedroom.  The furniture has been moved and he can’t find the light switch.  His punches are ineffective.  He hits Ali with a low blow.  Ali is zinging jabs that make Foreman’s head bounce back and forth.  He keeps walking into them like a robot.  The fighters are clinching and Ali is talking.  Does he still need to do this?  He is punishing his opponent mentally.  It’s cruel.  Ali closes with a left, right combination and Foreman staggers to his corner, face puffy.

Ali is pulling faces at Foreman from his corner.  Two school boys separated by the teacher.

Foreman has his dignity taken during round seven.  Ali begins by leading him to the ropes and fending off his weak, poking punches.  Ali talks to Foreman, ties him up, pushes him off, drags his head down.  Ali is a cat with a dead mouse.  It’s a matter of time.  In a display of courage and desperation, Foreman lunges at Ali and almost ends up toppling outside the ring.  If he so pleased, Ali could have thrown him out.  The crowd cheers and laughs in disrespect for the world champion.  Foreman comes back with an uppercut that knocks Ali’s head back.  Ali holds on while regaining his composure and retorts with a short series of left jabs.  The round ends in the Champ’s corner and Ali is cradling Foreman’s head in his left glove.  This is a tender moment as Ali almost hands Foreman to his attendants.

Both fighters are sitting between rounds.  Ali catches Foreman’s eye and winks – camaraderie from one warrior to another.  Two men earning a living for themselves, their families and plenty of others.  What must be going through Foreman’s head now?  Does he know it’s almost over?  Does he still blindly believe?  Is he staring into darkness?

The boxers are wilting, their shoulders and arms sagging.  As usual, Ali begins round 8 by returning to the ropes.  They have played a role in victory, just like his fists and brain.  They have been his sanctuary and ally.  Foreman is walking into rights and lefts; his legs are going up and down on the spot.  He lunges again at Ali – what amazing courage – and again almost ends up outside the ring.  With Foreman hanging over the ropes, Ali cocks his fist, however, pulls the punch in deference to his opponent and the ethics of the sport.  The crowd is laughing even louder and Foreman is the court jester.

The ritual recommences with Ali leading Foreman from corner to corner, rope to rope.  Are the men attached by invisible string?  Foreman keeps searching – flailing, lunging, and pawing.  Ali holds on, resting, restraining, controlling.  The fight is experiencing a quiet period.  A lull in intensity where the crowd isn’t as involved as it has been.  Until Ali sees the opening, the moment and the end.

Ali’s internal clock has clicked to 2 minutes 30 seconds gone in the round.  He is in a neutral corner when he lands an innocuous looking right lead.  Then another, and another, and another.  Four right leads, each heavier and more effective than the last.  The crowd has gone crazy.  The fighters have rotated to their right and changed positions, with Ali facing outside the ring in an attacking position, for one of the few times in the bout.  Foreman is over the ropes.  They keep rotating.  Ali connects a right, left, right, left combination.  Foreman’s arms splay into the air as he spins and falls into the centre of the ring.  He tries to grab onto Ali’s trunks on the way down.  Ali could land again as Foreman falls, however, that would spoil the moment.  The referee starts the count and Foreman is looking into his eyes.  Help me.  Ali is pacing the ring.  Is that finally it?  Foreman is counted out and Ali raises his long arms above his head in a beautiful, regal pose that he surely knows will be on front pages all over the world.

Muhammad Ali is Heavy Weight Champion of the World again.  Like he said he would be.

Comments

  1. Peter Flynn says:

    Andrew,

    Fantastic read mate. Great blow-by-blow description of the fight itself.

    You really have captured the mood and the colour of one of the most influential and famous sporting contests ever staged.

    I watched ‘When We Were Kings’ at the flicks in Haymarket (London) when it was first released.
    Norman Mailer and George Plimpton (both now Uncle Fred) provide superb commentary on the lead-up to the fight, the fight itself and the aftermath.

    For those that haven’t read Norman Mailer’s ‘The Fight’, this is Mailer’s description of Ali knocking Foreman to the canvas.

    “Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like with a parachute jumping out of plane, and in this doubled-over position he tried to wander out the centre of the ring. All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world would see him on his dying days. Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position, eyes on Muhammad Ali all the way, he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down. His mind was held with magnets high as his championship and his body was seeking the ground.”

  2. Peter,

    I reckon the first 165 pages of The Fight are nonsense. The next 60 pages, in which he describes the actual fight, contain some of the best, most vivid sportswriting you’ll ever read.

    It’s a classic.

    I like When We Were Kings, too.

    Great effort to bring it all to life, Andrew.

  3. Peter Flynn says:

    Andrew,

    Next Tuesday (Jan 26) at 10.05pm (check this), SBS are screening the Thriller in Manila doco that I saw on the plane.
    It’s from Smokin Joe’s perspective.

  4. Richard E. Jones says:

    PETER: is that the one the ABC screened in ’09 and I saw again a few weeks back either on one of the BBC channels or one of the myriad ITV options.
    It must have been screened in the UK from late October-to end of Nov. cos that’s when we were there.
    I remember taping it for son-in-law to watch after work that evening.

    If that is the doco you’re referring to it tells the story from Smokin’ Joe’s viewpoint. He now lives in shabby quarters at the rear of a run-down gym in Phillie. That’s his home town, of course. Unlike Ali Joe still has all his marbles, albeit his speech is hard to decipher and is very blurry.

    I interviewed Frazier briefly in March 1975 after he’d beaten Jimmy Ellis in Melbourne. Joe and entourage were on a stopover in Port Moresby en route to S-E Asia and the Philippines.

    See my yarn on Frazier’s exhibition bouts in Moresby by clicking on my name, at right.

  5. Richard Naco says:

    I loved When We Were Kings.

    More impressively, my wife hated boxing with a passion (and still does) but came with me to see that doco a tthe flicks and adored it for what its is: a study of two contrasting and yet equally outstanding warriors.

    Boxing has never held any appeal for me since the days when Ali hypnotised us all.

  6. The Thrilla in Manila doco would be based on Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram.

    It’s on my shelf. Must get around to reading it.

  7. Peter Flynn says:

    Daff,

    Suspect you are on the money.

    Richard,

    Yes you are right. I watched it over the Bay of Bengal while experiencing the usual turbulence. I’ll read your Frazier tale. Interesting.

  8. Robert Charles says:

    The last punch Ali throws is a right, flush to Foreman’s face, he then holds the next punch and lets Foreman’s own defeated body fall to the canvas, it’s a beautiful moment in Heavyweight Boxing History and the author doesn’t even get that correct. It makes me wonder about the whole depiction if you can’t even get the knock-out punch correct. Sorry, Bro!

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