It was 1974 in a place that used to be the most violent colony in a colonized continent. It 82 humid degrees in the early hours of the morning. 60,000 people cheer for one man to kill another. A man more famous than the US president, is being led by soldiers to his execution. On the way in he smiles at a man who tried to kill him twice before. A man who would try to kill him a 3rd time, but that’s another story for another day.
He was born Cassius Clay of Louisville, Kentucky. He took up boxing when somebody stole his bike in middle school. He was blessed with speed but was so stubborn he was almost completely untrainable. He kept refusing to do what he was told, mostly to pick up his hands and shut his mouth, but he kept winning. He takes home the gold medal from the 1960 Olympics at 175lbs. When Cassius Clay turned pro he made the jump to heavyweight. The skinny kid filled out and only seemed to get faster. Soon the 175lber was a solid 210 but still moved like a middleweight. Never did shut his mouth either.
In his younger days he was cocky enough to call the round he’d knock his opponents out. He was usually true to his word. Now, on the wrong side of 30, in a sport where men occasionally die young, Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, getting old.
The showy elegance that once marked his style was fading as fast as he used to be. 14 years is a lifetime to a boxer. The reaper comes for every great eventually.
He shouted and postured like a man who had just woken up to a bear digging through his trash cans. Ali had chased off his share of apex predators before. He won his championship off Sonny Liston in 1964. Liston had an 84′ inch wingspan, the biggest fists in heavyweight history and a rap sheet as long as his reach.
He shouted and postured then too. His legendary outburst at the weigh ins and nonstop campaign of trash talk had convinced Sonny Liston that he was actually insane. The 7-1 underdog pulled off the long shot and slayed the monster despite getting blinded mid-fight by linament rubbed on Sonny’s gloves.
Just after his victory over Liston, Cassius Clay converts to Islam after befriending Malcom X. Elijah Muhammad, the head of the nation of Islam, dubs him Muhammad Ali. When US government came calling hoping the heavyweight champ would play along with the war effort in Vietnam, Ali refused to be drafted based on his religious beliefs.
His last title defense came against Zora Folley, a 7 round KO in march of 67′. Ali would spent the next 3 years fighting in the courtroom. A fight he won by unanimous decision. It only cost the world years of his championship prime. But his words and the example he set, were worth more than any boxing match.
All that was years ago. Since then Ali got got knocked down by Joe Frazier’s infamous left hook in the legendary Fight of the Century in march of 1971. Finally losing the title in the ring after the legal system couldn’t take it in court. Then got his jaw broken in a decision loss to Ken Norton in 1973. Hard fights age a fighter faster than the clock.
The reaper had finally come for Ali’s time at the top.
In 1968 George Foreman rises out of the abyss to win an Olympic gold medal. Because George Foreman was a physical phenom. He grew up in the ghetto. Houston’s 5th ward was notoriously violent and impoverished. Turn down the wrong alley in Houston in the early 60’s, George Foreman might be demanding your wallet or watch. With little opportunity in Houston, George joined the job corps. He met a man who took note of his massive size and checkered past. He thought he might have the next great heavyweight. In just 2 years George goes from street mugger to Gold medalist.
He’s set up with a triumvarate of boxing royalty to teach him the pro game. Just tonight his corner contains two of the top 30 boxers ever to live in Archie Moore (in blue) and Sandy Saddler (in red). The third great was left back at the gym. The man George Foreman spent his time sparring, day in and day out, was Sonny Liston. Foreman learned well. Every man he fought ended up stuck on the ropes, at the mercy of Foreman’s spine folding strength.
George won the title the year before, when Joe Frazier played the role of consummate pressure fighter. Which is to say he smashed into Foreman like a car wrapped around a deep rooted oak tree. Foreman Knocked Joe down 6 times in 2 rounds to win his title.
Then crushed the cagey Ken Norton is similarly destructive fashion.
For the first time in his career, as they have to peel George’s robe over his massive biceps, Muhammad Ali actually looks concerned.
If Frazier couldn’t swarm him and Norton couldn’t box him. Well, it didn’t leave many strategic options left. It gets worse every second. George Foreman, was as advertised. Smart enough to cut the ring, while using his open palms to intercept and redirect Ali’s jab. It’s the same tactic he used to shut down Norton’s jab.
Ali called Foreman ‘The Mummy” for his classic arms out posture. But it worked, worryingly well. Foreman’s constant checking Ali’s lead hand made it hard to get his jab working. Worst of all the canvas was soft, slow and spongy. Taxing and hard to dance on, like the inside of a bounce house.
It looks like a man getting attacked by a sentient rockslide. Young George fought like Jason Voorhees couldn’t find his machete. Within a minute Ali has been trapped in 3 corners, taken half a dozen solid body shots and a hard straight right.
The reaper would have his due.
Ali made the tactical choice early to drop the jab for now and focus on getting his lead right hand in. With Foreman expecting a jabbing, dancing Ali, Foreman gets caught by the right. Ali was always clinching him up to off balance the big man and prevent George from sitting down on his punches. Just as important as the collar tie and lead right were his words. Every time he pulled Foreman in close Ali spoke his poison.
“Don’t you know I’m the Greatest of All time?”
It seemed like madness. Why on earth would you antagonize your executioner?
The torque George Foreman got into his power punches was other worldly. He threw and landed like he had a pair of 10lb weights in fists. It’s not the prettiest style you’ll ever see but Big George was the epitome of blunt force trauma. By the end of the 1st round, the gameplanning Ali did for weeks in camp had gone out the window. There was no dancing to be done here. Not on this floor. Not with this partner.
Ali had found one work around. The lead right hand. While George had come here prepared to shut down Ali’s signature jab, when Muhammad Ali starts leading with his right, George is caught off guard. George juggernauts his way through it and keeps throwing those unnaturally heavy hooks to the body.
Ali resigned himself to doing what most of George’s opponents did. Staying on the ropes and taking a beating. Ali knew he couldn’t run with out burning out his legs. He knew he wouldn’t get far anyway.
So he stopped running.
The dream of him dancing all night was dead. Ali knew by round two the only option he had was to weather the storm and pick his spots. He punched through Foreman’s paddy cake defense where he could. Not that it mattered to George who walked constantly forward like a steamroller of muscle. It was all Ali could do to survive. While his straighter punches could find a home inside Foreman’s wide swings, it didn’t matter.
George came here to flatten an old man. An old man who thought too much of himself. An old man who talked too much. An old man, still called the People’s Champion. George knew he was the villian and like Sonny Liston before him, he embraced his inevitable role. The death those 60,000 people were cheering for was George Foreman’s.
As he got off the plane at the airport Kinshasa, Zaire he was flanked on either side by his dogs. George loved German Shepards. His life not spent boxing, was spent raising and showing the breed. Problem was Zaire used to be a colony called the Belgian Congo.
The Belgians were absolutely ruthless about exploiting the natives. Some of the photos that came from the repressive regime are the most heartbreaking in history. (NSFL)
Part of the enforcement arm of the Belgian regime was a sizeable group of German Shepard police dogs. The cultural faux-paw immediately put George in a bad light with the locals. Who remembered all too well what a German Shepard was capable of when not trained to be good boys like Foreman’s dogs.
Ali did his best to paint Foreman the symbol of the oppressors. And soon Ali was joined on his morning runs by the great throng of the people of Zaire. All chanting “Ali Bomaye” which translates to “Ali, Kill Him” in the local dialect. The crowd explodes with every punch he lands. He plays it up and keeps pouring his poison in Foreman’s ear.
While Ali was loving every second of his African experience, George Foreman hated it. Anybody fighting Ali was going to have the people against him. In the weeks running up to the fight, the crowd calling for his death had started to annoy George Foreman. George took it out on the heavy bags. A different heavy bag every day. Because no bag or man could seem to hold it’s shape with big George beating on them.
Stuck with his back to the ropes, with no particular place to go, the most popular man in the world is starting to look like a 212lb heavy bag stuffed with bone and muscle and organs. Ali did the only thing he could at the moment.
Ali was adapting to Foreman. It might taken a few craters in his kidneys but Ali was learning his lessons. The lead right hand was still finding it’s home. The difference was George couldn’t no sell the punches anymore. Ali wasn’t a knockout artist, but as he will tell you, he’s fast. Any 210lb man with hands that fast is going to put some lumps on you if lands.
George is cutting the ring perfectly. Trapping the faster fighter in along the ropes and denying the greatest heavyweight escape artist his routes to get away. If Ali was going to be cornered, he’d at least be cornered with his dignity. At least he’d be cornered with a plan.
The “Rope a dope” as it’s come to be called wasn’t a strategic choice. It was the only choice.
While Ali’s feet might have been anchored to the ground, he let his hands fly free. Foreman is still playing paddycake trying to to catch Ali’s straighter shots, but Ali knows what he’s looking for now. As Ali’s lead rights took effect you can see the seed of doubt has been planted. The fearlessness is gone. Indecision has crept into the most destructive heavyweight of his age.
George is more and more willing to lean in and commit to checking Ali’s hands as a defense. Problem is with Ali’s speed, a fraction of a second spent leaning in close, meant feeling a pair of blurred fists. Which inevitably ended with a clinch attempt, as Ali gets out of the corner. Ali keeps talking. Keeps watering that seed of doubt.
“You ain’t nothing sucka”
People who talk trash to George Foreman do not go four rounds. Just ask Jose Roman.
Every ticking second was an affront to Foreman’s reputation. Every moment Ali stood defiant made George look less a monster. There are consequences to poking a bear. As round 4 comes to a close, George goes ham with his left hook.
He walks Ali down behind his mummy guard parrying the jab away, before digging into the earth with is feet and Ali’s stomach with his hook. Before coming upstairs with another left between Ali’s gloves. Some how Ali doesn’t fall down and twitch like the 40 other men George hit that hard. As a widow maker of a left hook whizzes by his face.
Ali leans back, grabs hold, and waters that seed of doubt.
“Look at you, you just a girl.”
George had no plan B. Didn’t seem to need one in fairness. Ali got his shots in but George Forman was landing artillery. While Ali’s defensive high guard was far from perfect, it took enough steam out Foreman’s bombs to keep him awake. There was little Ali could do when Foreman went to the body but take it. Just for quick reference here MMA legend Bas Rutten showing what a single right hand to the body can do. For science. I’d bet every penny I have Foreman hits much harder.
While punches to the head are often numbing and disorienting, every boxer knows that body punches are hell on earth. The wind runs from your lungs. The queasy nausea just after impact as your internal organs rehome themselves. The dead weight feeling in the muscle that settles in and takes an age of misery to go away. Blood gathers in his urine.
Of all the hells that might exist, I can think of few worse than being trapped on the ropes by prime George Foreman.
By the end of round 6 Ali water the soil one last time. The seed of doubt is starting to poke through the soil. The widow maker hooks have become wider and slow than ever. As round 6 comes to an end, ALi jabs him self back into a corner as a breathless and battered Foreman can only flail. Foreman is the worst thing in the world to be in a heavyweight title fight. Tired and 6 rounds deep. The 60,000 screaming people calling for you death probably doesn’t help either.
As the round comes to a close Ali tells the world what he sees.
A chant breaks out and the most popular man in the world chants his own name right along with them. The name Ali echoed through the humid kinshasa night. It echoed with a presence not seen before or since. To stand and cheer his own name with Foreman’s vicious body work sitting in his side is nothing short of the act of an iron will.
Muhammad Ali had an unshakable self belief. He it carried with him into far, far too many fights. He believed he was the greatest boxer ever to live. He said so long before he knew it to be the truth. His confidence was a self fulling prophecy.
Foreman still retains his devastating power, but those lead right hands stuck into him like spears at a bull fight. Foreman is a bull with no plan be beyond goring the man in front of him. With all the power rage his can muster Foreman marches forward. He throws the kitchen sink at Ali and lands the most devastating shot in his entire arsenal. If brute force wasn’t working, it’s because he wasn’t using enough.
George Forman’s uppercut is an elevator to god. It picked Joe Frazier and Ken Norton off their feet, not to mention the dozen of less legendary men. This was the only uppercut George on Ali landed all night. Unlike Frazier and Norton, Ali loved to fight upright and leaning back. George is able to land this one is by grabbing onto the back of Ali’s head after a left hook and yanking him down into it.
This is technically illegal. It’s also the best way to land an uppercut if you absolutely have to. George absolutely had to. Every moment the monster grew more tired. More wild. Those lead rights may have been bleeding him dry, but a wounded bull is still a dangerous one.
Ali asks George the question he doesn’t want to answer.
“Is that all you got George?”
George would later confirm, It was about all he had.
Foreman’s hands start sagging. Ali’s jab starts tagging. This directness and precision of Ali’s offense and counter punching have taken over. As big George’s winging left hook sees him nearly fall out of the ring. Ali did his best to help him along.
The most popular man in the world, was led by soldiers to his execution. it was 82 humid degrees and the sun would soon rise as 60,000 people explode with joy at every punch he lands. Muhammad Ali was born to be an icon. Whatever stubborness disregarded all those trainers, converted religions, and took a case to the supreme court. It kept him up here too.
Muhammad Ali rope-a-doped the US government for 3 years in it’s own ring.
What hope did George Foreman have?
Foreman gave every ounce of effort he could conjure. He punched and punched, at something, anything to make Muhammad Ali fall. Ali always seemed to take the steam off them until finally, George had nothing left. Ali grabs a totally depleted Foreman by the back of the head and tells him the truth.
“This is the WRONG place to get tired”
Foreman backs out and steps back in. Ali pings foreman on the point of the chin with a stunning straight right. As Foreman goes reaching for a clinch Ali comes over his shoulder with an overhand right and Foreman falls to the ropes where Ali fins another 2 right hands. Foreman takes half of the ring to fall down.
A quarter of the world’s population watched it live at the time. The youtube version, uploaded in 2010 has over 68 million views. This might be the most famous knockout in the history of combat sports and easily the most watched fight in human history. Because Muhammad Ali was one of the most loved people in human history.
He was a gifted talker. If he was a preacher or teacher he’d have filled out pews or a classroom. He was a fighter. Elegant and fast beyond fast in his youth. He did everything wrong for all the right reasons. As his speed and dominance faded, the world truly began to understand just how stubborn Muhammad Ali was. Ali’s legendary stubbornness was greatest asset both in and out of the ring.
He said he was the greatest before he knew he was. Now with a 2nd generation of monster lying at his quickly slowing feet. Kinshasa, Zaire, the world and all of time and history knew at that point. Muhammad Ali is the greatest heavyweight of all time.
The funeral had been called off.