In honor of the impending heavyweight fight of the millennium between Wladimir Klitschko and Tyson Fury, or at least what we the people do hope to see out of this injury delayed fall dustup, let us recall the memories of one of the most poorly organized, yet all time heroic heavyweight fall classics of the modern era that had a similar injury delay. That would be The Rumble In The Jungle, George Foreman vs Muhammad Ali back in 1974, 41 amazing years ago.
What a horrible place to hold a fight, a 3rd world, backwater African state, Zaire, run by a brutally unrepentant kleptocrat, Mobutu. Out of the billions he stole from his impoverished, terrorized people, his $5 million guaranteed purse each for George and Ali was but mere miscellaneous loose change rattling round his pockets, yet the publicity turned out to be priceless for Mobutu.
We know now that the conditions were even worse than we suspected back then. To put it bluntly in modern hindsight, Big George was never going to beat Ali in Zaire. All the cards were stacked against him from the gitgo when all The Fates and half the Zaire locals conspired to shove pins into his voodoo mockup doll likenesses to weaken his spirit. As soon as he arrives, the locals were already riled up against him after having Ali whip up their animosity over the many weeks before. “Ali boma ye,” screamed out at him, translated as “Ali kill him,” and those shouts tormented the Big Guy wherever he went from his first to last day in Zaire. During the wrap up of the acclimation and training process, a light sparring session typically consisting of generally going through the moves with the fight so close, he was suddently caught a strategically placed elbow speared across his brow, a really nasty gash that delayed the fight some 5 weeks. He’s now stuck in a country ruled by the brutal Motubu who has invited the challenger, Ali, to live and be feted in the presidential palace while George, the champ, is put up in a local army barrack so as to properly know his place in this fight.
Thousands of AK47 packing soldiers are milling about everywhere, feasting their eyes on him, waiting for any untoward move that their president might not like. He’s not allowed to leave the country to seek treatment in France, in effect being held a hostage in a dangerous, hostile environment. Obviously he cannot spar and risk reopening the cut, so his training is reduced to the heavy bag and runs. At least he eventually managed to upgrade his living quarters to the local hotel, a big step forward for civilization in this backwater.
Then Angelo Dundee loosens the ropes before the fight as he tried to do against Frazier in the Fight of the Century three years earlier. The ring is built over the prison and his dressing room is in a dungeon where untold thousands were tortured to death. How many echos of the dead and dying rang out for the sensitive Big Man, billed by era tabloid boxing media as some kind of monstrous, primeval beast in spite of having a philosophical, religious sort of fun loving sensitivity that he was never credited with until he later returned from his self imposed decade of exile. The bout is held in the dead of the early morning hours, 4 AM local time so as to be broadcast primetime hours on closed circuit TV in America. Some 60,000 screaming African meemmies in the stands add to his uneasiness.
Jeez, he’s been held hostage in Africa for ages now and the fight has yet to start.
Now George is desperate to fight so he can vacate this hellhole. His trainer, Dick Saddler, had been using a neat trick guaranteed to make Foreman especially brutal in quicktime when the bell rang by dehydrating and starving him before the weighin, rendering him crazy mad before launching him on hapless opponents. Only this time just before fight time, Saddler gives him a small bottle of water that George greedily inhales before spitting the remnants out it was so foul tasting.
When I saw the opening minutes of the fight, George looked like some kind of dead zombie, so much so that my first thoughts were screaming out inside of me that he was drugged. George Plimpton had a similar reaction as noted by his friend Norman Mailer when he screamed out at ringside that the fight was fixed after seeing George lurch around like a clumsy mummy, ironically Ali’s nickname for him, as Ali peppered him with rapidfire nothing shots that scored points. After a few rounds, George seemed to shake off his stupor and get into the fight to really lay it on Ali, some really vicious body shots that Ali later admitted to his biographer had him out on his feet a couple times, yet a few rounds later Big George tired almost to a standstill. Just as announcers were certain that George had punched himself out and was done, he got his second wind and returned to pound on Ali in the 8th. As Foreman trapped Ali on the ropes, he threw a left hand that Ali slipped. The missed momentum of the punch left George awkwardly facing down over the ring apron with his neck stretched over the rope, about the most vulnerable position a tired fighter could ever wish to never be in.
Now, Ali had been looking really hard at this shot the whole fight every time George missed, yet always held back, holding back, and keep on holding back until now, the perfect moment in time during a really brutal fight. Ali jumped on it. He delivered a beautifully timed right handed rabbit punch to the back of George’s noggin that violently compressed his throat, neck arteries, and veins against the top rope resulting in a momentary loss of blood flow to the brain with a localized spike of blood pressure as George rebounded off the ropes in a crazy, hazy, daze of confusion. Quick as a flash Ali finished with a highlight combination for the ages that has been shown a billion times no doubt, culminating in a perfect right hand to George’s temple as he did a lurching pirouette on the way to the canvas.
No dramatist could ever dream up such a scenario as the great monster lay wounded, the first time he had ever touched the canvas as amateur or pro. George was cognizant though, watching his corner for instructions as he was trained to do, so when they signaled to rise, he rose after 9 secs on the clock had lapsed, however the ref, Zach Clayton, waved him off, leaving him in effect as it turned out, permanently frozen out of the title picture by Ali. It was never supposed to end like that for such powerful 25 year old fighter, and it shouldn’t have ended like that, but it did.
As an unrated 19 year old 1968 Mexico Olympic hopeful, Big George competed at the grueling altitude of some 7200 foot altitude tainted with some really bad smog with no problems, winning the gold medal in spectacular knockout style, the ultimate natural fighting man. After this fight, his critics forever stereotyped him as the big slugger with stamina problems who couldn’t go the distance and quit boxing.
The newly reincarnated Ali had defied all the odds for the 2nd time in his career, but almost immediately collapsed in the aftermath for a 30 count that gave great cause for concern by his team. Ali’s personal physician, Ferdie Pacheco, flatly stated that Ali took far too much punishment in that bout, that it was too risky for him to fight George ever again.
Ali in his Playboy interview after the fight says he was offered $7.5 million for the Foreman rematch in Djakarta, Indonesia, by a black oilman who wanted to promote his country, yet five months later for $1.6 million he’s going against a liquor salesman, Chuck Wepner, in Richfield, Ohio of all places, pretty much proving Ferdie’s point. George was out of the picture and Ali was willing to fight much easier fights in Podunkville, except that he never made them look easy because he could no longer train so exquisitely as he had been able in his prime, generally a tubby shadow of his best.
After moping around in a depressive funk over being unable to secure the Ali rematch, something George had already stated he wanted the immediate rematch in the post fight interview, Ali remained as uncommitted as he was in his post fight interview when he put the questioner off. So finally George starts to regroup from scratch. On April, 26th, 1975, he waged a remarkable exhibition against Alonzo Johnson, Jerry Judge, Terry Daniels, Charley Polite, and Boone Kirkman at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada, broadcast on ABC Wide World of Sports. Foreman knocked out Johnson, Judge, and Daniels, but Polite and Kirkman were able to survive all three rounds. Ringside commentator Howard Cosell, repeatedly deplored the event as an embarrassment, a circus sideshow act, yet there he was in Toronto in his official capacity complete with yeller ABC sport jacket droning endlessly in melodramatic maliciousness as George took on the five. Muhammad Ali, who was working the ringside next to Cosell, repeatedly heckled Foreman as the crowd of about 5,500 alternately booed and cheered Foreman throughout. Occasionally they even stirred up for some chants that Ali led. At least they had a wonderful time, but not Big George with Ali and the press demeaning him.
Ali finally got so worked up as he often did during the “theatrical” portions of his career, that he turned outright nasty, jumping up to call George horribly vile things, screaming over and over that he was never going to get a rematch as security restrained him from entering the ring. Thought Howie was sure to lose his toupee in the ruckus. Would’ve been hilarious and offset Howie’s suffocatingly, overbearing officiousness as well as add contrast to Ali’s vicious outbursts.
So he publicly refused to rematch Big George, yet there he was in Tokyo at the start of the very next year in the most pitiful boxing “exhibition” by a world champ ever seen against renown Japanese martial artist, Antonio Inoki, who had to be repeatedly pulled off Ali all night in this 15 rounder by American judo legend Gene Labelle. Because of the stifling rules limitations on him, Inoki was mostly reduced to a crab like scurrying around the ring on his back as he repeatedly kicked out Ali’s left leg, taking him down twice and hurting him so badly that he ended up in the hospital on a death watch. Ali never landed the few punches he attempted, his best offensive effort being an extension of his Toronto screaming mimmies, ie, “Inoki girl, Inoki girl” epitaphs. Docs ended up debating on whether to amputate his legs to prevent leg clots from breaking loose that could hurtle fatally into his brain. Ali managed to dodge the biggest bullet of his career in the end to return somewhat shakily to boxing. That fight did him no favors at all as far as his overall health and declining abilities in the ring showed.
Tyson Fury of course has a long ways to go to match up to the legends of Ali and Big George, but folks have an unfortunate way of forgetting that they also started off without legendary status in the beginning. Wlad has certainly earned legendary status as he enters the Joe Louis legendary heavyweight title record domain. His longstanding problem in the US/UK market was of being the wrong color, the wrong nationality, the wrong intelligence, and beating up Americans so badly in his reign they finally relinquished over 100 years of heavyweight superiority for something akin to Grade C inferior status.
Now Wlad may have an opportunity of an exciting career signature fight against Fury, who despite his woeful critics, is one of the most genuine “true fighters” in this dying era filled with posers and other pussyfooted, featherdusters. Fury is equipped with plenty of physical attributes, swag, size, and reach, that of being 6-9 in height with a 85″ reach backed a general weight range of 245-260 lbs.
He’s not limited to size either in that his stamina has never failed him, nor his chin, nor his punches. He has a high work rate for big men, and thus far, his ring IQ has pulled him out of the few mistakes he has made that give rabid succor to his sworn critics. He’s young, he’s cocksure, he’s breezy about the chance. Plenty of fans are sleeping on this fight, convinced he’ll be easy work for Wlad. Possibly, but if he steps out of his own considerable shadow with his personal best ever fight, could be a long era of history ended and a new history begun. It’s a long stretch to think this fight could ever match the Rumble in the Jungle, but boxing has a strange history of the biggest upsets that nobody expects.