Humbled in the jungle

An Irishman’s Diary about the 40th anniversary of a famous fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman

I met George Foreman once. He was in his latter-day incarnation by then – as preacher, entrepreneur, and very wealthy frontman for the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine (which his physique suggested he didn’t use quite enough himself).

But because of the events of half an hour once – 40 years ago today – he was still world-famous for being a loser. So I asked him if he ever resented the way the so-called Rumble in the Jungle had defined his life.

The reply, in summary, was “no”, although I can’t remember anything else about it now. He must have faced variations of the question a million times. But he dealt with it in the same relentlessly genial tones as he did everything else. He was a big, lovable teddy bear of a man. It was hard to believe he had ever thrown a punch.

Muhammad Ali has been contrastingly quiet in recent decades, due to well-advertised health problems, completing a role reversal for both fighters since that epochal night in Kinshasa on October 30th, 1974.


Even by his own standards back then, Ali was extraordinarily voluble before and during the bout. It was as if he was delivering a masterclass to a younger opponent who had had the temerity to claim the world title ahead of his time.

And although the main lessons came wrapped in gloves – from the right-hand leads with which Ali shocked Foreman in the opening three minutes, to the slick lefts and combinations of later rounds – there was a big oral component as well. Between throwing flurries of punches, the 32-year-old professor continually grabbed his student by the neck and pulled him close, partly to stop Foremen hitting back, partly to shout instruction in his ear. “Is that all you got, George?” he taunted. “You disappointment me, George.”

So notorious have Ali’s “rope-a-dope” tactics become in the years since that, rewatching the fight, it’s a surprise to see how superior he was in every respect. He was certainly far quicker than Foreman, whose preparations had been hampered by injury and who looked ominously tired from early on. But he was also much more accurate.

Commenting after round four, John Daly – the London film producer who was one of the event’s co-sponsors – declared presciently that Ali would win within eight rounds. In fact, he nearly finished it in the fifth, with a brilliant late counter-attack.

There then followed a ringside drama, when officials tried to tighten the ropes on which Ali was almost lying, but were repelled by cornerman Angelo Dundee.

The rest of the fight – calm by boxing standards – was like a violent version of The Old Man and the Sea. Ali's fisherman just let Foreman's Giant Marlin play itself out at the end of the line, until he could safely land him in round eight.

Like the marlin, Foreman was already a shadow of his former self by then. In contrast with Ali, who was mobbed by what must have been the largest crowd ever to squeeze into a boxing ring, he retreated to his dressing room a lonely figure.

Foreman never regained his pre-fight status. There was no rematch. And although he would in time become the oldest man to win a version of the world title, the barrel-like frame with which he did it was in comically inverse proportion to the state heavyweight boxing had been reduced to by then.

Ali may have deliberately avoided a Foreman rematch. He should probably have avoided meeting Joe Frazier – who was ringside in Zaire – again too. Instead they took their increasingly personal rivalry to a brutal conclusion, nearly killing each other in the 1975 “Thrilla in Manilla” – one of several fights too many for Ali.

There’s a poignant moment (at least it seems so now) in footage from the Rumble where, after leaving the ring and before sitting down for a press conference, Ali glances at a mirror, confirming himself to be physically unblemished, as usual, despite Foreman’s attempts to rearrange his pretty features.

Foreman, by contrast, had finished with a puffy face, unused to being hit so often. And he was always a glowering figure back then, even in victory.

But earlier this week, with his now typical self-deprecation, he joked on Twitter: “Is that all you got George? Yep Ali, that was all”. He also assured his nemesis that he loved him. Cast 40 years ago and forever as one of sport’s biggest losers, Foreman learned to smile. All things considered, he has plenty to smile about.