Oct. 30, 1974: Ali vs Foreman

In 1974, George Foreman reigned supreme. The previous year he had astonished the sports world with his terrifying demolition of Joe Frazier, knocking Smokin’ Joe to the canvas six times in less than two rounds and instantly putting the fear of God into all other heavyweight contenders. His first defense was a “gimme,” a one round blowout of Jose Roman, but his next match in March of ’74 was viewed as a potentially stern test, a showdown with Ken Norton who had proved his mettle in two tough battles with Muhammad Ali.

Foreman's brutal stoppage of Frazier shocked the boxing world.
Foreman’s brutal stoppage of Frazier shocked everyone.

If anyone had any lingering doubts about the sheer potency of Foreman’s power, they were erased once the formidable, 215 pound Norton turned into a rag doll after absorbing a few of Big George’s uppercuts and haymakers. The massacre ended in the second, which made it the eighth bout in a row to be decided by Foreman in either the first or second round. The man was overwhelming and unstoppable, a destructive force of immense power.

With these facts in mind, it remains impossible for Muhammad Ali to receive too much credit for what he accomplished in Zaire, Africa 45 years ago today. Foreman was invincible, the most devastating puncher since Joe Louis, younger, stronger, and a five-to-one favorite. Before the match many of “The Louisville Lip’s” fans were sincerely fearful for Ali, worried the awesome champion might actually maim or kill him.

MUHAMMAD-ALI-GEORGE-FOREMAN-ZAIRE-AFRICA-1974-FRAMED-ORIGINAL-POSTER-1-693x800

But then “The Greatest” marched out and completely outclassed Big George, reducing him in the last few rounds to a stumbling, bumbling amateur reaching in vain for Ali’s head as if to hold him still for just one second as his wily nemesis leaned away and clipped him with staccato-like counter shots, harmless-looking blows, but on an exasperated Foreman, increasingly potent. Much has been made of the final right hand which produced the knockout in round eight, but in fact it was the cumulative effect of all the punches before it, and Ali’s astonishing display of ring acumen, which determined the outcome. Along with his dismantling of Sonny Liston ten years before, this was, in terms of skill and tactics, Muhammad Ali’s finest ring performance.

It should now be mandatory for anyone composing a list of the biggest myths in boxing to install in the top five — in addition to Joe Louis needing a knockout to win against Billy Conn, and Willie Pep winning a round without throwing a single punch — Foreman’s defeat to Ali being the result of the vaunted “Rope-a-Dope” strategy. In this writer’s opinion, few boxing matches are as misunderstood as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Simply put, Ali did not just lie on the ropes and let Foreman punch himself out. This tactic alone was not enough to win and would have been suicidal against one of the hardest punchers in boxing history.

Ali shakes his head
A confident Ali shakes his head at George at the end of round two.

Before the match, many in Ali’s entourage feared the worst. His personal physician, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, had quietly arranged for a plane to be standing by to take Ali to Spain for emergency medical treatment in the event of a serious brain injury. And in the somber dressing room of the challenger, as Ali donned his robe and prepared to leave for the ring, someone reached out for his hand and wished him “Good luck.”

“Luck?” sneered Ali. “No, man. Skill!”

Indeed, it was boxing skill and ring intelligence which defeated Foreman, let no one tell you otherwise. After a frantic and surprisingly action-packed opening round, Ali understood what was required to master the feared power puncher and simply went about the task of humbling Big George, albeit in a most surprising manner.

The widespread myth of Ali vs Foreman says otherwise. It insists Ali lost almost every minute of the fight as he stood there and absorbed Foreman’s power shots before the champion finally succumbed to exhaustion. But the truth is Ali won perhaps six of the completed seven rounds as he put on a clinic in advanced boxing technique, using excellent defense, superior hand-speed, clinches, feints, perfectly timed counter-punches, and just about every trick in the book to neutralize Foreman’s advantages in strength and power.

Only in the fifth round did Ali actually do what the legend insists he did for the entire fight: cover up on the ropes and absorb punishment. By that point, Foreman was tiring and his punches lacked snap; the cagey challenger was simply draining George’s gas tank along with what was left of his confidence. Fearing the worst, Ali’s fans screamed themselves hoarse during that round, exhorting him to get off the ropes, but despite appearances, he remained in complete control. Most of Foreman’s shots were blocked and when the champion did manage to land a solid blow, the iron-tough Ali taunted him by pausing to ask, like an oenophile comparing vintages, if that was George’s best.

Could Ali have beaten Foreman in a street fight?
Foreman down in the eighth.

With thirty seconds left in the round and his fans fearing Ali on the cusp of oblivion, “The Greatest” miraculously came to life, peppering Foreman with those light, quick blows before straightening him up with a pair of sharp jabs and then, with the massive crowd going berserk, landing five hard counter right hands as Foreman flailed about. Just before the bell Ali had Foreman in a headlock and over the champion’s back, with the stadium in bedlam, he winked and stuck his tongue out at Joe Frazier, his old nemesis, who had picked Foreman to win and now sat ringside as a broadcast commentator, hardly believing what he was seeing.

At that moment, the contest was decided. Ali took his time, waited for the right moment, and in the eighth round struck with a series of blows punctuated by a perfectly placed straight right. Foreman collapsed, failed to beat the count, and Muhammad Ali, to the astonishment of everyone, had regained the title stripped from him for his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War. Under a pale African moon, with a massive throng chanting “Ali Bomaye!” and millions more watching on closed-circuit television, it was a night unlike any other in boxing history.

Challenger Muhammad Ali raises his arms in victory after defending champion George Foreman is counted out by referee Zack Clayton, ending the WBA/WBC championship bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974. Ali regains the crown as the undisputed heavyweight world champion by KO in the eighth round of their fight dubbed 'Rumble in the Jungle.' (AP Photo)
Ali’s great triumph.

Sadly, with the passing years, Ali’s great triumph has been reduced to little more than a much-used sports cliché. The champion himself is partly responsible for this. In the title defenses which followed, he often reverted to a masochistic parody of his Zaire performance, lying on the ropes and allowing younger fighters to pound away at him. He had the heart and iron chin to withstand the punishment, but the cost in later years would prove tragic. Despite this we can look back now and appreciate anew the true brilliance of his performance against Foreman, knowing that it involved far more than loose ropes and Ali’s astonishing durability, but also the skill of a truly great fighter, whose upset victory more than four decades ago, remains, arguably, his finest ring achievement.       — Michael Carbert

10 thoughts on “Oct. 30, 1974: Ali vs Foreman

  • October 31, 2015 at 6:24 am
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    Great article, and I wholly agree re: the ‘rope a dope’ strategy. Having watched and enjoyed the film “When We Were Kings’ (which propagates the ‘rope a dope’ myth) I was surprised when I finally watched the whole fight just how dominant Ali was in every round.

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  • October 30, 2016 at 10:07 pm
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    This fight demonstrates why Ali was the best fighter that the world has ever seen.

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    • May 14, 2021 at 1:14 pm
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      No he wasn’t, but he’s on the short list. He lost to Joe Frazier when he was in his prime. He should have lost the rematch, as well. He struggled against Ken Norton. Earnie Shavers took him the distance. Ali was not the greatest boxer. He was the greatest showman, and was a transcendent character in a tumultuous time. He is certainly one of the greats, but he lost too many fights against good opponents to get the title of the GOAT.

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      • September 5, 2021 at 6:34 pm
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        What you pointed out is 100 percent correct.

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  • October 3, 2017 at 5:00 pm
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    What a good read, great stuff.

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  • July 7, 2019 at 10:36 am
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    I love Ali but for this fight you have to watch it in slow motion to truly see what Ali is doing and how he punishes Foreman. Ali would joke about how fast he was, but it truly was no joke at all.

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  • July 1, 2020 at 4:19 pm
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    The thing people must realize is that Foreman was in his prime when he locked up with Frazier and Ali, while both were at the end of their primes. But Ali still won. Just goes to show how great he truly was.

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  • February 23, 2021 at 6:49 pm
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    In all fairness to George, he didn’t get to spar before the fight because of the cut over his eye and his cornermen were unsupportive and unprofessional. Plus, George beat the count but the ref stopped the fight anyway. Ali wouldn’t give George a rematch because he knew next time he wouldn’t win. Not taking anything away from The Greatest, but on a different night, it would have been a different outcome.

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    • November 26, 2021 at 5:50 am
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      Foreman did not beat the count. This is yet another canard. The broadcaster, Bob Sheridan, mis-counted, as he has said many times. To quote Sheridan exactly: “I blew the call.”

      Excellent article about the GOAT, whose best years (age 25 to almost 29) were denied him by the authorities.

      Reply

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