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.
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 49 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.
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 Ali vs Foreman, aka “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Simply put, the former champion did not just lie on the ropes and let Foreman punch himself out. Such a tactic by itself was not enough to make victory possible and would have been suicidal against one of the hardest punchers in boxing history.
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.
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, Ali vs Foreman was decided. The former champ 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.
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 almost five decades ago, remains, arguably, his finest ring achievement. — Michael Carbert