For over six decades, renowned British sports writer Colin Hart has covered the good, the great, and not so great of sporting events across the world. And back in October of 1974 he witnessed first-hand an historic spectacle unlike any other.
Our story begins several months earlier in Caracas, Venezuela, just before world champ George Foreman was about to annihilate challenger Ken Norton. The British boxing press had gathered for a meeting with Foreman that had been arranged by his publicist, Bill Caplin. But before Foreman vs Norton, there was Foreman vs Hart!
“I used to chain smoke,” said Hart picking up the story. “And Bill arranged for the British media to talk with Foreman poolside at this hotel in Caracas. Hugh McIlvanney was there, Frank McGee, Alan Hubbard, myself, Kenny Jones. Just the Brits. So I was standing at the pool smoking and George came along after keeping us waiting for who knows how long. And in those days his uniform was a pair of dungarees and he had this big afro haircut and his massive body and all his muscles, you didn’t see anything bigger.
“So as he approached, he suddenly shouts at me, ‘Hey you! Put that out.’ And I looked at him. Now I come from the East End of London, so I’m a cheeky bastard and I said, ‘You mean me?’ And he said ‘Yeah, you.’ And I just looked at him and said, ‘Say please.’
“He didn’t say please and we sat down and I was fuming. And he started going on about how proud he was to be an American, which was his hobby horse at the time. Well, in his previous fight he had knocked out a kid called Jose Roman. Lovely guy, but just ridiculous. He was really a light heavyweight. So I got my chance to needle him. I said, ‘George, how could you possibly be proud to beat up on poor little Joe Roman?’ Now he’s already taken the burn with me anyway, and his big hand, like a shovel, opened and was coming in my direction. But Bill intervened and said, ‘Cut it out, you two.'”
It was the start of a not-so-beautiful friendship that would have a happy ending, but more on that later.
Caracas, the capital of Venezuela had been the location for a press conference to announce that an Ali vs Foreman showdown had been signed and sealed. Cue the event’s promoter, Don King. The confidence of King was such that this fight had been made before the champion had even fought Norton. Not that they had anything to worry about in the end. The only concern was how the American braggadocio was going to raise the ten million dollar purse that had been promised to the fighters.
King didn’t have the money. But a trip to Mayfair, London sparked the relationship between King and President Mobutu of Zaire that would lead to “The Rumble in the Jungle.” King happened to visit the office of John Bailey, who, with the actor David Hemmings, ran a company called Hemdale, which had contacts in Zaire. The fast-talking King then persuaded Mobutu to put up the money for Ali vs Foreman. Mobutu thought it was a great idea, as the world knew little about Zaire. Not only would the event put Zaire on the map, the big heavyweight showdown would also put plenty of tourist dollars into Mobutu’s coffers. But back to Hart and Venezuela:
“We turned up (in Caracas) and there was this strange looking guy with his hair standing up on end like he’d seen a ghost and of course it was my first encounter with Don King. And on either side of the strange-looking guy were two sinister-looking Africans. Now I’d never bloody heard of Kinshasa and then he [King] added ‘And the fight will start at four am.’ I nearly fell off my chair laughing, thinking, ‘Who is this clown?’ And of course, months later, there I was ringside at four o’clock in the morning.”
Hart and the rest of the sporting media went out to cover the fight for the scheduled date of September 25th, flying through Paris to get to Kinshasa. “Which wasn’t the most pleasant of flights, I can assure you.”
Upon arriving, a bus took Hart and company thirty miles up the road to N’Sele, a district of Kinshasa where President Mobutu had something of a summer palace that had been built for him by the Chinese communist party. When Hart arrived and trudged off the bus he and the rest of the journalists were met by Larry Merchant, then a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.
“As we’re walking into N’Sele, Larry’s saying ‘Fight’s off guys, fight’s off.’ And of course we thought he was taking the piss because we were pretty tired and bedraggled. But sure enough, when we got there we found out Foreman had caught an elbow in sparring that cut his right eye and the fight was called off for six weeks.”
Everyone feared Mobutu did not want to let the fighters, or the media, leave the country because there was a feeling that if Foreman, in particular, had left, he wouldn’t have come back. Simply put, George didn’t like Zaire one bit. Meanwhile, Hart at first stayed in N’Sele as planned, but it wasn’t long before Kinshasa seemed a more pleasing destination to bed down.
“I’ve been in some shit places in my time, but in N’Sele, I spent the time watching the fucking lizards climb the walls! All the British writers thought, ‘Fuck that, we’ll stay in Kinshasa.’ And Foreman soon got out of N’Sele and stayed in a hotel too.”
As the big fight neared, Hart began thinking that Muhammad Ali might just have what it took to pull off a most improbable victory, a feat many at the time thought impossible. In fact, some feared the former champ could end up in the hospital or even the morgue. But Hart thought differently. Now what prompted this contrarion view? The bizarre media buffet lunches which included monkey meat and chocolate coated caterpillars? No, a gut feeling. And a chat with Bob Waters, who then worked for Newsday in New York.
“Bob was a very well respected boxing writer so I said to him over a drink: ‘Bob, you’re going to laugh at me but I’ve a gut feeling Ali can win this fight.'”
To Hart’s surprise, Waters replied, “So do I. And I’m going for it.”
“Really? Why?” replied the Brit.
“Foreman hasn’t got any stamina,” said Waters. “I was ringside in California the night he fought a guy called [Gregorio] Peralta, who was a built-up light heavyweight. I was near Foreman’s corner and he did not want to go out for the last round. He was fucked, exhausted. Not that he was scared of the guy, but he couldn’t lift his arms up. And they had to shove him out for the last round.”
“‘Well,’ I said to Waters, ‘you’ve made up my mind for me, Bob.’ Because nobody was braver than Ali. Nobody had a better chin, nobody had more nous in the ring than Ali and I thought he’d dance, tire Foreman out, and knock him out in round nine. That was my prediction. I got the result right, but I got the tactics completely wrong! He went to the ropes because he realized that dancing in that heat just wouldn’t work. Although the fight started at four in the morning, it was eighty degrees outside the ring and much more inside.”
Ali had talked of a special plan, one that even his trainer Angelo Dundee claimed to know nothing about. As we all know, Ali went to the ropes and let the angry and confused champion wail away at any part of the challenger’s body. Bit by bit Foreman was being softened up. Only Ali knew what he was doing.
“Watching from ringside, I wrote: He’s just signed a suicide note,” recalls Hart.
But the strength was draining from Foreman, round by round. The genius of Ali was winning, despite his taking a pounding to the arms and body. The lights were about to go out on the reign of a monstrous power-puncher who was feared in the same way Liston and Louis were.
“And in that eighth round, Ali decided now’s the time to go for it,” says Hart. “And when he landed that combination and spun round and Foreman went down, I did something which I admit was very unprofessional. I was so elated for Ali, and that I’d been proved right when everyone had told me I was mad, I leapt out and punched the air. And I’ve told young sports writers time and time again, to use an American term from a very famous American book, ‘No cheering in the press box.’ But I couldn’t help myself that night. Never done it before, never done it since.”
Celebration and shock were in the air but so was a monsoon. The heavens opened. Had they waited another hour, there might never have been a fight and a chance for Ali to win back his title. As Hart returned to his hotel, the rain began filling the car that he and other writers had been taken back in. Children could be seen swimming in the streets, such was the downpour.
Amidst all the hysteria, Ali was the calmest man of all. He had proved everyone wrong. Foreman took the defeat harder than the knockout he suffered. The once ferocious leader of the heavyweight division was gone for over a year.
“He suffered from a deep depression,” said Hart. “It had never happened to him before. The very fact he’d lost and on such a momentous occasion got to him mentally and he was never the same man again.”
And the new Foreman would confront Hart years later in Houston, during the build-up to Salvador Sanchez vs Pat Cowdell. Bill Caplin convinced Hart to meet Foreman for lunch, despite his reluctance. The Writer vs the Fighter, part two.
“The day of the lunch I’m in the lobby of a hotel and I’m smoking and suddenly I hear this big voice boom out from behind me, ‘Hey you! Put that out!’ And I turned round and there he was, grinning all over his face and that’s what broke the ice. And years later he gave me a copy of his book By George and he signed it, ‘To Colin Hart, Put that cigarette out, from George Foreman.'”
– Shaun Brown