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29 Oct 2009 08:56
The reminder that yet another anniversary is here had George Foreman thinking that maybe it’s time to visit an old friend.
They once had their differences, once came to blows. Time, though, is a great healer.
“Maybe I should go and see him,” Foreman said.
“He’s like a brother.
They weren’t 35 years ago, on an early morning in Africa when all Foreman had in mind was dealing some serious hurt to Muhammad Ali. He had been in Zaire way too long as it was, and the big, brooding heavyweight champion was in no mood to take any nonsense from anybody.
That included Ali, whom Foreman saw as little more than his next knockout victim.
“I figured no one could stand up to me,” Foreman said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Houston. “I went out there to knock him out.”
Ali had other ideas. Ten years had passed since he shocked the world by winning the heavyweight title against Sonny Liston, and he knew a thing or two about beating a bully.
The great trainer Cus D’Amato had given him a piece of advice for the fight: Hit him as hard as you can with the first punch, Cus said, and let him know you’re there.
Others had tried it, others had failed. But none was Ali.
In Foreman’s dressing room before the fight, the mood was as dark as the African night. This wasn’t going to last long, and the price Ali would pay would be dreadful.
“There’s death in the air,” a Foreman camp member kept shouting.
Back in Ali’s dressing room, the challenger wanted to know what they were saying just before they went to battle.
“They’re saying your kids will soon be in an orphanage,” Ali’s confidante, Gene Kilroy, told him.
“I can’t wait,” Ali thundered. “Let me at him. I’m going to teach George Foreman a lesson.”
We know it now as the Rumble in the Jungle, a fight so epic that it had to have a name just as memorable. Ali coined the name himself, but to boxing fans at the time it was just Foreman versus Ali for the heavyweight title.
It ended up in Zaire because the country’s brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, put up the $10-million purse to bring it there.
It was, he said, his gift to the people for the “honour of the black man” and a way to put the former Belgian Congo on the world map.
Don King was just learning how to promote fights, and got this one mostly because he talked Foreman into signing for a $5-million share of the purse. King was also trying to make some money on the side, selling charter flights to Africa that included hotel rooms and tickets to the fight for $2,500.
He expected 5 000 people to fly from the United States, but then Ali began ranting about being in the jungle and having the natives boil reporters he didn’t like in pots. King was forced to lower the price to $1 500, prompting one scribe to ask whether the people who had already bought packages would get the lower rate.
“Well, we haven’t sold any,” King said.
The claims that one billion people would watch the fight from around the world would turn out to be wildly inflated, too. But the fight between the brutish Foreman and the man who called himself The Greatest was primed to be a major event.
How much of a fight it would be was debatable. Foreman had knocked out his last 24 opponents and spent barely more than 11 minutes in the ring in winning and defending the title twice. He was a 3-1 favourite among Las Vegas bookies, and many feared he would seriously hurt Ali.
Ali, as always, was eager to entertain.
“You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned,” he said.
“Wait till I whup George Foreman’s behind.”
Before Foreman reinvented himself as a lovable lug of a heavyweight, and long before he sold America millions of hamburger grills, he was an angry fighter. Taking his cues from Liston, he scowled at anyone who came close and scared other fighters before they even entered the ring.
Ali, he thought, would be no different.
At a boxing writers’ dinner in New York a few months before the fight, Foreman ripped Ali’s suit and the two had to be pulled apart. As he was escorted out by his handlers, Ali threw water glasses at him, and they smashed to pieces on the ground.
“Ali had no fear of him, no fear,” said Kilroy, who was Ali’s business manager and now is an executive at the Luxor casino in Las Vegas.
Maybe that was because Ali knew something. After the fight was signed he watched tapes of Foreman’s bouts, at one point telling Kilroy to run it back when he saw Foreman lumbering to a corner after knocking Joe Frazier down for the umpteenth time.
“Look! No stamina. No stamina,” Ali shouted.
He would later hint to reporters what would happen, though few believed him. Foreman, he said, would fall flat on his face after the 10th round, felled by sheer exhaustion.
Foreman didn’t pay attention to any of it. He knew he would knock Ali out early. He couldn’t wait to get the chance.
“I just had so much rage,” Foreman said. “It was just the fighter in me. I didn’t know any different.”
The fight was originally set for Sept. 25, 1974, but Foreman was cut in sparring soon after arriving in Zaire. He wanted to go home to heal, but Mobutu’s men weren’t about to let anyone leave before there was a fight.
The heavyweight championship would finally be decided on October 30. The day before, Foreman and Ali made separate trips to the presidential palace to pay homage to the dictator. Ali hugged Mobutu and kissed him on both cheeks, startling the security guards who thought someone would pay for touching the president.
It was 4 a.m. in Zaire when the bell sounded for the first round and Ali came out and did just what D’Amato wanted him to do, landing a big right hand to open the fight. Foreman shook it off and quickly went to work himself, ripping powerful punches to Ali’s head and body.
The same shots had dropped Frazier six times, and stopped Ken Norton in the second round. Foreman was sure Ali would fall, and the time looked ripe in the third round when he landed a savage right hand to Ali’s neck.
“I hit him hard and he looked at me like he was going to fight back, then just covered up,” Foreman recalled. “He figured, ‘I’m not going to let this guy do this to me.’ After the bell he looked up and said ‘I made it, I made it.’ He realized that he had taken the best I had and gotten through it.”
Indeed, Ali had found his way to win. He laid on the ropes, covering up and letting Foreman punch him at will. The “rope-a-dope” may have been born out of desperation, but there was no question what it was doing to Foreman.
He began to tire, just as Ali had predicted. Then, with just seconds left in the eighth round, Ali landed a left hook that snapped Foreman’s head up, then followed it with a right that sent him staggering to the canvas.
The fight was over, but it could have been worse. As Foreman was going down, Ali had the perfect chance to hit him with another right hand, but didn’t.
“He started to do it, then put the gun back in the holster,” Foreman said. “He had mercy on me. Would I have done the same for him at that time? No.”
Foreman had barely gotten off the plane from Zaire when he held a press conference in Paris and called for an investigation of the fight. The ropes had been too loose, he said, the count too quick, the canvas too soft.
It had to be something because there was no way he could have lost, something he had trouble coming to grips with for years. In his 2007 book, God In My Corner, he claimed that someone had spiked his water to drug him into submission.
But he’s done making excuses. Ali, he now says, was simply smarter than he was that day.
“This man could think. He understood I would go out there to try and knock him out,” Foreman said. “But no one had ever knocked him out. Where in the world did I get it in my mind I could knock him out? That’s why I lost.”
Foreman would come back 20 years later to become the oldest man to win the heavyweight title at age 45, knocking out Michael Moorer in an upset almost as huge as the one Ali pulled off in Zaire. He couldn’t have imagined that, just as he could never have imagined becoming hugely rich as a popular pitchman.
“Thirty-five years ago I walked off that canvas thinking I was dead,” Foreman said. “Turns out I hadn’t even begun to live.”
Ali had said he was going to retire after the fight, and Kilroy pleaded with him to do it. But he liked the idea of being heavyweight champion once again.
Ali is muted now, his once magnificent voice not heard publicly in years. He lives mostly in Arizona with his wife, Lonnie, and, though Parkinson’s Syndrome has taken a terrible toll on him, still travels frequently.
Foreman and Ali became friends over the years and until recently would talk on the phone. If there’s a rumour about Ali’s health, one of his daughters will call Foreman to reassure him that things are fine.
He hasn’t seen him in a few years, but thinks it could be time.
“He’s always coming to you, but he’s not getting around well these days,” Foreman said. “I guess I will have to go to him. This will probably push me out the door to find him.”
Foreman knows that he will always be defined by what happened in that faraway ring, but that’s OK now, too. He understands that maybe he was just a part of something with Ali that was much bigger than either of them could understand at the time.
Yes, he lost to Ali in the ring, but in the end he may have gained even more.
“I don’t call him the best boxer of all time,” Foreman said, “but he’s the greatest human being I ever met.”—Sapa-AP
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