By Nick Sorrentino
I recently had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the band “The Hours” and their song “Ali in the Jungle.” –Through of all things a Nike commercial.
The song is beautiful and I would encourage everyone to listen to it.
The song inspired me to learn more about the “Rumble in the Jungle,” a fight between Mohamed Ali and George Forman for the heavy weight championship of the world, held in Zaire, now called The Congo, in central Africa in 1974.
It is a fascinating story, and one more people should be aware of whether boxing fan or not.
Don King the notorious boxing promoter got both Ali and Foreman to sign onto a fight if each man was paid 5 million for the fight. The problem was Don King didn’t have 10 million to pay, so he went shopping for a sponsor.
A sponsor emerged from an unlikely source in Mobutu Sese Seko, the brutal dictator of Zaire who came to power a decade and a half before with some CIA help.
Mobuto was an African strong man in the classic sense but sought to divine an alternative way from the Soviet Union and the United States, by emphasizing Zairian nationalism. Basically he was a fascist.
Regardless it was he who came up with the 10 million, and with the help of Panamanian Banks, and God only knows who else the deal was done.
Enter Ali and Foreman.
The 2 men stood in stark contrast to one another.
Ali was a symbol of black pride. His refusal to submit to the draft, and his new membership in The Nation of Islam turned much of white America away from the man who previously had been known as Cassius Clay. In the end Ali was stripped of his title. To many in the African American community and in Africa his personal stand elevated him from sports hero to cultural and political hero.
However, most people did not consider Ali to be the fighter he once was. At the time of the “Rumble” Ali was 32, a little long in the tooth for a fighter.
Foreman, in addition to being 7 years younger was a ferocious fighter. He made Mohamed Ali look slight. Forman was a bulldozer with style and skill, the perfect boxing machine.
Ali had taken another shot at the heavy weight title in 1970 after regaining his sanction to fight in which he lost to Joe Frazier. Additionally he had also lost a lesser fight to Ken Norton between Frazier and the Rumble. Ali could talk a good game, was a great story, but most thought the man was on the way to demolition at the hands of George Foreman.
Foreman, though no patsy for white America, was more palatable to the mainstream generally. He hadn’t made statements against the Vietnam War. He wasn’t a member of the Nation of Islam. He was just a badass fighter of immense talent, but he was a fighter, not a political figure.
For months the 2 trained in equatorial Africa, with the fight scheduled to begin before the rainy season, which would make travel, business, and the fight impossible.
After a major delay, due to Forman sustaining a cut in sparing, the fight finally went off in Kinshasa’s largest stadium, which seated 100,000.
Below the seats in this stadium was Mobutu’s private dungeon. Prior to the fight, as the crime rate increased he had actually rounded up 1000 of the usual suspects and brought them to the stadium, after which he executed 100 of the “criminals” at random. The crime rate went back down.
It is incredible to think that the biggest spectacle in the world was executed in this most developing zone of the developing world. The place bordered on 5th world, yet the developed world converged, on Zairian terms, on African terms, and Ali reveled in it.
While training in Zaire Ali often talked about the fight being a kind of homecoming for him. Africa and much of the developing world felt they had a comrade in Ali, which they did. Foreman was there to fight and get paid, very American.
As Foreman entered the ring he looked invincible. Pure power. A composed tempest. A force. A rolling boulder.
Ali entered as only Ali could full of style and looking crisp. Many of Ali’s people however feared for him. They thought that Ali was about to take the beating of his life. Indeed he would take a beating, but it was part of a plan.
In the first round Foreman quickly put Ali on his heals. Foreman was stronger, bigger, younger, perhaps even quicker, and on the canvas this reality hit Ali’s mind as hard as any connecting punch from his opponent. He was in trouble.
Ali stepped back and went “to the ropes.” He allowed Foreman to beat on him as he leaned back deflecting any knock out punches. Ali’s kidneys got hammered by Foreman’s right hand. The colossus went about destroying Ali’s insides.
This went on for another 7 rounds. Ali took blow after blow, until Foreman punched himself out.
Then in a flurry fueled by the energy Ali had reserved in his “rope-a-dope” strategy Ali landed a series of blows, including one that nearly decapitated the champ. Ali connected and connected and Foreman went down. The fight was called for Ali.
It is arguably one of the top 10 upsets in all major sports. Regardless the story of the “Rumble in the Jungle” is one that has many facets and themes. The politics of it all. The business. The culture of the time. The 2 gladiators. There is much to appreciate. It’s just an amazing story.
Below I have included a link to the first episode of the documentary “When We Were Kings” if you want to learn more about this bit of historical craziness.
In the words of my favorite new band “The Hours…
“It was the greatest comeback since Lazarus… Since Lazarus.”
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