Saturday, October 30, 2010

October 30, 1974: Ali bomaye!

KINSHASA, Zaire - Ali bomaye! Ali bomaye! The chanting had been going on for a month, and it continued the night of the fight. Ali bomaye!

Muhammad Ali had come a long way since returning from his boxing exile. He had been stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing to fight in Vietnam, then was effectively banned from boxing for three years. In that time, he had become villified, both for refusing to go to war and for his religious beliefs. When he was finally allowed to resume boxing, Ali got a chance to reclaim his heavyweight title, but he lost to Joe Frazier in his third fight back.

Licking his wounds, Ali retreated, resigned to fighting also rans to prepare for another shot at Frazier and the title. Two years later, when it seemed like he'd get his chance again, George Foreman beat him to the punch by knocking out Frazier, claiming the title as his own. Foreman's win took a bit of the luster out of the second Ali-Frazier matchup. When Ali won that one, there was only one man left to fight. Foreman was waiting.

Ali bomaye!

In the hot and humid jungle of Zaire, Ali and Foreman trained excessively. Ali had started to regain favor in America as the Vietnam War grew more and more unpopular. He also easily gained the favor of the Congolese people with his outgoing personality, winnign friends everywhere he went. Foreman, on the other hand, was sullen and withdrawn, caring only about training for his fight. When he walked around with German shepherds, the dogs teh Portuguese colonists had used on the Congolese people, that clinched it. Public favor was permanantly on Ali's side. And thus the chanting: Ali bomaye! Ali, kill him.

But how could Ali hope to win, much less knock Foreman out? Ali was eight years older than Foreman and was well past his prime. He was a brawler now instead of a dancer, and aside from Frazier and Ken Norton, his list of conquered opponents hadn't looked too impressive lately. Foreman, meanwhile, seemed invinceable, a heavyweight with one of the strongest punches ever seen. He was indesctructable and capable of knocking somebody out with one punch.

As the Rumble in the Jungle started, fans settled in, expecting a classic. What they saw shocked everybody, including Foreman: Ali was standing in the corner, letting Foreman wail away at him. What was he doing? Why wasn't he fighting back? Instead of the dancing, floating Ali of the past, he was a statue, taking the best shots from the greatest fighter of the day and just letting him have free reign. It looked like suicide.

What it was, though, was a masterful strategy. Ali had devised his "rope-a-dope" strategy specifically for this fight. He knew he couldn't win a traditional boxing match against Foreman, so he had to hope to beat him another way. It appeared that Foreman was inflicting impossible damage on Ali, but in truth, he was barely hurting him. Those vicious jabs and hooks were just missing Ali's head, pounding harmlessly into his kidneys. They looked bad, but they weren't hurting.

Meanwhile, Foreman was tiring. The equatorial heat was stifiling, and the energy he was exerting was immense. When Ali dared escape from his defensive posture, he would throw jabs that landed squarely in Foreman's face, hooks that staggered the champion. Foreman was tiring and growing frustrated. And he was hurting.

Still, though, it seemed like Ali was doing nothing more than fighting to a draw. Foreman sure seemed like he had taken more damage, but he had thrown so many more punches that the fight was basically a draw in the scorecard entering the eighth round. That round was more of the same, Ali retreating to the ropes, Foreman wailing away, that status quo unchanged.

But then something happened. Foreman's punches were losing power. He was acting with less and less authority now. His jabs had nothing left in them. The heat and the exertion and the frustration had gotten to him. It was Ali's turn to strike. And when he did, he did so with ruthless efficiency.

Once Ali noticed Foreman's weakness, it took him five punches to end the fight, five punches to reestablish himself as the greatest heavyweight in the world. A right hook to get himself out from the corner. Two more to put Foreman on the defensive. A left hook to stun the champ, and a right jab as the finishing blow. Five punches in five seconds. It took an extra second for Foreman to fall to the ground, and it was over. The crowd barely had time to cheer.

After losing to Ali, Foreman didn't fight for a year and a half, shocked and saddened by his loss. He started a comeback in 1976 with the intention of getting a rematch with Ali, but it never happened. Foreman fought six more times before surprisingly retiring after a shocking loss in 1977. Ten years later, he came back, resuming his career, and his second boxing career culminated in him becoming the oldest heavyweight champion in history, winning in 1994 at age 45.

After beating Foreman, fought three no-names before beating Frazier again in the Thrilla in Manila. He kept his title for three more years, losing his championship to Leon Spinks in 1978. He regained the title for a third time later that year before giving up the championship voluntarily.

The Rumble in the Jungle remains one of the most famous fights in boxing history. It introduced the world to "rope-a-dope," and reintroduced Ali to the world. The legacy of both fighters was forever changed by that hot night in Kinshasa, and the echoes of "Ali bomaye!" remain in our ears to this day.

The eighth round of the Rumble in the Jungle

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