We tend to believe we live in the most important of times — that everything that happens around us is the biggest, the greatest, the best there ever was. This is one of the consequences of social media, where on any given day an obscure man or woman cursing out a flight attendant becomes the most important event of the day.
Thank goodness they last just as quickly as they appear, and then we move on to the next viral moment.
The big events are the ones that, decades after they took place, still make us stop and remember the moment, where we were, what it meant. And for those who didn’t walk the earth yet when they happened, or were just learning to walk, the stories make them envious of what they missed.
So boys and girls, gather around, and let me tell you a story about one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century that took place in the heart of Africa — a battle between the greatest sports icon of the century and a fearsome opponent who would later become the greatest television pitch man of all time.
That’s a lot of great, I know. But the “Rumble in the Jungle” 45 years ago Wednesday — Oct. 30, 1974 — was as great as it gets. There has not been another like it since.
It was the night Muhammad Ali changed his narrative from pariah to prince of the world by stopping the unstoppable George Foreman.
Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military draft during the Vietnam War, claiming he was a conscientious objector. He was convicted of draft evasion and his title was taken away from him by boxing governing bodies. State legislators refused to license him to fight anywhere in the United States for 3½ years, until he finally returned to the ring in Atlanta in 1970 to fight Jerry Quarry, who he stopped in three rounds. Ali would later win an appeal of the conviction before the Supreme Court.
That set up the Fight of the Century — Ali, who remained undefeated, versus Joe Frazier, who had become the heavyweight champion in Ali’s absence and was also undefeated, at Madison Square Garden. Frazier put Ali on the canvas in the 15th and final round. He got up, but would lose the decision to Frazier.
While this was going on, George Foreman, who had won the gold medal as an American heavyweight at the 1968 Olympics, was putting together an impressive undefeated record, and would challenge Frazier for the championship in 1973. He stopped Frazier in two rounds, knocking him down six times.
Foreman was now the heavyweight champion and a frightening fighter. He knocked out Joe Roman in two minutes in his first title defense, Then he faced Ken Norton, who had beaten Ali and broken his jaw in their fight earlier in the year in a win. He knocked out Norton in two rounds.
His next fight would be against Ali — in a show put on by a new and controversial promoter, Don King, who convinced the ruler of the African nation of Zaire to put up $10 million as a purse to be split between the two fighters and play host to the fight.
The world would come to Zaire to record this remarkable event — a heavyweight title fight of this magnitude not at Madison Square Garden or Las Vegas, but in a small African country ruled by a ruthless dictator. It was perhaps the greatest story the sporting world had ever seen, and it brought a press corps that included authors Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson, Budd Schulberg and many others.’
“I’ve covered a lot of fights in my life,” Schulberg, one of the great American writers of the 20th century (“On The Waterfront,” and “The Harder They Fall,” among his great film scripts), told me in an interview. “That fight, though, was the most dramatic and unusual one I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think anyone else had ever been through anything like that before or since. It was an amazing event.”
But many people believed it might wind up being a funeral. They feared for Ali’s safety against the likes of Foreman, who seemed indestructible. “People thought he would kill Ali,” Wali Muhammad, a long-time member of Ali’s camp, told author Thomas Hauser in the book “Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times.”
Bernie Yuman, a friend of Ali’s who was in the dressing room the night of the fight, told Hauser, “We were shaking like leaves.” To which Ali responded with a smile, “This ain’t nothing but another day in the dramatic life of Muhammad Ali,” he told everyone. “Do I look scared?”
Then Ali, 32, shocked the world, as he had done in 1964 when he stopped Foreman’s idol, Sonny Liston, 10 years earlier to win the heavyweight championship. Instead of his trademark style of dancing and moving around the ring, Ali went to the ropes and absorbed seven rounds of Foreman’s best shots, until the champion was exhausted and went down in the eighth round from an Ali chopping right hand.
The perception of Ali — one of the most polarizing figures of the Vietnam War era — changed that night. His win over the 25-year-old Foreman revealed his heart to the world, and he would later become an internationally beloved figure, lighting the OIympic torch representing the very country that tried to put him in jail, in Atlanta in 1996. Ali died 20 years later in 2016.
“The fight redefined Ali’s career,” Schulberg said.
It’s a good thing it happened 45 years ago. It would have been too big to reduce to today’s byte-size scale.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.