• Boxing

Going nine rounds with the Rumble in the Jungle

Steve Bunce October 30, 2014
The Rumble in the Jungle proved to be one of the great fights in boxing's esteemed history © Getty Images

It was forty years ago today that Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman to regain the world heavyweight title in the Rumble in the Jungle.

Ali was a massive underdog against the seemingly invincible Foreman and many feared for the veteran's life. "I smell death in the air," said Archie Moore, the former light-heavyweight world champion who was part of Foreman's team in Zaire.

A lot has been written and said this week about the great fight. So, I'm going to do something different and turn the fight of October 30, 1974 upside down - starting with the exit from Africa and working back to the days and nights in New York before the departure nearly 60 days earlier. Here are nine things you might not have known about The Rumble:

The flight home

Muhammed Ali waves to the crowd on departing Kinshasa © AP

Ali flew to Paris and then to Chicago, leaving Kinshasa two days after the fight. When Ali sat down on the plane, his business manager and close friend, Gene Kilroy, whispered in his ear: "I have a treat for you."

Kilroy, known as the Facilitator, had collected a copy of the fight and it was shown on the plane's television screens.

An uncertain future

Just before leaving, Ali had told the remaining members of the press - some of whom had stayed the duration - that nothing was certain about his future. Ali said: "I intend to haunt the world of boxing for the next six months with the fear that I will retire."

No excuses

Foreman was desolate in the aftermath but did not make a single excuse and actually congratulated Ali on victory, something that is often overlooked.

Foreman, reflecting on the final punches that ended his reign, was brutally honest. He said: "If you are a real professional, you never see the punch that finishes it."

Fighting dirty

The fight finished in round eight but in round seven Ali was having trouble with his right eye, probably from one of Foreman's desperate pushes with the inside of the glove, which is illegal. Ali told Foreman during one of the clinches in round seven: "You're fighting dirty, George. You shouldn't do it."

The forgotten men

Foreman was desolate in the aftermath but did not make a single excuse and actually congratulated Ali on victory

There was only one other fight on the bill and it was won by local idol Shako Mamba when he knocked out Benin's Antonio Oke.

The planned heavyweight fight between Roy Williams and Henry Clark was cancelled at the last minute. The story of that non-fight is worth telling another day, trust me.

Supreme tactician

Larry Holmes was one of Ali's main sparring partners in the months before the fight and travelled to Africa. However, when the fight was temporarily postponed because Foreman was cut in sparring, Holmes was sent back to America.

He was homesick and that meant Williams became the only real sparring partner; Williams, by the way, was the potential architect of the infamous rope-a-dope tactic that fooled Foreman.

Another rival

Ali believed that he could have been facing Ken Norton for the third time and not Foreman for the first time in Africa. Norton had beaten Ali in one of their two fights and was matched against Foreman for the world title in Caracas seven months before The Rumble.

Ali insisted that if Norton had known that the winner would make $5 million for defending his world title against him in Zaire, then he would have won the fight. Norton was blasted in two.

A President's warning

Both fighters met President Mobutu Sese Seko ahead of the fight - but it was Muhammed Ali who got a warning © AP

Before Ali left for Zaire a phone call came through to Kilroy, who was relaxing in Ali's New York hotel suite.

It was from President Mobutu Sese Seko and it was a warning. Ali had threatened any doubters with the cooking pot and the President, not known for his humour, wanted to tell the boxer that cannibalism no longer existed in Africa.

Cold-blooded murder did, however, and there were many reports of bullet holes in the walls and the bloodstained floors at the stadium where the fight took place.

Mind games

And finally, at the last conference in New York, former world champion and American idol Jack Dempsey had been a special guest.

Foreman had not been impressed but Ali was delirious at the appearance. Ali forced a confrontation with the surly champion, who was glowering and trying to intimidate Ali. "Sonny Liston tried that when you were just a little boy - I'm going to whup your ass, too."

Foreman stormed out and Ali turned to the retired champion: "Mr Dempsey, I just won the first round." It was true.

Muhammed Ali won the battle of the press against George Foreman © AP
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Steve Bunce Close
Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.