Forty-three years ago, many said the fight between undisputed heavyweight champion of the world George Foreman and former titleholder Muhammad Ali was a mismatch. A few weeks before the bout took place on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, ABC sports broadcaster Howard Cosell spoke of the match in hushed tones, suggesting Ali was engaging in his “Last Supper”.
“The time may have come to say goodbye to Muhammad Ali, because very honestly, I don’t think he can beat George Foreman,” said Cosell a few weeks before the fight took place.
Ali, seated near Cosell during the broadcast, shook his head and muttered, “You’re crazy.”
The New York Times agreed with Cosell.
“Ali will be out in the first round,” they wrote.
“George could hurt him badly,” said the novelist Budd Schulberg.
Foreman liked what he was hearing.
“People telling me, ‘There’s never been a puncher like you, George. All those compliments, I started eating them. I’m gonna fight Muhammad Ali–he’s the least of all these guys. I’m not nervous.’”
In his fourteen years as a professional fighter, Ali had never faced anyone as seemingly indestructible as Foreman.
And that includes Charles “Sonny” Liston, whom Ali defeated twice in the 1960s.
Like Ali, Foreman was an Olympic gold medalist.
He was undefeated in 40 fights, scoring 37 knockouts. Foreman was a human wrecking ball. His power was scary. There were rumors that Foreman was forced to pay his sparring partners double the going rate. He pounded on whoever had the nerve to get into the ring with him.
This writer, in high school at the time, was in the bleachers at the Alameda Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, CA. watching Foreman train.
It wasn’t pretty.
He brutalized his opponents. Rarely do fighters get knocked out in training camp. Foreman KO’d two in succession. He fought like a man with a chip on his shoulder. In those days, he rarely smiled. He glowered like his idol Liston.
After he left veteran heavyweight George “Scrapiron” Johnson flat on his back, Foreman stepped through the ropes like a man who knew he couldn’t be defeated.
Publicist Bill Caplan, who met Foreman in 1968, remembers the level of confidence going into the Ali match.
“George was a three and a half to one favorite going into the fight. And, if it wasn’t Muhammad Ali, the odds would have been higher,” Caplan recalled. “Just a few months prior to the fight, George had destroyed Kenny Norton in two rounds. Norton had just broken Ali’s jaw and it turned out he gave Ali hell in all three of their fights.
“He had destroyed Frazier—who had beaten Ali. He knocked Frazier down six times. He was the only man to knock out George Chuvalo. George seemed indestructible. And so the confidence level was extremely high.”
Ali, as always, marched to his own tune.
He mocked Foreman’s style.
“George Foreman is nothing but a big mummy,” Ali said. “I’ve officially named him, ‘The Mummy.’ See, you all believe that stuff you see in the movies. Here’s a guy running through the jungle, doing the hundred-yard dash, and the mummy is chasing him.
“Thomp, thomp, thomp. ‘Ooh, help! I can’t get away from the Mummy! Help, help! The Mummy’s catching me. Help! Here comes the Mummy!’ And the mummy always catches him. Well, don’t you all believe that stuff. There ain’t no mummy gonna catch me.”
The fight was originally scheduled for September 25, 1974 until Foreman sustained a cut in training. The bout was re-scheduled for October 30. The delay didn’t bother Ali. He’d become a national hero in Zaire. Foreman was looked at as the enemy.
On fight night, former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore worried about Ali’s health.
“I was praying, and in great sincerity, that George wouldn’t kill Ali,” recalled Moore in The Fight, Norman Mailer’s eyewitness account of the match. “I really felt that was a possibility.”
Ali was the first to make the long walk to the ring, located in the center of the 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa. A makeshift band serenaded him. He smiled warmly at the ringside dignitaries. As he stepped through the ropes, Ali, decked out in a white robe, was met by a roar that was soon followed by a chant.
“Ali, bomaye,” (”Ali, kill him.”)
Foreman delayed his entrance for close to five minutes. This was planned. He was trying to psych out the former champion.
“We wanted to make him wait a little bit,” said Moore. “To see how nervous he could get.”
When he did appear, Foreman jogged to the ring. The reaction from the crowd was mixed. Foreman bounced in his corner. He glanced in Ali’s direction. His robe was the color of blood.
Ali shadow-boxed. He taunted Foreman.
The pre-fight stare down was an example of extremes. Foreman didn’t blink. Ali, befitting his former nickname, “The Louisville Lip,” talked through the referee’s instructions. He rocked back and forth.
Was he scared?
Or building up his nerve?
For months, Ali had told everyone how he would fight Foreman. He would dance, employ angles, and jab. Even at 32, Ali figured he’d be too fast for Foreman.
Foreman’s plan was simple.
“I was going to knock his block off, and the thought of doing it didn’t bother me at all,” he said a few years after the fight.
The boxing experts had the first few rounds figured out. Ali would get on his bicycle and move. Foreman would stalk him.
The experts got it half right.
Foreman did pursue, but Ali, instead of shooting his jab and moving away, took it to Foreman. He bounced to his left and his right, throwing sneaky punches. He caught Foreman with a combination, but not the standard kind. Ali fired his right first, then his left. Both punches, especially the right, landed solidly. Ali had used the right-hand lead on occasion in other fights. It’s a dangerous punch—having to travel further than a standard left.
On this night, it worked like a dream.
Foreman fought back, landing a thudding left uppercut to the body. Ali moved away and connected with another right. He circled and grabbed Foreman. He threw two more straight right hands and then—it happened. Foreman caught Ali with a vicious hook, the same kind of blow that had been knocking his rivals senseless.
The force of the punch knocked Ali back, but he didn’t go down. He leaned out of the way of another Foreman salvo. He bounced and connected some more. Foreman just missed a tremendous uppercut. Near the end of the round, he landed two clubbing right hands.
Ali had expended a lot of energy in the opening round. Foreman was doing a good job of cutting off the ring.
“I didn’t really plan what happened that night,” Ali said after the fight. “But when a fighter gets in the ring, he has to adjust according to the conditions he faces. Against George, the ring was slow. Dancing all night, my legs would have got tired. So between rounds, I decided to do what I did in training when I got tired.”
Ali tried to maintain his edge in round two, but Foreman picked up the pace. He lashed out with a heavy right. Ali moved away, but Foreman was staying in his grill.
Near the two-minute mark, Ali, to the horror of his supporters, leaned against the ropes. Foreman let fly with some bone rattling hooks. Ali blocked most of the blows and caught Foreman with a combination of his own. Instead of moving away, as most expected, he stayed on the ropes. He kept his forearms and guard high, forming a fortress. Some of the blows got through, but Ali absorbed them.
This tactic would later be christened “The Rope-A-Dope.” Foreman unloaded his arsenal–fully expecting Ali to crumble, but instead, the former champion fought back, even shaking his head disdainfully at Foreman after the round ended.
Foreman used Ali as a heavy bag in round three. At this point he was fine with Ali pinning himself against the ropes. He landed vicious shots to the midsection. He also connected with a brutal right hand later in the stanza. Ali held on to Foreman’s head until referee Zack Clayton separated them.
The quicker Ali was beginning to time Foreman. The champion needed to set himself before he could fire his bludgeoning blows. Ali could see them coming. When Foreman paused to reset, Ali would strike. His shots were hard and straight, not heavy like Foreman’s, but powerful enough that by the end of the round, Foreman’s face showed the effects.
Ali staggered Foreman in round four. As he again languished on the ropes, Foreman casually moved in, his left-hand dangling near his waist. Ali fired a quick one-two. The impact of the blows caused Foreman to stumble ever so slightly.
Foreman tried to fight back, but his punches had lost some force.
He was tired.
Caplan, at ringside, had picked up on the flow of the fight two rounds earlier.
“He (Foreman) was wailing away on Ali,” said Caplan. ”The ropes were loose so Ali would lean back. In the second round, I said to a friend of mine, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to blow this fight.’ I could see that George was already starting to run out of gas.”
Foreman still figured that all he needed to do was land one of his violent punches, and Ali, like 37 of his previous adversaries, would collapse. His shots might have been slower, but some of them, like his blows to Ali’s ribs, landed.
Ali, like a kid playing hide-and-go-seek, peeked through his gloves and jolted Foreman with multiple blows to the chin. He landed three snappy jabs in round six. Foreman’s eye continued to swell. Ali shook his head and reportedly whispered in Foreman’s ear, “They told me you could punch, George.”
Foreman was in search of his second wind in round seven, but he had basically exhausted himself. His considerable mass–and effort–was beginning to crumble. Ali bided his time, peppering Foreman with more blows to the face.
The end came suddenly in round eight. With about thirty seconds remaining in what had been a pretty even round, Ali, in his corner, clocked Foreman with a devious right hand. A few seconds later, two more rights found the side of Foreman’s face.
Instead of grabbing Ali, Foreman stumbled into a brain-jarring left hand that was quickly followed by the coup de grace, a short right. Foreman, the invincible champion, did a drunken pirouette before crashing to the canvas.
Foreman pulled himself up at the count of nine, but referee Clayton waved the fight off.
For the second time in his career, Ali had “shocked the world.”
He admitted after the bout that he had never been hit so hard in his entire career.
“This man could think,” Foreman told Tim Dahlberg of AP Sports thirty-five years after his stunning defeat. “He understood I would go out there to try and knock him out. But no one had ever knocked him out,” Foreman said. “Where in the world did I get it in my mind I could knock him out?”