Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rumblin' in the Jungle

"If you were surprised when Nixon resigned, just watch what happens when I whup Foreman's behind."

Muhammad Ali
October 1974

"Forty years ago this month, the eyes of the world turned to Kinshasa [Zaire] to watch the 'Rumble in the Jungle,' the legendary boxing event that saw Muhammad Ali and George Foreman slug it out for the world heavyweight title," writes Thomas Yocum for The Guardian.

Muhammad Ali was a great fighter, one of the greatest of all time, as he frequently told anyone who would listen. He wouldn't stop there, though. Often, he would tell folks who did not want to listen.

He was also a master showman, and I guess he figured — correctly — that most people believed that a 32–year–old boxer who had been prevented from competing during his prime years because he refused to fight in Vietnam would be unable to stay with the heavyweight champ.

George Foreman was young and powerful. He had grabbed the title in 1973 with a hammering of Joe Frazier, and, in his second defense of his title, he brought down one of the top contenders for the title, Ken Norton, in similarly dominant fashion. Seemed he barely worked up a sweat in either. At times, you could have sworn he was actually bored.

Frazier and Norton, it is worth noting, were the only two boxers who had beaten Ali up to that time. Norton broke Ali's jaw.

In the three years prior to his bout with Ali, Foreman fought in 11 fights — all but one were done in two rounds or less, and that single exception was finished in five rounds. Foreman was used to fights that were scheduled for 15 rounds; he simply wasn't accustomed to fights that actually went that long.

Therein lay the key to Ali's upset victory. He knew that the longer he could keep the fight going, the more he would frustrate Foreman. Foreman would make mistakes, and Ali would wait for those mistakes, then exploit them. It was his "Rope–a–Dope" strategy.

Well, there was more to it than that, but that's a pretty good summary of the strategy. The "Rope–a–Dope" strategy was to force Foreman to use a lot of his energy pounding away at Ali, who would lean back on the ropes and cover his face with his gloves while Foreman hammered his midsection. Few, if any, observers thought Ali could take punches anymore, especially the powerful punches Foreman threw, but he surprised them all.

"They told me you could punch, George," Ali taunted Foreman in the early rounds. "Is that the best you can do?" An enraged Foreman tried to throw even harder punches — but with no apparent effect on Ali.

Foreman became visibly tired, and Ali was able to bring him down in the eighth round. It may have been a bigger shock to the sports world than his triumph over Sonny Liston 10 years earlier.

Originally scheduled for Sept. 24, the bout was postponed for five weeks because Foreman suffered a cut near his right eye while he was preparing for Ali.

When the men finally met 40 years ago tonight, their fight began at 4 a.m. local time to accommodate the closed–circuit audience in the Western Hemisphere.

The postponement gave Ali an opportunity to bond a little with the locals while he spent the extra time preparing for the fight.

I remember seeing footage of Ali running Rocky–like through the streets of Kinshasa, and the locals, young and old, running along with him or watching from the side, were chanting, "Ali, bomaye!" — which means, "Ali, kill him!" It quickly became one of the most recognizable sports–oriented phrases ever.

Killing people wasn't Ali's way, though. Any boxing expert will tell you that the fighters who take that mentality into the ring with them are the sluggers, and Ali was no slugger. He was a finesse fighter, more likely to win on points than on a knockout. The ironic part is that Ali did win most of his fights by knockout. That's the thing that people often forget. It's the thing that Foreman apparently forgot, and it cost him his title.

That was the key to the success of the "Rope–a–Dope" strategy. Ali had a reputation for outlasting opponents and winning on points, even though three–quarters of his wins up to that time were by knockout, so his approach likely made sense to Foreman, probably the best slugger of the time. He didn't expect Ali to go for the knockout after Foreman ran out of gas, though. He probably expected Ali to land a lot of punches in the later rounds in an attempt to pile up points — and Foreman walked right into the trap, landing punch after punch to Ali's midsection — proving repeatedly that Ali could take a punch.

I suppose it would be natural for him to be bitter about the outcome.

"I hated Ali," Foreman told The Daily Express. "Hated him."

Understandable. Foreman was deceived. I guess everyone was.

Ali's "Rope–a–Dope" strategy wasn't evident in the first round. It was more evident in the second round — enough that Frazier, who was sitting ringside, remarked about it and wondered on the air, in response to British TV host David Frost's question, why Ali was leaning against the ropes so much.

By the end of the third round, Frazier was criticizing Foreman for being too wild in his punches and not thinking things through. He needed to be more deliberate and strategic. The champ was going to wear himself out, Frazier said prophetically.

Tellingly, when the fight was over and Ali was mobbed at center ring by admirers, Foreman and his entourage slipped quietly away almost without notice. Foreman's head was hanging in the dejection of defeat.

Nobody wants to mob a vanquished champion.

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