Foreman vs Ali: The Rumble For The Ages

Foreman vs Ali: The Rumble For The Ages

By Garry White

What was the biggest fight in history? How do you define it? There were quite a few people at Boyles Thirty Acres -at least 90,000 to be more exact- all crammed into a Jersey City outpost like matchstick heads in those famous overhead pictures.

They had turned up in their thousands to watch the ‘Manassa Mauler’ take aim at France’s debonair ‘Orchid Man’. For those at the back of the arena, the combatants must have appeared as little more than black dots in the distance. Yet each of them contributed to boxing’s first million-dollar gate and the more vital requirement that promoter Tex Rickard’s wallet got crammed full of Ben Franklin’s. Several million more tuned in on the wireless providing boxing’s first mass audience over the airwaves.

This fight was big, but not the biggest. Mention it now to anyone outside of the most hardcore fight aficionados and they will meet you with nothing more than a blank stare. The only people that truly remember it in its contemporary context have now gone the way of spats and the steam locomotive. The past is a foreign country that today’s clickbait generation has no intention of visiting, unless they can do so on their own terms, armed with their own ready set compass.

Ask someone now for the biggest fight in history and they may even utter some hogwash about Tyson Fury, or worse Jake Paul. But once you have gathered all their teeth into a nice neat pile and given them additional time to think, there is only one answer that they will provide.

‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ – could there really be anything else?

From north to south and east to west, there surely cannot be a person on the planet that hasn’t heard of Muhammad Ali. Even six years after his death and fifty years after his fighting prime, he still owns pop culture in a way that current sports, music, and Instagram wannabes can only dream of. And despite big George’s fruitless efforts in Zaire, it is undeniably Ali that makes the ‘rumble’ great. Put another finely honed athlete in those satin white shorts and white ring boots and you merely have a great fight. This is not meant to sneer at pure sporting excellence; but to transcend a sport, or a time, you need something more than just unmatchable skill.

You could argue that its rhythmic cousin the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ was actually better, but poor old Joe Frazier is used to being side-lined. He didn’t get to reclaim centre-ring and his crown as champion of the world in the manner of Foreman. He also didn’t get the grill and all the greenbacks that came with it. Instead, he got to sleep above his gym, bitterly brooding on the old times. He didn’t know, as others did, that it is impossible to ever be more than a supporting character in the story of ‘The Greatest’.

As a kid, I had the VHS video titled ‘Champions Forever’ and watched it time and again. The old gang uneasily back together for a roadshow of sorts; resolidifying past adulation, and in many cases collecting some much-needed dollars. Frazier slurring, Norton strangely vacant in a baseball cap twinned with a tuxedo, but always amiable. Foreman a friendly giant, already well into his own comeback. Cast into the periphery was Larry Holmes; a permanent Joey Bishop in this fistic ‘Rat Pack’. And out in the middle, always front and centre was the unrestrained ‘Chairman of the Board’: Muhammad Ali.

He wasn’t called ‘The Greatest’ for nothing.

They couldn’t have done the Rumble in the Jungle without him. Not Norman Mailer or wicked proto-Bond villain President Mobutu. Not even the brilliant and cunning Don King. The nefarious, calculating promoter; artfully presenting himself as P.T. Barnum crossed with a court jester. Not the worldwide media or even the snarling, pulverising menace of George Foreman. None of them amounted to a hill of beans without Ali.

The ensemble cast was massive, the canvass stretched wide, but there in the Day-Glo of boxing’s last supper was Muhammed Ali. The whole money train feeding off him and the barely restrained hype. The fight was almost secondary. It was all about Ali and the hangers-on desperate to cling to his coattails. Writers, musicians, actors, crooked politicians, and assorted chancers. This misshapen group, suddenly thrown together in the arid heat of Zaire, a place that collectively none of them would have previously been able to pinpoint on the map.

And when people remember it, those civilians not immersed in the boxing cult, what is it that they see? Those that weren’t even born, that still know by rote that this was the greatest fight in history, perhaps the greatest sporting moment ever. They might see the rope-a-dope, they might see Ali dodging and sometimes shipping punches, or maybe it’s Foreman tiring and Ali beginning to strike him down. They might also dwell on that final moment when the unbeatable giant stumbled and fell.

But I bet many just see Ali, or perhaps nothing at all. Just the words ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and they instinctively know it means something. An uncatchable myth somewhere out there; unchained lightning, it lived and died in the moment just like a mayfly, yet somehow remains undiminished and permanent.

And even today’s kids, chasing their superficial clickbait highs, they know it too. That world of flairs, chest hair and medallions are to them distant, passe, embarrassingly lame. Except for Ali. Only he had the power to transcend. To float within, above, and beyond his time… forever.

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