On 30 October 1974 the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world met the most famous boxer of all time in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The watching crowd of 60,000 included celebrities, literary figures, and Zaire's despotic ruler Mobutu Sese Seko. The bout between George Foreman and superstar challenger Muhammad Ali was dubbed the 'Rumble in the Jungle' by its flamboyant organiser Don King and is now considered to be one off the greatest sporting events of all time.
Untouchable during his early years, Ali's career had been derailed by a three-a-half-year ban for refusing the army draft in 1967. He returned to the ring in 1970, winning his first two comeback fights, but then lost a title shot against new heavyweight champ Joe Frazier in March 1971.
Though he fought on, Ali's days as a world champion appeared to be numbered. After the defeat to Frazier he contested 10 successful bouts, but then lost to Ken Norton in March 1973. He won a rematch six months later, and managed to beat the now ex-champion Frazier in March 1974, but few believed that the 32-year-old could take on the heavyweight division's new king, George Foreman.
By the time he came to fight Ali, 'Big George' was an unstoppable force of nature. Having taken gold at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics he turned pro and quickly began blazing a trail to the top of the heavyweight ranks.
Following 37 successive victories – all but four of them coming by knockout – he got his title shot against Frazier in January 1973. 'Smokin' Joe' was undefeated at this stage, but Foreman decimated the champion. The 24-year-old challenger knocked Frazier down six times in only two rounds before the bout was stopped. The heavyweight division had a new champ, one who it appeared could reign for years to come.
While Ali's abilities appeared to have faded, his star power certainly hadn't. Though he would go on to become universally popular, it is fair to say that Ali was a polarising figure during the mid seventies. Millions loved him for his boxing and his bravado, but he was loathed by others for refusing the draft and his close association with the controversial Nation of Islam group. Many wanted to see Ali win back his title, but some would have taken great pleasure in watching him receive a beating. A fight between Ali and Foreman would be pure dynamite.
THE MONEY MEN
The man to pull it all together was Don King. This was among the first ventures into boxing for the irrepressible King, a former illegal bookmaker with convictions for 'justifiable homicide' and manslaughter. He led a consortium of backers who stood to earn big money when the fight was broadcast at theatres across the U.S., and on television the world over.
But while King had united a wealthy group of backers he would need yet more money to bankroll the $5million purse that each fighter had been promised. To do so, he required someone possessing vast wealth and an even larger ego.
King found his man in Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of Zaire. Mobutu was an authoritarian tyrant who plundered his nation's wealth to live a life of luxury while the people scraped by in abject poverty. He was a maniac of many stripes – a kleptomaniac, a megalomaniac, and certainly an egomaniac – who wanted to lead a famous nation. He thus needed a big event to put Zaire on the map, and what better than the biggest boxing match of all time?
King used the fact that the fight would take place in Zaire to frame it as an event of African unity, though he would have staged it wherever the money was sufficient to pay the combatants. Nevertheless, with the likes of James Brown and B.B. King playing alongside several African performers at a festival to promote the fight, it lived up to billing.
Ahead of the bout both fighters spent several weeks in Zaire training and acclimatising to the local climate. Originally scheduled for 25 September, the fight was postponed to 30 October after Foreman was cut near his right eye during training.
Finally, after a seemingly never-ending wait and considerable hype, Ali and Foreman stepped into the ring at Kinshasa's 20th of May Stadium. By the time they did so it was 4am local time, which allowed the fight to be screened at 10pm in key U.S. markets. In the words of the New York Times, each man had "been assured $5‐million to alter his sleeping habits."
Foreman was the overwhelming favourite. Seven years Ali's junior, a ferocious hitter and built like a tank, the bookies felt sure he would have too much for the savvy 32-year-old. Ali was no longer a lithe youngster; though not overweight he was puffier than in his youth, a look that suggested a degree of slowness.
In fact there were sincere concerns for Ali's safety, such was Foreman's ferocity. The champion had won his previous eight fights inside the first two rounds, including victories against the two men who had beaten Ali. He was machine-like in his demolition of opponents.
Aware that beating Foreman would require something different, Ali deployed a dangerous and incredibly brave strategy. Dubbed "rope-a-dope", his game plan was to retreat to the ropes and allow Foreman to unleash blows at will, with Ali dodging the worst but taking many to his body and arms. "Is that all you got, George?" Ali would ask after eating another huge punch from there hardest hitter on the planet. "Is that all you got?"
Despite the onslaught Ali survived, while Foreman began to tire. The champion hadn't fought beyond the fourth round in more than three years. As the fight progressed, he was heading into uncharted territory.
With Foreman tiring his downfall became inevitable. He was conditioned to finish his prey quickly, not pursue it for an hour. Ali came out punching in the eighth and Foreman had no answer. With seconds remaining in the round the challenger floored the champion, who was as exhausted as he was hurt. The fight was stopped and the 60,000 crowd erupted. Incredibly, Ali was champion once more.
The Rumble in the Jungle was a momentous fight that more than lived up to the hype. Today, it is considered one of the greatest sporting events of all time. Perhaps more than anything, it should be remembered as the fight that secured Muhammad Ali's status as the biggest star in the history of sport.