It was a fight so epic it had to have a name.
Muhammad Ali gave it one, and then gave boxing one of its most memorable moments when he stopped the fearsome George Foreman to recapture the heavyweight title in the impoverished African nation of Zaire.
It was the Rumble in the Jungle, and it’s still a big part of the Ali lore today. Forty years have passed since the two men met just before dawn on Oct. 30, 1974 to earn $5 million put up by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, but time has done nothing to diminish its place in boxing history.
Foreman was the brooding heavyweight champion who destroyed Joe Frazier and Ken Norton without breaking a sweat. Ali was, well, Ali.
“You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned,” Ali crowed before the fight. “Wait till I whup George Foreman’s behind.”
Few believed the bombastic Ali, whose oratorical skills at the time seemed better than his boxing skills. He wasn’t the same fighter who was forced into exile for refusing the draft, and many wondered why he had even agreed to the fight.
“People were praying before the fight that Ali doesn’t get killed,” said Bill Caplan, who was Foreman’s public relations man in Zaire. “No one thought Ali had a chance, and that included George.”
But Ali turned it into a home match, embracing Zaire from the moment his plane touched down at the Kinshasa airport, where thousands were waiting for his arrival. Before speaking, he asked his right-hand man, Gene Kilroy, what the people of Zaire hated most.
“I told him white people. He said, ‘I can’t tell them George Foreman is white,'” Kilroy recalled. “Then I said, ‘They don’t like the Belgians, who used to rule Zaire.'”
Ali stepped out on the tarmac and yelled out: “George Foreman’s a Belgian!”
The crowd erupted, chanting “Ali boma ye, Ali boma ye (Ali, kill him).”
Foreman’s arrival also set the tone for his African adventure. He got off the plane a day later with his dog, a German Shepherd he brought to keep him company for a trip he didn’t really want to make. But the crowd waiting for his arrival wasn’t quite as welcoming as they were for Ali.
“The dog wound up being trouble,” Caplan said, “because that’s what Belgians used to use on the people to keep order.”
If Foreman was miserable in Africa right from the start, it got worse when he was cut days before the fight and it was postponed six weeks. Foreman wanted to go to Paris to recuperate and train, but the fear was that if he left he wouldn’t come back. Kilroy, meanwhile, suggested to Zaire officials they might want to confiscate passports to keep him there.
The day before the fight, Foreman and Ali made separate trips to the presidential palace to pay homage to Mobutu, the brutal dictator who wanted to put his country (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) on the world map. The fight would finally unfold in the steamy darkness of equatorial Africa at 4 a.m., with machine gun-carrying soldiers watching the crowd from ringside and Joe Frazier among the interested spectators.
Mobuto was a no-show, but if anyone had to be reminded who was in charge, a huge portrait of the dictator towered over the country’s main soccer stadium.
Ali’s plan was to come out and hit Foreman with a hard shot to let him know he was there to fight, not run. He landed it and a flurry of quick right leads, but by the end of the round Foreman was landing some powerful punches of his own that forced Ali to the ropes.
Much to the dismay of his corner, Ali stayed on the ropes, allowing Foreman to throw looping punches that seemed to be landing. Ali would later call it the “rope-a-dope” strategy, which would later seem even more brilliant because it was conceived on the fly.
At ringside after the end of the second round, Caplan saw his fighter was already winded. He turned to Time magazine photographer Ken Regan and said: “Ken, we’re going to blow this fight.”
In the final seconds of the fifth round, Ali hit Foreman with a series of punches that seemed to sap whatever power Foreman might have still had on his shots. Finally, late in the eighth round he landed a combination with a final right hand that seemed to crumple Foreman in pieces. As the champion was going down, Ali could have landed one more punch, but he pulled back.
“He had mercy on me,” Foreman said recently. “Would I have done the same for him at that time? No.”
At ringside, longtime Associated Press boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr. was dictating the action back to an editor in New York, hoping someone was on the other end of the line. The fight had barely ended when a torrential rainstorm flooded the stadium and the dressing rooms of both fighters.
“I think it was one of the top-10 upsets in boxing,” Schuyler said. “Foreman was Sonny Liston all over again. A young Ali beat Sonny Liston and an old Ali beat Sonny Liston.”
Ali would go on to win another fight with a name, the Thrilla in Manila, the next year against Frazier, but the punches ended up taking a terrible toll on him. Foreman, meanwhile, would retire a few fights later only to return to boxing 20 years and become the oldest man to win the heavyweight title.
And forty years later, the Rumble in the Jungle still lives up to its name.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or https://twitter.com/timdahlberg