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Ali's Rumble helped shape black culture

The Rumble in the Jungle 30 years ago vs. Foreman ranks as boxing's most significant event.

JOHN C. COTEY
Published October 31, 2004

Angelo Dundee remembers the sea of people. He remembers crowds bigger than he had ever seen, fighting for a glimpse of his fighter, reaching for a touch, running after his car.

Muhammad Ali wasn't the champion. He was the underdog, and decidedly so. But to the people of Zaire, it didn't matter.

"When we got there," Dundee said, "they adopted us. He was the hero.

"George Foreman . . . poor George. . . . He was the bad guy."

That was the story line. Ali vs. Foreman. Good vs. evil, happy vs. mad, life vs. death. The most famous man in the world defending, it sometimes seemed, all of Africa against the most feared fighter in the world.

It was a spiritual homecoming for Ali, and would lead to a spiritual awakening for Foreman.

Saturday was the 30th anniversary of the Rumble in the Jungle, as Don King dubbed it. The event still echoes. It was a moment, smack in the middle of the golden era for heavyweights, that would change everything to follow it. It would send Ali to greatness, Foreman into oblivion and King to infamy.

It would be chronicled by a filmmaker, Leon Gast, who would fight for years to bring the moment to the big screen before winning the 1996 Academy Award for best documentary for When We Were Kings.

It remains one of the greatest sports moments of the 20th century.

Because it was so much more than just a fight.

Dundee remembers the flight in. They changed planes in France, and Ali was tickled that two black pilots - black pilots! - would be steering him back to the homeland.

"He was thrilled," Dundee said. "And happy. He said, "Come here, Angelo, and go to where the pilots are. That's my people - they're flying the plane.' He spent the whole flight going back and forth between his seat and the cockpit."

Ali reveled in his surroundings in Kinshasa, Zaire, impressed by the black doctors and black teachers and black pilots he was meeting. Ali told reporters, "It don't seem possible, but 28-million people run this country, and not one white man is involved."

Ali, like he had done in fights with Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson and Frazier, somehow painted himself as the black in the fight. It was a role that took on more significance in Zaire.

"I'm fighting for God and my people," he said in an interview before the fight. "I'm not fighting for fame or money. I'm not fighting for me. I'm fighting for the black people on welfare, the black people who have no future, black people who are wine heads and dope addicts. I am a politician for Allah. I want to win so I can lead my people."

Foreman, on the other hand, never connected with the Zairian people. It didn't help that he got off the plane with Daggo, his German shepherd - the same breed the Belgians used to terrorize the Zairians and enforce colonialism in the former Congo.

When it came to choosing their favorite, it was no choice at all for the Zairians.

Ali, boma ye!

Ali, kill him!

* * *

A former numbers runner and convicted felon, King was managing fighters and promoting small cards in Ohio when he landed a gig with Video Techniques, a company that specialized in closed circuit broadcasting. He was hired as a consultant. A black face to deal with the blacks, he later acknowledged, with one goal in mind:

Get Foreman and Ali in the ring.

He had been rebuffed in his efforts to promote Ali in the past but was not dissuaded. He came up with an outlandish (at the time) offer - $5-million for each fighter.

Both agreed. King told London's New Nation last week that it took a speech to convince Foreman.

"I can deliver Ali and this is a victory you must achieve, otherwise people will never accept your greatness," he told Foreman. "This event is bigger than both of you as individuals. It's monumental, not just in revenue, but in the symbolic impact that will reverberate around the world - from a black perspective. This is my promotion, and I'm black. Here is an opportunity to show that black men together can succeed with proficiency and greatness."

* * *

In 1974, the 32-year-old Ali wasn't the swift, shuffling, strutting bolt of a champion he had been. He had paid the price for refusing induction into the U.S. Army in 1967, surrendering his heavyweight title and his prime for his religious beliefs.

He had lost twice since resuming his career in 1970, to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in title fights. Norton had broken Ali's jaw.

Some whispered he might be finished. If not, he seemed close. Ali avenged his losses to Norton and Frazier, though, putting him in the sights of the fearsome Foreman.

Foreman, 25, might have been the most feared man on the planet. He was certainly boxing's most formidable champion. He was a destroyer, a man who could knock over buildings with a single punch, who could make grown men cry. He was his day's Mike Tyson, just bigger . . . and meaner . . . and stronger.

In more than 50 rounds in four fights with Norton and Frazier, Ali never put either fighter on the canvas. Foreman, however, took the WBA and WBC titles away from Frazier with a brutal second-round knockout, putting him down six times. He defended his title against Norton and knocked him down three times, also winning by a knockout in the second round.

It had been three years since anyone had lasted past the second round with Foreman.

Now it was Ali's turn.

"People were praying that Ali wouldn't get killed," Foreman's longtime publicist, Bill Caplan, said. "He may have been a 3-1 underdog, but that was because of his mystique, because he was Ali. Otherwise, he would have been a 15- (or) 20-to-1 underdog."

Ybor City's Ferdie Pacheco, who was Ali's fight doctor, made secret arrangements for a plane to be on standby in case a brain-damaged Ali had to be rushed to a hospital in Lisbon, Portugal.

* * *

The fight took place at 4 a.m. local time before 60,000 fans. Ali entered the ring wearing a robe they had made for him in Africa. In the dressing room beforehand, he had proudly strutted around in it. "It's African," he boasted to his cornermen.

The bell rang, and Ali came out dancing, landing a few lead right hands, but by the second round, against the most dangerous puncher of all time, he retreated to the ropes and allowed himself to be hit. Foreman was raining booming shots down on Ali, who was covered up and using the loose ring ropes to lessen the impact.

It was all part of a plan Ali had shared with no one.

"I screamed at him, "Get off the ropes, Muhammad! Get off the ropes!' " Dundee said. "Later we were told it was rope-a-dope, but at the time I thought Muhammad was the dope."

For five rounds, Foreman pounded away. The champ only knew one way to fight. And then, it was over. Foreman had punched himself into jelly.

Unable to protect himself, his arms refusing to protect his face, Foreman went from invincible to helpless and was knocked out in the eighth round.

Ali, boma ye!

Ali, kill him!

"It was one of the great head games of all time," boxing historian Bert Sugar said. "He was playing with Foreman. ... It was a psychological ploy. He was hollering at him: Is that all you got?"

On this night, it was.

Seven years after he was stripped of his title, Ali was champion again.

* * *

Foreman was never the same. He left Africa bitter. After a surprising 1977 loss to Jimmy Young, he quit to become a preacher.

"I learned a lot in that fight," Foreman has said since.

In 1987, he returned to boxing, and the once former brooding champion was now, well, Ali-like. Hugely popular, loved by fans and a pitchman for his wildly successful grill, he had become everything he wasn't in Zaire.

He was even trained by Dundee during his comeback.

"That fight," Sugar said, "changed him radically. It changed him forever."

Ali's win capped his dramatic comeback, from stripped to reborn champion. He won the Rumble in the Jungle. Less than a year later, he won the Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier.

Both victories made him, without question, the greatest athlete of his generation.

King went on to become, arguably, the second-most famous person in boxing.

Dundee still thinks the Rumble in the Jungle was Ali's greatest moment. It brought him back to the top, reaffirmed that he was indeed the Greatest, and showed that he was unlike any other.

Though he is now slowed by Parkinson's disease , Ali always will be remembered, perhaps defined, by that day 30 years ago.

"This is the second interview I've done today; I just got off the phone with someone else," Dundee said recently. "Isn't that something? I mean, 30 years later and people still want to talk to me. They still want to talk about Muhammad. They still want to talk about that fight."

Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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