The Greatest: Remembering 'The Rumble in the Jungle'

Forty years since one of the most iconic sports events, we look back on that famous night in Zaire.

On 30th October 1974, Muhammad Ali faced George Foreman in what proved the defining boxing bout of all time.

‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ took place in Zaire and was orchestrated by a then-unknown promoter and ex-con called Don King. Though the main event proved poetic, a litany of sub-plots ensured added layers of intrigue. There was the country’s all-encompassing and controversial leader Mobutu Sese Seko and his role in proceedings, the $5m paid to both fighters, the celebrated writers and authors who travelled to report on the fight and the cut to Foreman’s eye that very nearly saw the whole enterprising project called off. 

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of such an iconic sporting event, here’s how the preparations and events in the ring played out, in the words of the main characters. 

The build-up:

MobLads AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The general consensus was that at 32, Ali was past-it. He had been embarrassed by Joe Frazier three years before but he struggled on and regained some semblance of form. Still, Foreman was considered a powerhouse and in his prime. There were genuine concerns that Ali wouldn’t just lose but that he’d suffer significant injuries.    

Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s doctor: ”First thing I said was ‘What’s the closest neurological hospital to here?’ Madrid was, by the way. There was no facilities to take care of him if he got hurt. If he got hurt, he would’ve died because there was no place to take him.”

Still, even if Ali himself feared for himself, he didn’t offer anything but supreme confidence and seemed disgusted that he was being so easily dismissed by the media. Early on, the fight was billed as Ali versus everyone else.   

Muhammad Ali:

Foreman talks too much, he’s ugly, he’s pretending. I’m the true champion and they make me the underdog? I’m going to show them all they’re wrong because I’m the champion, I’m the real champion, there’ll never be one like me. I’m going to prove I’m the greatest. The stage is set. I’m 32 years old. My knees are gone, this man is strong. You write everything you’ll write but I’m going to make you eat everything you say against me. I’m going to prove to the world that I’m still the fastest, the prettiest, the classiest, the most scientific, the greatest fighter of all time.”

In Zaire, a distinct narrative began to develop. Expectedly, Ali attracted mass audiences wherever he went. He immersed himself in the culture and the fans responded. Cleverly, Ali spoke of returning to his roots, his ancestral home. He spoke as if he was one with every other Zaire person. It served two purposes – firstly, a genuine affection and bond emerged between Ali and the local community. Secondly, Foreman was painted as the outsider, the unwanted foreigner.    

RumbleCar MS / AP/Press Association Images MS / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

Ali: I will feel as though he is the stranger coming to our home, to fight me in our country.

George Foreman (speaking later): Going to Zaire to fight Ali was like nothing before. That was when I first started travelling with my Alsatian, Doggo – you can see him on the plane with me as we fly into Kinshasa. He’s the one barking.

Pacheco: Foreman was in his penthouse, being burly and had two huge police dogs, of the kind that the Belgians used to suppress the blacks. Zaire was a truly black experience because you have two black champions with a black promoter. The black promoter had never promoted a fight in his life. He was going to a country that had never had a fight before, didn’t know what a satellite was, didn’t know anything about transmitting a fight. The stadium didn’t have seats – just concrete. We ordered tickets for it without having seats – that’s insanity.

Foreman Meets Zaire President Mobutu 1974 AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Norman Mailer, writer and author:  No one in the press ever saw Mobutu. He didn’t come to the fight. He watched it on closed-circuit – it was the only closed-circuit in Zaire and it was in his palace. He was terribly afraid of assassination, I think. This stadium was an arena for gladiators. You couldn’t see beneath the floor because it was covered in blood. That blood had been washed away but the effect of the blood was still there as part of the atmosphere.

The contrast between the fighters was striking. Ali, the theatrical and dramatic figure, constantly discussed how the bout would go, offering up critiques of Foreman and predicting the reigning champion would have to alter his regular approach. Foreman refused to take the bait and kept up his mono-syllabic demeanour. But he wasn’t enjoying Zaire and felt uncomfortable. Ali’s camp took notice.      

Ali: I predict that whenever the fight is set – he might not show up. Please watch him closely – the man want out! The man want out!  His whole plans have changed for this fight. It destroys a man when you have to change your whole style for one fight. His flat-footed style will not win. I play it round-by-round and I win my rounds. He’s out to dance until he catches me. He finds out that after 3 rounds of dancing, he gets tired. And he finds out I’m dancing for 13. The odds are, to the smart man, that Muhammad Ali will not be knocked out.       

Boxer George Foreman AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Foreman: This man has been talking since he started boxing. People have broke his jaw, knocked him out, one guy knocked his leg so far up in the air I thought he was going to take off – Joe Frazier. And he got up and started talking. So there’s no way I’m going to be able to stop him from talking. To be honest, I’ll fight 20 of him on any given day for 5 million dollars. Stick and run? He’ll definitely have to do it to beat me. I’ll be running him through the jungle. I think that Muhammad is like Joe Frazier and all these guys at this stage. They can only do what I let them do and I don’t intend to let them do much.

Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer: Foreman would train after us. We had Howard Bingham, the photographer, with us and he had these telescopic lenses so we would spy on Foreman’s training. We had our spies every day, practically.

Pacheco: It was relayed to Foreman’s camp that Ali was poisoning his food and his water and he was like a child – he believed everything they told him. So he started to send to America for food and for bottled water. By the time they had him turned around, he hated Africa, he wanted to get out of there, he wanted to finish the whole thing and the people hated him. In the meantime, Ali’s got this Barnum and Bailey circus going everytime he does anything.

The fight:

Ken Jones, writer (Sunday Mirror): The atmosphere was one of deep gloom. It was like we were going to a funeral. I remember looking across when Ali came out and there was Dundee and Pacheco and Ali stopped and said to them, because they were quiet and nervous, ‘Hey, come on. You don’t think I can win this?’

Zaire heavyweight Ali Foreman AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The fight got underway at 4am and after an impressive first round where Ali fronted up Foreman and got close, the second was a completely different experience. Ali took to the ropes and Foreman delivered thunderous blows to his body. But somewhere in there, a tactic and strategy was slowly unfolding.

Mailer: A right-hand lead has to travel the extra distance across the shoulders. Professionals will rarely use it because it’s a terribly dangerous punch to throw since you’re open to a counter with a left hook. Fighters, because they were in milliseconds, can see it coming much faster than a jab. Nobody had thrown a right lead at Foreman in two years and at training camp, none of his sparring partners, for fifty dollars a day, were going to start throwing right-hand leads at him because it’s a great insult to a top professional. It suggests he’s slow enough you can hit him with it.

Jones: He’d peek between his gloves and ‘pop’ and then he’d say ‘You got another ten rounds of this, sucka’. Then ‘pop’. Amazing.

Still, there was plenty of concern in Ali’s corner. He was committing a cardinal boxing sin, isolating himself on the ropes, allowing a ferocious Foreman pummel him. As the rounds ticked by, it seemed like the game was up.

Dundee: So I got scared to death. He kept leaning. Ali’s leaning in my corner and I hit him a resounding whack on his butt and tried to get him off the ropes. I was scared he’d go through the ropes. I tried my best to dissuade him but he had it in his mind that he was going to use that rope-a-dope.

ALI FOREMAN AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

George Plimpton, sportswriter: You don’t go to the ropes. And there he was, leaning way back. And here were these great broadsides going at him and it looked as though he was being set up for the kill. It happened so quickly and abruptly, I shouted to Norman (Mailor) – ‘The fix is in!’, that somehow he was supposed to go down. It just looked as though he had to cave in.

Jones: He was putting himself in terrible danger. He took some tremendous shots around the kidneys. He was urinating blood for days afterwards.   

Mailer: The bell rang. Ali went back to his corner. The nightmare he had been awaiting in the ring had finally come to visit him. He was in the ring with a man he could not dominate, who was stronger than him, who was not afraid of him, who was going to try and knock him out and who could punch harder than Ali could punch. This man was determined and unstoppable. Ali had a look on his face that I’ll never forget. It was the only time I ever saw fear in Ali’s eyes. He looked as if he’d looked into himself and said, ‘Alright, this is the moment. This is what you’ve been waiting for. This is the hour. ‘Do you have the guts?’ And he kind of nodded to himself like ‘You’ve got to get it together, boy’. Looking as if he was looking into the eyes of his maker, he turned to the crowd and went ‘Ali! Bomaye!’ (‘Ali! Kill him!’) and a hundred thousand people all yelled back ‘Ali! Bomaye!’ and this huge reverberation of the crowd came back into the ring and Ali picked it up.

Rumble In the Jungle Boxing ED KOLENOVSKY / AP/Press Association Images ED KOLENOVSKY / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

Plimpton: Suddenly, Ali came off the ropes and hit Foreman a right. And you could see the sweat just pour off, like a fountain from Foreman’s face and you suddenly realised there was some design in this madness.

Mailer: He kept talking to Foreman. It was extraordinary. You had to be close to see it because it was intimate. Foreman was throwing these prodigious punches and Ali swung like a man on the rigging. Occasionally he’d get hit and he’d say ‘George, you disappoint me. You don’t hit as hard as I thought you would’. Foreman is insane with rage and in the middle of the fifth, he was worn out. He had punched himself out.

Dundee: Muhammad was slapping him around, keeping him off balance. He had him going ring around the rosy – keep him turning, moving. He did everything he was supposed to do. Beautiful.

Pacheco: He took Foreman in a clinch in his own corner and Archie Moore (from Foreman’s camp) came up and Ali, in a very quiet voice, said ‘Be quiet, old man. It’s all over’.   

As Foreman grew more and more weary, Ali sensed his chance. It came in the eight round and as Foreman tried to pin Ali on the ropes again, Ali retaliated with a series of right hooks. Then, there was the now-infamous left hook that stunned Foreman. He stumbled and tumbled to the canvass. Ali had won. Ali was the champion once more.  

Rumble In the Jungle Boxing Anonymous / AP/Press Association Images Anonymous / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

The aftermath:

Dundee: He was the boss, the maestro. He was the symphony leader. He was tremendous.

Pacheco: He was a super-human. When he came in and said ‘black is best’ and ‘black is beautiful’, you had but to look at him.   

Don King, promoter: I coined a phrase: every knee must bend, ever head must bow, every tongue must confess – thou art the greatest of all times, Muhammad Ali.

Foreman: I thought I’d knock him out in one round. Beat him up the first round, beat him up the second, third, fourth. But he’s still there talking to me in the fifth – ‘That’s all you got?’ I said, ‘What in the world have I run into?’ I had not conserved one ounce of energy, this guy was still confident, was getting more confident, I had a fight on my hands. Next thing you know, he hit me with a one-two combination. I was down on the floor. I got ready to get up, my manager told me to get up and when I jumped up the fight was over. I lost my title. Never been so devastated in my life. To lose the title and to the most braggadocio in the world – Muhammad Ali. Took me a long time – maybe a year – before I could sleep again.

Muhammad Ali AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Ali: Never again say I’m going to be defeated. I wanted to make him lose all is power. I kept telling him he had no punch, he couldn’t hit, he’s swinging like a sissy, he’s missing. You can’t say my legs were gone. You can’t say I was tired. Because what happened? I didn’t dance from the second round on. I stayed on the ropes. When I stay on the ropes you think I’m doing bad. Staying on the ropes is a beautiful thing with a heavyweight, when you make him shoot his best shots and you know he’s not hitting you. I gave George Foreman two rounds of steady punching because after that, he was mine. I told you – all of my critics – that I was the greatest of all time when I beat Sonny Liston. I told you today that I’m still the greatest of all time.

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